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Diving Deeper: Finding the Robert J. Walker

Episode 51 (August 29, 2013)

HOST: Are you fascinated with shipwrecks? Then today's special Diving Deeper is just for you! We have a two-part interview today so be sure to hang in through the full episode. Let me give you just a little bit of history to set the stage on this particular shipwreck.

On June 21, as part of a memorial tribute to the 20 sailors who lost their lives when a federal survey ship sank on that day in 1860, NOAA vessels transited the area where the ship was thought to have gone down. In today's Diving Deeper, we will meet two of the staff involved with this effort as they tell us about their journey to find the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer, the Robert J. Walker.

First, let's kick off this episode with Vitad Pradith. Vitad is a physical scientist from NOAA's Office of Coast Survey. Hi Vitad, thanks for joining us today.


HOST: Vitad, before we get into how your team found the Walker, can you tell our listeners a little bit about the history of the Robert J. Walker?

VITAD PRADITH: Sure Kate. So the Walker is actually the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer, Robert J. Walker, and she was a Coast Survey vessel. We know that she was struck around 2:15 in the morning by a schooner about 12 miles off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey. She was struck in heavy seas and fog so from what I understand, she took on water pretty quickly, ran toward shore, and unfortunately she sank and was lost at sea. This occurred on June 21, 1860, ironically is also World Hydrography Day, marking about 153 years ago that the accident occurred. And for Coast Survey, it's actually our worst single disaster where we lost 20 of our colleagues.

HOST: Definitely a very tragic loss - to lose 20 sailors. This year, on the June 21 anniversary, the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, from my understanding, was surveying in this general area where the Walker went down, as just part of normal survey operations, a project that you had going on. What did this additional survey entail to try to find the Walker?

VITAD PRADITH: Sure. Well, the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson and her very capable crew were performing hydrographic surveys in support of the Hurricane Sandy recovery work that's actually happening right now. So essentially she's using contemporary survey techniques with different forms of sonar, multibeam echosounder, side scan sonar, and advanced sensors, and her goal is to do what we've always done in terms of Coast Survey which is keeping our waterways safe for maritime commerce. So there wasn't much additional in terms of what we've already been doing, it's just we've been working in the same area as the Walker, potentially where she could have sank.

HOST: And timed just right there with that anniversary. So Vitad, what can you tell us about the surveys and how do you find a wreckage like this underwater?

VITAD PRADITH: Sure Kate, well, there's many things happening at the same time. Primarily, there's three tools that we use when we're trying to do this work. So the first tool is the multibeam echo sounder and what this does is it provides us with the 3D topography or the relief of the sea floor. The next tool is the side scanning sonar. And what this provides us is with a picture of the sea floor. It's almost akin to kind of peeling back the water itself and seeing what's on the actual sea floor. And the last sensor of the three is the advanced GPS sensors that not only tell us where we are, but also how the ship is moving through the water so how the ship is heaving up and down, if it's swaying side to side or if it's surging back and forth. So essentially, the GPS sensors answers the 'where' and the sonars answer the 'what.' But ultimately it's an intricate and well-choreographed dance and really in concert these tools allow us to accurately and precisely map the sea floor.

HOST: Great. Vitad, is this a fairly routine process? I'm sure things happen differently every research cruise, but did you have to do anything different with your general survey approach when you were looking specifically for the Walker in this case?

VITAD PRADITH: Not so much, Kate. In many ways, it was fairly routine in terms of how the survey was planned, how it was executed, we just had this other extra information that kind of clued us into potentially, hey look out, there might be something here too as well. You might want to key in on it as well, but that was other ancillary information that we gained from our partners too. What was different about this survey was we had the input of the Maritime Heritage Program as well as the archaeologists and what we gleaned from them was context. So essentially, it's applying hydrographic science to nautical archaeology and kind of the combination of the two fields itself is what made this project successful.

HOST: And what makes it very cool! And for those of us who are interested in shipwrecks and in this kind of a story, with this unique history behind this story for NOAA, it's nice to get that behind the scenes perspective from you today. What was the atmosphere on the ship or what was kind of the level of excitement when you did come across what looked like it might be the Walker in your scans?

VITAD PRADITH: Sure. The crew of the Thomas Jefferson, they were already briefed on essentially the significance of the Walker - what she was, her history. So there was extra attention paid on this actual survey itself just because of that, because the crew did realize, this is 20 of our colleagues that were lost at sea. From that standpoint, there was quite a bit of extra attention paid on the survey itself.

HOST: Vitad, when you did find that sort of general outline of the vessel on your scans, what happens next? What's the next step?

VITAD PRADITH: Well, the next step is what I call the human interpretation process if you will. So there's the two perspectives that I employ. In my world, it's the science based interpretation. So from an objective standpoint, I know, how did the sonar return look, what did it look like in the sonar record, but then there's an art to it as well and that's where you take a context to it as well. So you say, ok, I can see the shape of it. I sort of know that it's in the shape, the outline of a hull of a ship itself, so this is where we really rely on our colleagues for system context. So our colleagues with the Maritime Heritage Program, they're the ones that are the experts in this and they provide the context in terms of things such as the composition of the ship itself, any machinery, any specific feature that may be distinguishable in the science record itself.

