Gulf of Mexico 2012

A Gulf of Mexico Mystery Wreck

By Doug Jones, Marine Archaeologist - Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
April 19, 2012

Capstan near the starboard bow.

Capstan near the starboard bow. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico Expedition 2012. Download larger version (jpg, 1.5 MB).

At the start of any shipwreck investigation, there is always a palpable sense of curiosity, anticipation, and excitement as archaeologists wonder to themselves: What are we about to find? To be asking myself that question while sitting in front of a bank of video monitors on dry land in southwestern Mississippi, as the answer was about to be streamed live from Little Herc's camera 100 miles away, was a completely unique and unforgettable experience for this archaeologist. Now the question is... what did we find?

Video footage captured by the Little Hercules ROV and camera platform during the April 19 ROV dive from NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer during the Gulf of Mexico Expedition 2012. The dive was conducted at site 359 - a large, stoutly built and remarkably intact mid to late 19th or early 20th century wooden-hulled sailing ship covered with marine life. Although deteriorating, the wooden hull is thought to be the best-preserved wooden shipwreck yet discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. Video courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico Expedition 2012. Download (mp4, 327.2 MB).

Today's dive was on Site 359, the name of which refers to the wreck's designation in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's (BOEM) database of Gulf of Mexico shipwrecks. Site 359 is a wooden-hulled sailing vessel measuring 190 feet long and located in over 1,300 feet of water. It was first discovered in the 1980s during a side-scan sonar survey for oil and gas development, and was briefly looked at in 2003 by archaeologists using a Deep Rover manned submersible. Initially, the wreck was believed to be the remains of Western Empire, a Canadian-built merchant vessel of the same dimensions that launched in 1862 and reportedly sank at this location after its crew abandoned ship during a hurricane in September 1875. Recent archival research, however, uncovered proof that the crewless Western Empire actually remained afloat, drifting in the Gulf Stream current until eventually sinking for real off of Florida's Atlantic coast two months later. Proving the fortune-cookie philosophy that every answer leads to another question, this revelation about the actual fate of Western Empire once again pulled a shroud of mystery over the true identity of Site 359.

Proving the adage once again, today's site investigation provided a few answers and a few more questions. The vessel was clearly a stout workhorse of its day. It is large and heavily built, with thick, closely spaced wooden timbers comprising the frames and hull planking. Several clues on the wreck including wire rope rigging, a folding-stock anchor, a possible engine-powered capstan, and what appeared to be red anti-fouling hull paint, indicate that this vessel dates between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Curiously, though, this wreck is in far better condition than any other discovered wrecks in the Gulf of Mexico dating to the same time period, especially considering that it does not have any metal sheathing to protect its wooden hull, as do many of those other wrecks. Site 359 remains remarkably well preserved, with tightly fitted inner and outer planking still in place, and sections of the hull intact up to the deck level almost 20 feet above the seafloor. This raises several questions, such as: What site formation factors have allowed this vessel to remain in such good condition relative to other wrecks of its age? What ship is this? What was its purpose? And what caused it to sink?

Frames, inner hull planking, and outer hull planking at Site 359.

Frames, inner hull planking, and outer hull planking at Site 359. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico Expedition 2012. Download larger version (jpg, 1.9 MB).

Its size and heavy construction indicate that it was likely intended to travel long distances in rough conditions, possibly with a large crew and a large cargo. And ships like that don't disappear without someone noticing; the identity of this mystery ship is likely to have been reported somewhere in the historical record. Despite its generally good condition, extensive hull damage at both the starboard bow and stern indicate that the wreck was exposed to some very violent forces. Did this damage happen after the ship settled on the ocean floor, or is it evidence of what put it there in the first place?

Hopefully, continued research and review of today's ROV imagery will help us to illuminate some of those answers. Until then Site 359 remains full of possibilities, as does the next unknown shipwreck waiting to meet Little Hercules and its watchful scientists.