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Maritime Heritage

Thunder Bay shipwreck.

The wreck of the schooner E.B. Allen, located within Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Michigan. Our national marine sanctuaries are one mechanism to protect our nation's maritime heritage.


What do historic shipwrecks, archaeological resources, whaling, and native cultures all have in common? They are all components of our maritime history. Maritime heritage includes not only physical resources such as historic shipwrecks and prehistoric archaeological sites, but also archival documents, oral histories, and the stories of indigenous cultures that have lived and used the oceans for centuries.

Stewardship of our maritime heritage means preserving and protecting these important historical, cultural, and archaeological resources within our coastal, marine, and Great Lakes waters.

When we properly study and interpret maritime heritage, these resources add an important dimension to our understanding and appreciation of our nation's rich maritime legacy and make us more aware of the need to protect our ocean planet.

Maritime heritage is a way to connect all of us to the ocean, not just those living along the coast. Understanding our maritime heritage helps us explore the history of our country. Protecting maritime resources helps to preserve and further study our historic use of our nation's coastal and Great Lakes waters.


Our national marine sanctuaries

From shipwrecks to archaeological resources to studies of indigenous cultures, did you know that there is a maritime heritage component to each of our nation's 13 national marine sanctuaries and our one national monument?

In fact, the first sanctuary ever created was USS Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. Located off the coast of North Carolina, this sanctuary protects the wreck of the famed Civil War ironclad USSMonitor, best known for its battle with the Confederate ironclad Virginiain Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 9, 1862.

Sanctuaries such as Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, are designated to protect natural resources and to preserve maritime heritage. For centuries, Stellwagen Bank has proved to be a rich and productive fishing ground, particularly for groundfish species like cod, haddock, and flounder. During the second half of the 20th century, the area gained fame as a whale watching destination.


Preserve America initiative

The history of NOAA and the nation are intertwined. It is difficult to talk about our weather, water, climate, and commerce without discussing NOAA and its ancestor agencies.

NOAA's heritage resources include everything from photographs to books, charts, maps, scientific instruments, and other artifacts – some centuries old. Whether it's a nautical chart plate engraved in the 1850s, a tidal computer developed in the 1880s, or an original hurricane bulletin issued in the early 1900s, each artifact tells a story about the evolution of NOAA and our nation.

Signed by the president on March 3, 2003, the Preserve America Executive Order established federal policy to provide leadership in preserving America's heritage by actively advancing the protection, enhancement, and compatible use of the historic properties owned by the federal government. The order also encourages agencies to seek partnerships with state, tribal, and local governments and the private sector to make more efficient and informed use of these resources for economic development and other recognized public benefits.


Maritime archaeology

Maritime archaeology is the study of past human cultures, with an emphasis on how we interacted with the world's oceans, lakes, and rivers in the past. This science is used to interpret the material remains of past cultures including ships and small craft, their crews and cargoes, and their shore-based facilities. While maritime archaeology is best known for its focus on shipwrecks, it is really the study of everything connected to seafaring and coastal living, including submerged prehistoric sites.

Maritime archaeology is one of three research topics that NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program is focused on. Sanctuary archaeologists use satellites to help reconstruct ancient shorelines and use side-scan sonar to peer miles underneath the ocean's surface. Submersibles carry passengers to places where divers cannot go, and remotely operated vehicles are allowing scientists to study even further below the ocean's surface.


A history of American whaling

The history of American whaling is a significant part of our national maritime heritage because it is a topic that includes seafaring traditions and historic voyages. These voyages had political, economic, and cultural impacts. Whaling was both a successful and yet unsustainable industry, decimating the ocean’s marine mammals. Historical whaling was a major industrial effort—dirty, dangerous, and necessary.

For the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the study of historical whaling is larger than any single wreck site and broader than any one sanctuary. Several of our national marine sanctuaries are connected to a number of different past whaling cultures and whaling vessel wreck sites. NOAA and partners work to improve our understanding of whaling heritage by exploring the effects of human activities and natural environmental changes on our living marine resources.


Human connections to the sea

Throughout history, people have always been drawn to the ocean, for food and other resources and as a means to travel. NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program works to explore these many human connections to the sea. These research efforts include supporting, understanding, and learning from diverse maritime histories and experiences. Also important is gaining a greater appreciation of indigenous maritime cultures, traditional seafaring, host culture perspectives, and traditional marine environmental knowledge.

Our understanding of the true human dimensions of our protected marine areas is incomplete without an awareness and recognition of the special cultural ties these areas have to indigenous seafaring cultures. Gaining an awareness of the great variety of human connections to the sea can help us all become better stewards of our ocean resources.


Preserving resources

Natural activities such as storms, currents, and corrosion, as well as human activities such as anchoring, looting, and careless diving practices, can impact maritime heritage resources. And, unlike living resources, maritime heritage resources are not renewable.

Therefore, it is especially important that we make decisions on how to manage these resources, so we can protect these important links to our past and ensure they are around for current and future generations to enjoy. Our national marine sanctuaries are one mechanism to protect our nation's maritime heritage. The careful recovery, study, and conservation of artifacts are also helping to preserve these artifacts in museums for future generations.

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Did you know?

Maritime heritage includes not only physical resources such as historic shipwrecks and prehistoric archaeological sites, but also archival documents and oral histories. Maritime heritage can also include the stories of indigenous cultures that have lived and used the oceans for thousands of years.


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