And what they did is that they took the innate ability of humans to synthesize information. So they took our data, they did some diving observations as well, they had their own data, and they learned/processed and kind of put everything into context. They're the ones that actually provided the context to say yes, this is the actual Walker. So in summary, you have a ship or platform that's about 85 feet above the actual Walker and through some remote sensing techniques that we provided, we acoustically imaged something on the sea floor, but ultimately, it's the human eye that usually is going to be your best sensor. So in this case, science found the feature, but it was the art of interpretation that applied the context to tell us what this was.

HOST: Thanks Vitad for taking us through the hydrographic surveying portion of what went into finding the Walker and before I transition to your colleage, Jim Delgado, I just wanted to ask you if there was anything you wanted to leave listeners with from your experience on finding this particular shipwreck.

VITAD PRADITH: Sure. In many ways, this was much more than just finding a shipwreck. It was really about bringing our colleagues home. And how fitting it was to have the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, named after the father of Coast Survey, honor them and I think we will continue to honor them by doing the same mission that Thomas Jefferson envisioned over 200 years ago by keeping mariners safe and keeping maritime commerce flowing.

HOST: Thanks so much Vitad for taking us through this part of the journey to find the Walker. Now, let's transition to our second interview today with James Delgado, Director of the Maritime Heritage Program at NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Hi Jim, thanks for joining us.

JIM DELGADO: Hi there, glad to be here.

HOST: Jim, you were part of the dive team that located the Walker, correct?

JIM DELGADO: Yes indeed, privileged to be part of that team.

HOST: What can you tell us about this experience?

JIM DELGADO: You read about something in the history books and in the case of Walker, thanks to Captain Skip Theberge, we know a fair deal about Walker's history, but reading about it, seeing a portrait of it as we were fortunate enough to do at the Mariner's Museum is one piece of it, but it is in some ways, not to pun, it's flat, it's two-dimensional. It's like that picture, you want to go through that gateway and learn more. And that's what diving on these shipwrecks does, is it connects you physically to the past.

And so, for the team, as Matt Lawrence and Dan Basta and Tane Casserley and Russ Green all dropped down, what confronts you is this sense of that history, now three-dimensional, and real. To see the hole, punched in the side of the bow and to see blankets still there preserved in the mud where the crew tried to stop the leak as Walker was sinking and as the steam was going and they're racing for the lighthouse, makes something otherwise found in a newspaper online, come to life. And in that you begin to appreciate what it was like for those guys on the Walker, and the one lady, that night, when 72 of them sailed into harm's way and 20 of them lost their lives.

HOST: Thanks Jim for sharing with us a little bit about your experience and how tragic to have lost 20 sailors that terrible evening. What can you tell us about the characteristics of the ship or what were you able to see that helped confirm to you and your team that it was in fact the Walker and not another shipwreck?

JIM DELGADO: The New Jersey coast is littered with many wrecks, but fortunately there's an exceptional group of sport divers, wreck divers who regularly go out there, sleuth, try to discover more and it was thanks to some of those divers reports and in particular Captain Eddie Boyle, one of the pioneered dive boat captains on the old Gypsy. Eddie had dived down there and he'd a rectangular brass porthole and brought that up. And that's a pretty interesting thing. Most portholes that come off a wreck are round, but this rectangular one was a mystery.

He shared this with Joyce Steinmetz, who's a researcher at East Carolina University and Joyce has worked as an intern and in Washington, we knew her and she shared some of her research on wreck diving, but also on fishing in and around wrecks. So when the thought of trying to find Walker came up, we contacted Joyce. And she said, well, there is this one wreck and nobody knows its name, it's called the $25 wreck because that's what the price was to get the coordinates to dive it after a fisherman found it and sold those numbers to Captain Boyle.

She said, a lot of people have dived it, but no smoking gun yet, but there's this funny rectangular porthole. The Mariner's Museum had this portrait of the Walker and you look closely and Joyce sees that the portholes there are rectangular because this is a very early iron steamship. This is being built before gold is discovered in California in 1849. It goes into service in January of 1848, at a time when iron is about to make a big impact in the United States.

So, with that as a thought. More research showed that it had a particular rare type of engine. It was so big, it was in this area and all of that led, thanks to the opportunity to be out on the water doing some post-Hurricane Sandy surveys, and in the case of the sanctuary boat SRVX because they were on their way in response to a community request to try to find a historic lighthouse that Sandy had knocked off and into the ocean to see what was left and if it could be recovered as an important piece of history.

