Saving Our Shipwrecks

New technologies are aiding the search for one Civil War submarine, and the conservation of another

Marine archaeologists rescued the shipwrecked H.L. Hunley (above, a computer rendering) in August 2000 more than 135 years after it sank during the Civil War. (Courtesy of Friends of the Hunley)

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When Bass began searching for wrecks in the 1960s, he says, a diver could not check how much air was left in his tank, submersible vehicles had six-inch windows and the best way to locate a potential shipwreck was to talk to sponge divers. Now, divers can check air gauges on demand, plastic submersibles are entirely clear and global positioning system technology enables researchers to navigate an ocean floor with ease.

The most impressive technology looming on the horizon is a diving suit being developed by Phil Nuytten that allows excavators to work for hours underwater, says Bass. Right now, divers can only work below the surface for some 20 minutes, perhaps twice a day. "If that happens," he says, "that will revolutionize our field."

But for all the advances in searching for, rescuing and conserving shipwrecks, says Bass, the biggest change is the field's establishment as an academic discipline. "Our students take a year and a half to know 50 times more than I did when I started," he says. "It's a scholarly field now, and that's what's changed more than anything else."


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