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Mysterious 19th-Century Shipwreck Discovered by Accident

The ocean is big, and it’s pretty hard to find anything once it gets sent to Davey Jones’ Locker. Even something that is pretty big itself, like a 124 foot sailing ship, is no easy task to find even when your intentionally looking for it. So it’s a pretty amazing coincidence that a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expedition testing some new underwater drones in the Gulf of Mexico happened to stumble upon a 124 foot, 19th-century sailing ship. NOAA was completely unprepared to find a shipwreck, let alone a mystery shipwreck with no documents, markings, or any other identifiable information.

In a press release, NOAA detailed how an equipment test led to such an unexpected discovery. The Okeanos Explorer set off from Pascagoula, Mississippi into the Gulf on May 12. Four days later  on May 16, the crew of the Okeanos conducted an “engineering dive” meant to calibrate instruments and test drive their new remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Deep Discoverer. It turns out Deep Discoverer works pretty well, as the ROV’s sonar soon detected the shape of a wooden hull on the ocean floor.

Using their ROVs the Okeanos team carefully filmed every inch of the mystery ship. The footage was  livestreamed to a group of archaeologists to interpret the findings. While the footage is still being analyzed, the archaeologists were able to give general interpretations of the ship. The mystery vessel is likely a schooner or a brig, and was most likely constructed in the mid 1800’s. Yet they have no information on when the ship sank. It may have been soon after it was constructed or decades later.

ROV Deep Discoverer approaching the shipwreck. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

The team was unable to find any identifying objects, markings indicating nationality, or anything else that might give some hint as to when this ship sank and who was on it. The only clue is the numbers “2109” carved into the hull. Despite the lack of information, the archaeologists who saw the footage do have an idea of how it sank. According to the press release:

“[A] number of timbers appeared charred and some of the fasteners were bent, which may be an indication of burning. While the evidence is still being assessed, it is possible that this sailing vessel caught fire and was nearly completely consumed before sinking. This may explain the lack of artifacts from the rigging, decks, and upper works, as well as the lack of personal possessions.”

The only clue to the ships identity are the numbers “2109” carved into the hull. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

As this shipwreck was only recently found and the data is still being analyzed, it’s definitely possible that more information about this mysterious shipwreck will be found. Until then, it remains a mystery and an extremely lucky mystery at that. Not only did the crew of the Okeanos find a mystery ship by accident, it was the perfect testing ground for their new equipment. Here’s hoping that these scientists know they’ve used up their share of spare luck for the next decade.