NOAA Partners to Return to 19th Century Steamship Portland

Tuesday, September 16, 2003
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 century-old wrecks. "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 January 2004. "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 identified. "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 expedition. 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 diverse wildlife.
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