The British merchant steamship SS Mesaba sent a warning radio message to the Titanic on April 15, 1912 as it crossed the Atlantic. The message was received by the Titanic, which was advertised as unsinkable, but did not reach the ship’s main control center.
Later that night, the Titanic hit the iceberg and sank. More than 1,500 people died in what remains the world’s most infamous shipwreck.
The Mesaba continued as a merchant ship until it was torpedoed by a German submarine while in convoy in 1918. Twenty people were killed, including the ship’s commander.
Its exact location was unknown for more than a century, but scientists have now found the remains of the Mesaba using multibeam sonar. The offshore surveying tool uses sound waves to enable mapping of the seafloor in such detail that the superstructure can be revealed in sonar images, allowing researchers from Bangor University and Bournemouth University in the UK positively identify the wreck in the Irish Sea.
This was the first time investigators were able to locate and positively identify the wreck, according to a news release.
Michael Roberts, a maritime geoscientist at Bangor University in Wales, led the sonar studies at the university’s School of Ocean Sciences.
For several years, he has been working with the marine renewable energy sector to study the effect of the ocean on power generation infrastructure. Shipwrecks has proven to be a valuable source of information in this field.
“We knew there were a lot of shipwrecks in our backyard in the Irish Sea,” Roberts told CNN on Wednesday, adding that they could provide “useful insights into what happens when things go to the bottom of the sea.”
The Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg on April 15, 1912.
But it was only when Roberts began working with Innes McCartney, a maritime archaeologist and fellow researcher at Bangor University, that the “puzzle pieces” began to fall into place.
“McCartney was really interested in applying that technology to shipwrecks to identify them,” Roberts said. The team of researchers began to delve into the unsolved mysteries to “unravel their stories.”
“Previously, we were able to dive a few sites a year to visually identify wrecks. The unique sonar capabilities of the Prince Madog (purpose-built research vessel) have enabled us to develop a relatively inexpensive means of examining wrecks. We can connect this with historical information without costly physical interaction with each site,” McCartney added in the statement.
Roberts said the cost of discovering and identifying each wreck was between £800 ($855) and £1,000 ($1,070).
A ‘game changer’ for marine archeology
In all, Prince Madog found 273 shipwrecks scattered across 7,500 square miles of the Irish Sea, an area roughly the size of Slovenia.
The wrecks were scanned and checked against the UK Hydrographic Office wreck database and other sources.
Many of the recently identified wrecks, including the Mesaba, had been misidentified in the past, the researchers said.
McCartney described the multibeam sonar technique as “a ‘game changer’ for marine archaeology”, allowing historians to use the data it provides to fill in gaps in their understanding.
Prince Madog, Bangor University’s survey ship, leaves its berth at Menai Bridge, Anglesey, North Wales in 2016.
David Roberts/Bangor University
Prince Madog was commissioned by Bangor University and is managed and operated by offshore service provider OS Energy. “It really allows us to go out up to 10 days at a time and go point-to-point between ships,” Roberts said. “We were doing 15, 20, 25 wrecks a day. It’s the ship that supports everything.”
The technology the ship uses has the potential to be as effective for marine archaeologists as the use of aerial photography by archaeologists on land, according to the release.
“A lot of these wrecks are in deep water. There’s no light down there, so you can’t see much,” Roberts said. “If a diver were to go down and swim along the wreck, they would never get the kind of images that we would because of the scale of these things. There is so much sediment that you just can’t see it all. “
“So it’s a really effective way to visualize using sound to see something you can’t see with the naked eye, like a pregnancy ultrasound.”
While the technology has the potential to uncover the stories of all these lost ships, Roberts added that researchers “have also been examining these shipwreck sites to better understand how objects on the seafloor interact with physical and biological processes, which which in turn can help scientists support the development and growth of the marine energy sector.”
Details of all the wrecks have been published in a new book by McCartney, “Echoes from the Deep.”
Top Image: The SS Mesaba was torpedoed while in convoy in 1918, six years after it tried to warn the Titanic of the iceberg.
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