Digging Up The U.S.


Here, where time is marked by the pounding of waves along the shore and nothing changes but the tides, a team of underwater archaeologists from the National Park Service is searching for shipwrecks on the ocean floor. More than a dozen ships, including the San Augustin , a Spanish galleon wrecked at anchor during a storm in 1595, are known to have gone down in these waters. Some, like the nineteenthcentury Mexican ship Ayacucho , ran aground in bad weather; others, like the Hartwood , a steam schooner that was smashed up on the rocks in 1929, got lost in the notorious Point Reyes fog.

The attempt to find the remains of these vessels is part of a long-range plan to survey and protect all shipwrecks in waters under the jurisdiction of the Park Service. For several weeks this past summer three archaeologists from the agency’s Submerged Cultural Resources Unit in Santa Fe (how the underwater archaeology division came to be based in New Mexico is one of those bureaucratic mysteries no one seems able to fathom) conducted a remote-sensing survey of Drake’s Bay. Now, in mid-October, they are back to finish the job.

The search for sunken ships is probably the most glamorous form of historical archaeology. The allure of lost treasure is powerful. And the prospect of finding a time capsule at the bottom of the sea, even if it contains no gold, is an exciting one to divers regardless of their academic credentials. In the past few years, a number of private outfits, equipped with the latest in remote-sensing technology, have attempted to find and salvage historic wrecks. One group of divers brought up the safe of the Andrea Doria not long ago, and another recently located the Whidah , an eighteenth-century pirate ship said to be worth as much as $80 million, near Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The admiralty laws governing recovery of such ships are in a state of flux, but last summer one well-known treasure hunter, MeI Fisher, won a Supreme Court decision upholding his claim to a seventeenth-century Spanish galleon he located off the coast of Florida in 1971.

To underwater archaeologists like Daniel Lenihan, head of the Park Service team at Point Reyes, treasure hunters are anathema. Not only do they remove valuable artifacts, but they often disturb the entire site of a wreck by using the powerful prop wash from their boats to stir up the ocean bottom. “The concept of ripping stuff off from coastal waters,” Lenihan says disdainfully, “is apparently considered part of the American ethic.” Although there have been no reports of such activity in Drake’s Bay, it is, in part, to help the park police to fend off potential salvage operations that Lenihan and his two colleagues, Larry Murphy and Toni Carrell, have come to Point Reyes.

The day before Columbus Day—the same day, coincidentally, that the Mary Rose , the flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet, was raised from the bottom of England’s Portsmouth Harbor, I sat belowdeck on an old fishing boat with Larry Murphy as we tracked back and forth across Drake’s Bay. Stashed in the boat’s galley, and in the hold where salmon and rock cod are normally kept on ice, was more than $100,000 of electronic equipment, including a positioning system that plotted the exact location of the boat every ten seconds; a magnetometer that measured deviations in the earth’s magnetic field caused by the presence of submerged ferrous objects; and a side-scan sonar system that recorded the patterns of sound waves as they bounced off anything protruding above the ocean floor. Taken together, the graphs generated by these three machines can virtually pinpoint a ship-wreck for divers to explore later.

Murphy is a bear of a man, and his huge frame nearly fills the galley of the Nick . He uses words like digitize and trilaterate as he explains what each of the gadgets does. But despite the impressive array of equipment on board and Murphy’s total fluency in communicating with it, he is at the mercy of a more primitive technology. The Nick was built in 1939 and looks not unlike the African Queen . Its engine needs constant coaxing, its electrical system is a tangle of wires, and its generator doesn’t have enough power to run all three machines at the same time. Murphy’s Law seems to rule the day: everything that can go wrong does. The little notebook he keeps handy—his “log of daily harassments,” as he calls it—is soon filled with accounts of failed batteries, crossed wires, and empty gas tanks.