New Bern, NC –
INTRO - A report released last week examines not only the condition of the shipwreck of the sunken Civil War ironclad Monitor but the waters where the shipwreck lies. George Olsen has more.
The Monitor sank about 16 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras on New Year's Eve 1862 while under tow after receiving orders to report to Beaufort, going down in about 230 feet of water. After nearly 146 years immersed in salt water, the ship itself is not in good shape. But David Alberg, the superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, says, as an archaeological site, it's in tremendous shape a direct result of the declaration of the site as a national sanctuary in 1975, not long after the site was confirmed.
When the Monitor was positively identified in 1974 and there were very limited protections that were in place at the time, if any, really the site would've been wide open for looting, and I can assure you it would be a very different place today.
The main purpose of the Marine Sanctuary has been to preserve the site as a cultural resource. But the report the first of its kind signifies a shift in thinking about how the site is viewed.
I think when you consider the Monitor today you can't think of it just as a shipwreck. You have to consider it as an artificial reef, and when you consider the shipwreck and this holds true not for just the Monitor but all the shipwrecks off the Carolina coast that these are vibrant oasis of life where you move out there and find really nothing between shipwreck and shipwreck except sand bottom and occasional limestone outcropping and then you hit one of these wrecks and there's an explosion of life.
It was one of the few areas where the report said conditions at the sanctuary were declining, and that's the appearance of invasive species at the site in this case, red lionfish, who don't have any natural predators in these waters and put smaller indigenous species at risk of predation. However, only a few have been spotted so far and species such as black seabass and great barracuda are more likely to call the Monitor wreck site home. And Alberg says the lionfish don't present a threat to the shipwreck itself. Among the threats to the site are those posed by another non-indigenous species man though the site's remoteness helps protect it from harm, and apparently has for some time.
I mentioned possible looting at the site. We've had no evidence or very little evidence of anyone disrupting the site, but it doesn't ever go away that that could happen, so it remains a threat. The same thing with marine debris. We have had incidents in the past where marine debris has blown in or rope fishing gear that has snagged on the wreck and caused significant damage to the wreck, but again it comes into an area where it's a little out of your control.
The real threats to the site appear to be those out of man's control strong currents from the Gulf Stream, high salinity water, and hurricanes, amongst other things. The report mentions 2003's Hurricane Isabel which dislodged bottom plating from the shipwreck. Despite that, many artifacts remain on the ocean floor Alberg says tools and other equipment from the Monitor can be found easily though no excavations are planned at the moment, and none have taken place since the gun turret was brought up in 2002. A Manage and Plan review gets underway in the fall which could outline future recovery efforts. In the meantime, and part of what this report intends to do, Alberg says the Sanctuary will continue with what he describes as their primary mission to educate the public about the importance of the site.
And I think its interesting to me that after all these years, nearly a century and a half after she sank, she still is doing work for the country. What was created as a tool of war, to fight in the battle of Hampton Roads and played a major role in the Naval history of this country and really for the world, disappeared and became a mystery for so many years and has come back now as a tool to teach us about the health of the oceans, to teach us about our past as a country, to teach us about the environment off North Carolina, and the fact that this shipwreck is still performing this service for us is tremendous.
David Alberg is the superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. I'm George Olsen.