High-tech effort aims to map newly found WWII sea battle site

By on August 25, 2016

Some of the WWII battles were just off the Outer Banks.

By Mark Hibbs
Coastal Review Online

Old timers who grew up on the North Carolina coast may still recall seeing the night sky lit up by offshore battles during World War II.

Now, researchers are using advanced technology to more fully explore the recently discovered wreckage from a clash just off Cape Hatteras 74 years ago.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its partners are visiting the site of two shipwrecks from a battle on July 15, 1942.

That day, the German U-boat, U-576, torpedoed three ships, sinking the Nicaraguan-flagged freighter S.S. Bluefields. Within minutes, a barrage from the merchant ship convoy and its U.S. military escorts had sunk the German sub. Navy air cover bombed the U-boat as the merchant ship Unicoi attacked with its deck gun.

NOAA discovered the wrecks off Cape Hatteras in 2014, 35 miles offshore and about 700 feet deep. The two hulls, undisturbed by humans, came to rest just 240 yards apart. Both were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Now NOAA is considering expanding the boundaries of a national marine sanctuary to increase protection of the Bluefields, U-576 and other historic shipwrecks.

“This discovery is the only known location in U.S. waters that contains archaeologically preserved remains of a convoy battle where both sides are so close together,” Joe Hoyt, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary archaeologist and chief scientist for the expedition, said in NOAA’s announcement on Monday.

“By studying this site for the first time, we hope to learn more about the battle, as well as the natural habitats surrounding the shipwrecks.”

A sonar image of the German submarine U-576. (NOAA/SRI International)

The expedition, which runs through Sept. 6, is part of NOAA’s $800,000 effort to document significant shipwrecks in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” off the Outer Banks.

“Part of our mandate with the national marine sanctuaries we want to protect is to both educate the public and highlight special places in the ocean, to preserve nationally historic cultural resources like shipwrecks,” NOAA’s Vernon Smith said in a telephone interview.

The expedition’s main focus is to depict the remains of a World War II naval battlefield and map the sea life habitat around it. The mission also seeks to develop a cost-effective approach for manned submersible operations and survey packages.

Smith said scientists will assess the condition of the wrecks and see how they provide habitat for fish and marine animals. It’s part of a research effort called Project Baseline.

The freighter SS Bluefields was sunk by the German submarine U-576 in July 1942. (Mariners’ Museum)

The freighter SS Bluefields was sunk by the German submarine U-576 in July 1942. The wrecks of the two ships were discovered in 2014 off Cape Hattaras, North Carolina, only 240 yards apart. Photo: Mariners’ Museum

The freighter SS Bluefields was sunk by the German submarine U-576 in July 1942. The wrecks of the two ships were discovered in 2014 off Cape Hattaras, North Carolina, only 240 yards apart. Photo: Mariners’ Museum

Project Baseline, according to its website, is a nonprofit, global, aquatic conservation initiative. It includes a worldwide network of volunteers, collaborators and supporters to establish environmental baselines by documenting through video and photos underwater conditions in oceans, lakes, rivers, springs and flooded caves.

“When stitched together, those images create a time lapse revealing how that quality is changing. When we couple our divers with scientists and resource managers struggling to understand and protect the ecosystems where we dive, the worth of our effort becomes greater than the sum of its parts,” according to Project Baseline’s website.

Other partners include NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research; the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM; NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science; 2GRobotics of Canada; SRI International, an international research organization; and the University of North Carolina’s Coastal Studies Institute in Wanchese.

The project is primarily funded through a collaborative agreement with BOEM and NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, and in-kind support from Project Baseline.

NOAA and its partners will visit the remains of the two ships to document World War II’s “Battle of the Atlantic,” which pitted the U-boats of the German navy against combined Canadian, British and American forces defending Allied merchant ships. The expedition will also include visits to several other World War I, World War II and Civil War vessels off the North Carolina coast, including the USS Monitor.

The Monitor was the Union Navy’s first ironclad warship and a big factor in the Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March 1862. The Monitor sank in a storm about 16 miles off Cape Hatteras in December 1862 while on its way to Beaufort. The wreck was discovered in 1973 and two years later, in a move to preserve the wreck and its artifacts, a 0.5-nautical-mile radius was designated as the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

Triton submersibles will collect data from the wrecks. (Project Baseline/Brownies Global Logistics)

Triton submersibles will serve as the primary means of collecting data from the wrecks. Photo: Project Baseline/Brownies Global Logistics
Triton submersibles will serve as the primary means of collecting data from the wrecks. Photo: Project Baseline/Brownies Global Logistics

NOAA’s proposed expansion of the Monitor sanctuary was announced in January. In June, four proposed expansion options were presented for public comment.

The expansion plan has caused concern among some Outer Banks residents, especially commercial fishermen and dive charter business owners who said it would lead to more restrictions on their livelihoods.

Smith said he understands the concerns: “Government comes in and keeps people away,” he said, but that’s not the case. “We’re not keeping people off the wrecks, we want people to enjoy these resources in a sustainable way.”

While rules currently prohibit anything other than hook-and-line fishing for recreational and commercial fishermen in the current sanctuary, officials say that fishing activities would not be restricted in any way through sanctuary regulations for any new areas added.

“During the recent scoping process, NOAA asked the public for comments on areas that might be added and what types of regulations would be needed to protect the wrecks. NOAA heard strongly from fishermen that they fish near wrecks without impacting the ships,” Smith said.

Smith said NOAA seeks to provide services to the public, recreational divers and educators interested in the wrecks. Some restrictions apply, but the goal is to manage these places “holistically,” he said.

Survivors of a torpedoed merchant ship cling to the wreckage off the North Carolina coast. Photo: NOAA
Survivors of a torpedoed merchant ship cling to the wreckage off the North Carolina coast. Photo: NOAA

Survivors of a torpedoed merchant ship cling to the wreckage off the North Carolina coast. (NOAA)

NOAA discovered the two vessels when archaeologists aboard the SRVX Sand Tiger located them during an autonomous underwater vehicle survey, using high-resolution sonar.

The current expedition will use two manned submersibles provided by Project Baseline, along with its research vessel Baseline Explorer.

Underwater robots and advanced remote sensing technology, provided by 2G Robotics and SRI International, will generate bathymetric data and detailed acoustical models of the wrecks and surrounding seafloor.

University of North Carolina’s Coastal Studies Institute will provide three-dimensional modeling of the wrecks.

Additional funding to support the mission was provided through a grant from NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and BOEM.

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