Chance came for two vessels to go out there and to take a look. Thomas Jefferson did an incredible survey with Vitad Pradith and Joyce Steinmetz joining him and that showed the wreck was in the right spot, just a mile and a half away from where it was thought to have hit the other ship. And it was pointed directly to shore, heading for the Absecon Inlet Lighthouse, which today still stands, and it was the beacon towards which these guys were racing as the cold water came in and extinguished the fires and down she went. The characteristics on the sonar showed two small engines lying in there and side wheels on each side and the bow had actually bent up, thrust up as if the ship had sunk rapidly by its head, hit the bottom, and just strained it and pushed that iron until the bow was rising towards the surface. And the shape of the bow could be figured out through the sonar and it matched the type of bow the Walker had. So with that, as sound paints incredible pictures, but you also need to put human eyes on it. In this case, the wreck was only 85 feet deep and so the Sanctuaries team, on the way to New York to look for the lighthouse, stopped, dropped into the water, and the engines not only looked the same as the patent drawings filed with the government for Walker's engines, the dimensions matched perfectly. The type of construction matched perfectly, the layout of the ship matched perfectly. So there were all these points where you could say, yes, yes, yes, and yes, even though your moving with visibility of only a few feet. The team's pretty skilled. They were able to map it all out in their mind's eye. They came up and I remember standing on the deck and asked Matt Lawrence, "well, what do you think?" And he goes, "it's the Walker." That was a great moment, because what had previously been an obstruction marked on the chart was now a wreck that in many ways is a very important ship for the entire country and in particular for all of us in NOAA because this was the largest loss of life ever in the history of NOAA or a predecessor agency.

HOST: Jim, will the Walker be removed from the sea floor or will it remain there and be preserved in this final resting place?

JIM DELGADO: Walker sits on the bottom in an active area of ocean where people fish, people dive, none of that's going to change. Walker is owned by the U.S. Government as a Coast Survey ship, like Navy ships it would never really be abandoned and it would remain the property of the government and in this case it still belongs to NOAA. We're not going to make the Walker a marine sanctuary, we're not going to put any fences up, we're not going to require any permits, we want to enhance the diving experience and have people gain more appreciation by working with them and helping facilitate more mapping, more study, the idea being no restrictions, but we do ask that people don't take souvenirs. Anything that has been found already, we're working with local communities to put those on display in area museums so that people who don't dive can learn more about Walker's story and we're looking to try to establish a permanent memorial to the 20 who died somewhere close to the wreck site, probably in Atlantic City itself.

HOST: Jim, what is the goal or the purpose for keeping this area open for wreck diving?

JIM DELGADO: What we want to do is with this one ship in particular, this is a perfect opportunity for us to work hand in hand with the rec diving, sport diving community. There's some great folks out there that do a tremendous amount of work. There's folks who researched this history. Gary Gentile has written incredible books about the wrecks of New Jersey, Dan Lieb heads up the New Jersey Historical Diving Association, there's the New Jersey Maritime Museum headed by Deb Whitcraft, all of these people can be powerful partners in sharing the story and learning more about what's on the bottom of the ocean and if anything should ever come up, any other artifacts, they could be treated and go on display in a museum if they really help make the connection and give people that sense of, this is not just something I read in the newspaper account, this is not just that picture on the wall, this is real.

HOST: So James, my last question for you today, is just to share your thoughts on finding and preserving shipwrecks just in general throughout your history of the things that you've worked on. Why is this important for us to do - to find these shipwrecks and to preserve these areas and what can we learn from it?

JIM DELGADO: I think questing to find shipwrecks is part of an ongoing thing that we all need to do as human beings to better understand the oceans. It's not just that they cover so much of the planet, it's because the ocean is vital to us. That's one of the key missions of NOAA. It's to explore, to learn, to preserve wherever possible, to understand how the oceans drive our weather, how they create oxygen, how they're the source of half the world's food, how they're a highway that connects us and why the Coast Survey has to chart our coasts to keep the stream of commerce going because 90 percent of our goods move by water. All of that is important and if we look at heritage, maritime heritage, not just in the national marine sanctuaries, but beyond and see how this connects us as Americans as human beings to the oceans, perhaps in that, we can learn a few things.

One - that we have a stake in this planet and we have used this ocean and at times abused it and that history is reflected. That these places on the bottom are powerful links, not just to big events, but to ordinary people like you and me who occasionally are rendered extraordinary by exceptional circumstances or who get caught up in things bigger than themselves and the ocean is one of those places. But it's also an opportunity through these discoveries to remind people, particularly young people, that there is a vast ocean of opportunity as well and our chance to reach out to explore. You don't need to join Starfleet to boldly go and to seek out new life and evidence of old civilization. You can do that in the ocean, so join us at NOAA, join many of our partners working in other agencies and states and in non-profits. The oceans need the attention, they need our help, and they also need, and I think a discovery like this helps remind us that understanding that we are inexorably linked to the oceans as President John F. Kennedy said, "the sea is in our blood literally," and it has been the source of our life and it is indeed the only real source of ongoing life this planet has, so we need to pay heed and take care of the oceans.

HOST: Thanks so much to Vitad and Jim for joining us today on Diving Deeper to share more about your discovery of the Robert J. Walker. To learn more, visit

That's all for today's show. Thanks for tuning in to Diving Deeper. We'll be back in two weeks!