The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) and the National
Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut (NURC-UConn)
returned on Sept. 13, 2003, to the wreck of the famed 19th-century
steamship Portland, kicking off a week-long expedition to peer into the
vessel's past and plan for its future. The NOAA-UConn team is conducting
the first surveys of the Portland since they confirmed its location in
August 2002 within NOAA's Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine
Sanctuary (SBNMS) off the coast of Massachusetts
Using the latest ocean exploration technology, researchers from NOAA's
National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP) and NURC-UConn, with support from
NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration, are carefully surveying the Portland
and its immediate surroundings. The Science Channel joins the expedition
to provide the team with high-definition video photography of the wreck and
to produce a one-hour documentary special about the vessel and surveys of
the wreck site.
The effort will provide baseline data that will enable researchers to
monitor the Portland's condition over time and develop a plan to protect
and maintain the archaeological integrity of the wreck site. Until now,
researchers have not had the resources to undertake a comprehensive
photographic and acoustic survey of the Portland's hull, remaining
superstructure and propulsion apparatus. The team is also looking for
clues into the exact cause of the steamer's sinking, which remains a mystery.
All 192 of the Portland's passengers and crew perished when the ship went
down during a ferocious storm on Nov. 27, 1898. The Portland has since
become known as "New England's Titanic," given the number of lives lost and
the impact of the disaster on the region.
"Shipwrecks like the Portland are more than piles of wood and iron," said
SBNMS Research Coordinator Ben Cowie-Haskell, the expedition's chief
scientist. "If properly studied and protected, shipwrecks can tell us how
men and women once sailed upon the water and help us understand our
nation's history. NOAA is proud to partner with the University of
Connecticut and The Science Channel to document the wreck of the Portland
and bring its story to the public."
The R/V Connecticut, a research vessel owned and operated by UConn, is
serving as the expedition's floating base of operations. NURC has provided
an array of sophisticated sonar, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and
video equipment to aid researchers in their effort to shed new light on the
"Over the past century, the Portland has become festooned with lost fishing
gear and that presents an incredible hazard to this mission and the ROV,"
said Ivar Babb, NURC director. "But the R/V Connecticut, with its dynamic
positioning system, is the perfect platform for this operation because it
requires meter accurate maneuvering."
A high-definition video camera mounted on a special ROV, combined with a
specialized 1,000-watt high intensity lighting system, will yield images
that are sharper, more vivid and richly-detailed than those obtained during
the initial surveys of the Portland.
The Science Channel, a service of Discovery Networks U.S. - which also
operates and manages the Discovery Channel - will make all high-definition
underwater video obtained during the research cruise available to NOAA and
NURC-UConn for archival and further analysis. The Science Channel's
special, "Science of the Deep: The Wreck of the Portland," will premiere in
"We are thrilled to partner with NOAA on the exploration of this
astonishing and mysterious piece of maritime history," said Sue Norton,
executive producer, The Science Channel. "We look forward to telling the
story of the Portland and to generating the only high-definition footage of
the wreck in existence."
In addition to documenting the Portland, the expedition team is
investigating the wrecks of the Louise B. Crary and Frank A. Palmer, a pair
of Boston-bound coal schooners that collided and sank in 1902 as a result
of navigational error. Like the Portland, the Crary and Palmer lie within
the boundaries of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Side-scan
sonar images obtained last year during a joint mission between NOAA and
NURC-UConn revealed that the two large vessels plunged to the seafloor
simultaneously with their bows locked together in a deadly embrace.
The location of the Portland, Crary and Palmer wrecks within the
sanctuary's boundaries provides protection unavailable in other federal
waters off Massachusetts. Sanctuary regulations prohibit moving, removing
or injuring, or any attempt to move, remove, or injure any submerged
cultural or historical resources, including artifacts and pieces from
shipwrecks. Anyone violating this regulation is subject to civil penalties.
Along with these shipwrecks, researchers will also investigate a number of
nearby mystery wrecks on the seafloor of the sanctuary that have yet to be
"This expedition supports NOAA's mission to explore the oceans for the
purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge," said Capt. Craig
McLean, director of NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration, a co-sponsor of the
The public can follow the expedition, which takes place Sept. 13-20, at
sanctuaries.noaa.gov/exploration. The site offers daily logs, photographs,
fact sheets and education lesson plans.
NOAA's Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary was
designated by Congress in 1992 as "an area of special national
significance." Virtually the size of the state of Rhode Island, the
sanctuary stretches between Cape Ann and Cape Cod in federal waters off of
Massachusetts. The sanctuary is renowned as a major feeding area for
marine mammals, particularly humpback whales, and supports an ecosystem of