The Jeremy Project
TROV and the "Jeremy Project"
NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) has developed an underwater telepresence remotely operated vehicle (TROV) that is able, by using a stereo pair of cameras positioned at approximately human interocular distance (the distance between your eyes), to produce a picture that appears in three dimensions if special eyewear is used. TROV is also able to record film footage underwater using these cameras. This footage can then be translated via software into a virtual reality computer simulation of the environment that was filmed. A person can then use this computer-generated image in order to virtually "fly" through an environment that TROV has visited earlier and recorded. The "Jeremy Project" seeks to apply this technology, originally developed for NASA's Mars Pathfinder Project, to the field of marine archaeology.
ROV's have been employed to do underwater archaeological work before, but not to this extent as far as I am aware. Side-scan sonar has been used in order to map sites using soundings of the benthic terrain, but TROV's stereo cameras promise to attain a new level of accuracy, detail and realism that has not been achieved to date. By sending TROV over a site for a preliminary run and generating a map, archaeologists may be better able to tell which sections of a site they should focus on. Also, by generating a map during each phase of an excavation, records of provenience (where artifacts are within a site) will be more accurate.
To learn more about TROV and ROV projects at NASA Ames, you may want to visit the Intelligent Mechanisms Group web site.
TROV Applications to the Fleet of 1871
During late August and early September of 1998, NASA, in conjunction with the Coast Guard, National Science Foundation, and Santa Clara University, will be conducting field tests of the TROV in the Arctic Ocean. Tests will be run from the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star, which will be departing from Seattle and traveling along the Canadian and Alaskan coast as far north as Point Barrow before making its return voyage. The ship will be passing over the waters near Icy Cape where the New Bedford fleet of 1871 was abandoned and eventually sank. We will attempt to locate the sunken fleet, reportedly situated between twenty-seven and fifty-two feet of water, and deploy TROV to take images of at least a few of the ships. Divers will most likely accompany the submersible. For the first test application of the "Jeremy Project," contact with the site will be visual only. Divers will not be allowed to touch any of the wrecks, assuming they are at least partly intact, and will serve only to assist TROV's pilot(s) with any maneuvering difficulties. The reason for this is two-fold: first, we must remain in compliance with the Alaskan State Parks commission, which maintains that we do not touch the wrecks. Second, coming in contact with wrecks, particularly those made of wood, has the potential for disturbing natural chemical balances that may be serving to preserve the wrecks from destruction.
What Do We Hope to Learn?
During the first phase of the "Jeremy Project," as mentioned before, we hope to test the practical applications of NASA's technology to the field of marine archaeology. Also, we hope to perform a few simple archaeological analyses of the site in question. Without doing any excavation and without coming in contact with the wrecks, we will visually inspect them in order to determine their state of preservation. Much is known about how wreck sites fare in warmer waters, but less is known about site formation as it occurs in colder waters. We will attempt to correlate the condition of the site with such factors as water salinity and temperature. Aside from abiotic factors, we will also attempt to detect any biological aspects of cold-water site formation processes that may or may not be present. For instance, it is known that in warmer climates a certain marine mollusk is responsible for much of the damage that occurs on wooden wrecks. Known as the "shipworm," Teredo navalis is a common boon to marine archaeologists everywhere. Are these organisms active in higher latitudes? Are any similar animals or plants present that do similar damage to underwater sites?
Historical Background of the Fleet
The whaling industry on the east coast of the United States was booming during the 19th century, and many coastal cities were benefiting from it.
The town of New Bedford, located in New England, was no exception. New Bedford's whaleship building industry was largely controlled by the Quaker community; master craftsmen saw that every part of each ship was constructed well and without fault. The whaling industry of this time period was notorious for being conservative in terms of the technology it chose to use-- in a time when steel was being used more and more often to build ships, metal cables were employed for rigging, and coal-powered engines were available, many whaleship industries chose to keep building with wood, and use fiber ropes to rig sails and harness wind power. The reasons were relatively simple most of the time: whalers were out to make a profit. Wind power was a lot cheaper than coal, and left the ships' holds free to load up with more whale oil and bone. Both of these were high-selling commodities at the time, used for a variety of purposes. Oil was primarily used as a source of fuel for light and heat in homes, but was also used to make soaps and lubricants. Bone was used largely in the fashion industry, as women's dresses and bodices supported by whalebone hoops were the current style.
During the 1800s, one of the most prized and sought after species of whale was the bowhead. This was for a number of reasons; first of all, it tends to live in colder climates, and therefore grows an extra thick layer of blubber to regulate its internal temperature. It is the blubber that is boiled down by the whalers in order to extract the whale oil. The second reason is pure convenience: bowheads are among the slowest moving of the large cetaceans, making them easy to sight and harpoon. Considering the difficulty and man-power involved in lowering the smaller, quicker whaleboats and rowing after the quarry, the slower the animal, the better the guarantee that the whalers were going to get a return on their personal physical investments. Bowheads' migratory routes take them into the frigid waters of the Arctic north of the Bering Straight during the summer months. Here, they feed in large groups, or pods, and are easy game. This was generally where the whaleships would confront them.
During April of 1871, one such whaling fleet, hailing from New Bedford, set out from Hawaii for the Arctic whaling grounds in hopes of making a big catch and a good profit. Between the 18th and 30th of June, the fleet had made its way through the Bering Strait, and by late August, 39 ships were positioned off of Icy Cape, Alaska. Normally during this time of the year, floating ice has begun to form, but is blown out to sea, allowing whalers to work the waters closer to the shore until well into September, and get out easily.
This year, however, would be different. The winds came from the ocean, bowing ice into the shore, trapping the ships between it and the rocky coast. Some of the whalers managed to get out of the way in time, but 32 of the original 39 were trapped. At first, there was no panic, as this had happened the year before, but the wind had eventually blown the ice away.
Some ships even continued to hunt or boil down whale blubber. As time wore on, though, the situation became grim. It was obvious by the second week of September that they were not going to be able to get out-- scouts sent down the coast to the southwest attested to the fact that there were no open channels deep enough for the ships to pass through. On September 12, the captains of the trapped ships drew up a document stating their situation, and their decision to save their crews and leave the ships to fate. Whaleboats were loaded with supplies, outfitted with higher gunnels, and rowed and/or sailed down the coast. The crews were picked up by the remaining seven ships that had stood off from the encroaching ice, and sailed back to Hawaii. Amazingly, not one life had been lost. Unfortunately, the ships were lost with most of their expensive cargo.
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