Some 200 years ago, a trio of vessels now known as the Monterrey Shipwrecks came to rest more than 4,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. The three ships, found in the same immediate vicinity, likely sank during a single storm, although it remains unclear exactly where they were headed, what their missions were and whether they were traveling together. One possibility, according to Atlas Obscura’s Jonathan Carey, is that the privateer vessel dubbed Monterrey A was escorting merchant vessels B and C to their destination. Alternatively, pirates sailing on the heavily armed Monterrey A may have captured the other two ships before all three succumbed to a storm.
Given the Monterrey Shipwrecks’ remote resting place, it is impossible for divers to explore them using scuba gear. But thanks to surveys conducted with the help of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), maritime aficionados and amateurs alike can now explore the three wrecks—as well as two more known as the 15377 and Blake Ridge shipwrecks—from the comfort of their own homes.
Newly launched by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the so-called Virtual Archaeology Museum features 3-D models, video footage and mosaic maps of the five 19th- and 20th-century shipwrecks. Aside from the Blake Ridge Shipwreck, which is situated around 130 miles off the coast of North Carolina under more than 7,000 feet of water, all of the wrecks are located in the Gulf of Mexico.
“With the ROVs we can clearly examine the artifacts in these shipwrecks up close, in thousands of feet of water,” Mike Celata, BOEM Gulf of Mexico regional director, says in a press release. “Through the use of the [3-D] models, we can see each shipwreck site as a whole and monitor changes to it over time.”
Writing for the Miami Herald, Charles Duncan reports that the virtual reality system is so advanced that users can discern minute details such as the Blake Ridge’s anchor chain and a stoneware jug lying amidst the wreckage. By touring both 3-D models and high-resolution photographs, museum “visitors” can also see the marine creatures and plants that now call the ships home. Virtual divers can also identify artifacts—Atlas Obscura’s Carey cites ceramics, wine jugs, animal hides, muskets and cannons—and design elements indicative of the vessels’ provenance and purpose.
Despite the level of access afforded by the online portal, many key facts regarding the wrecks remain unclear. As BOEM points out, Monterrey A, a wooden-hulled, copper-sheathed sailing ship equipped with at least five cannons and crates of muskets, could have been a pirate ship, a privateer, a military vessel or even a heavily defended merchant. Monterrey B, on the other hand, was carrying a trove of animal hides and unidentified white blocks that could have been cattle fat used for making candles, tree sap used in varnish or natural rubber. Based on pottery found at the site of the wreck, researchers suspect Monterrey B was sailing from Mexico to a still-unknown port. The largest of the three Monterrey wrecks, C, sustained the most damage, breaking its rudder upon impact with the seafloor.
According to National Geographic’s Kristin Romey, the Blake Ridge Shipwreck was likely a small merchant vessel traveling along the Gulf Stream trade route some 150 years ago. Measuring about 70 feet long, the ship would have been manned by a crew of three to five.
The final shipwreck, 15377, was substantially larger than the Blake Ridge, measuring 100 feet long and boasting three towering masts. Like the Monterrey A shipwreck, the vessel’s wooden hull was sheathed in copper to protect it from marine organisms. Dating between the 1830s and ‘40s, 15377 appears to have been built for transporting bulk cargo rather than speed.
In the BOEM statement, Celata suggests that the Virtual Archaeology Museum “will serve as a valuable teaching asset in both school and university classrooms.” He concludes, “The data collected will be a focal point for underwater researchers, its online presence allowing collaboration worldwide.”