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Diving Deeper: Episode 16 (September 9, 2009) —
What is Maritime Heritage?

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I’m your host Kate Nielsen.

Today’s question is….What is maritime heritage?

Maritime heritage is a broad legacy that includes not only physical resources such as historic shipwrecks and prehistoric archaeological sites, but also archival documents, oral histories, and traditional knowledge of indigenous cultures.

To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Dave Alberg on maritime heritage – what it is, why NOAA is involved, and why we need to protect these historical resources. Dave is the Sanctuary Superintendent for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. Hi Dave, welcome to our show.

DAVE ALBERG: Hi Kate, thanks for inviting me here today to talk more about maritime heritage.

HOST: Dave, can you expand a bit more on what is meant by maritime heritage?

DAVE ALBERG: Maritime heritage is a way to connect the oceans back to citizens of our country and really to people all around the world – connect them back to the oceans, connect them on a personal level so that they walk away with a better understanding of the role the oceans play in their daily lives and just as importantly the role that their daily lives play in the future of our oceans. And it’s a way to connect to an audience that might not normally be interested in ocean issues in a way that can sometimes be very personal and very powerful.
HOST: So besides the actual shipwreck or archaeological site that I mentioned in our opening definition and the archival documents, are there other components or pieces to maritime heritage?

DAVE ALBERG: Absolutely. Maritime heritage can include the stories of indigenous cultures that have lived and used the oceans for, in many cases, thousands of years before Europeans settled the United States. It’s a way for us to learn from them about a level of understanding about the oceans and the interface between the oceans and human beings on a level that we probably can’t even appreciate today in our modern world.

It also includes the structures, things like lighthouses and wharfs, the industries that developed around those structures like the life-saving services and the history of commercial fishing, and even more historical stories such as the story of whaling in the United States, the role that whaling played in the earlier part of the 20th century and the later part of the 19th century, its impact on the global economy, its impact on U.S. history, and the outcomes, of course, to the biological communities that were so deeply impacted – the whales and the dolphins.
HOST: Great, so there are a lot of components it sounds like, a lot of different things involved for maritime heritage.

DAVE ALBERG: Absolutely.

HOST: Why is it important to preserve and study these resources? What do we hope to gain from our research and knowledge?

DAVE ALBERG: Well, I think a couple things. One is with any historical project, at the end of the day it helps us better understand ourselves. Hopefully by looking at the past it helps us to better understand where we sit today and where we may be going in the future. But in terms of the broader picture, I think what’s really significant about maritime heritage resources and certainly the role that the study and promotion of maritime heritage resources plays within NOAA is that it helps people come back to the ocean. It helps connect them to the ocean. People that may not have ever seen the ocean, people that may not ever plan on being near the ocean, people that live in the interior of the country.

HOST: Why is maritime heritage important for our listeners? Some of our listeners live in coastal areas and some do not. How does this impact us when a site may be located hundreds or even thousands of miles away?

DAVE ALBERG: Well, I think the reason it’s important is that certainly ocean issues are paramount and are very visible to folks that are living along the coast, the 50 percent of Americans that live within 100 miles or so of our coastlines. But it’s the other 50 percent that I think have as much to do with the future of the ocean and how the ocean will go in the next 50 years. They have as much to say in that as do people that are living right on the coastline. So, maritime heritage again is maybe a way to connect to people that may not have thought they have an interest in ocean issues on a very personal level and those folks will be as critical to the future of the oceans as those living in Norfolk or San Diego or New York that are right along the coastlines.
HOST: Dave, I imagine that there is quite a team of people involved in research expeditions for these archaeological sites. Can you tell us a little bit about the background or expertise of members of your research teams?

DAVE ALBERG: Absolutely. We’ve got, of course, folks that specialize in maritime archaeology for most of our expeditions in the last couple years they include folks from a number of different federal agencies including the Park Service, NOAA of course, and even Minerals Management Service. But we also have people that are trained in communication and journalism because at the end of the day much of what we do is about storytelling. So the folks that are involved from the communications side are just as important as the archaeologists in conveying the messages and the lessons that we’ve learned as we go about our research.

But they also include experts in GIS in helping us understand the relationships of an artifact to its archaeological site, the assemblage of artifacts and how they relate out during the sinking of a shipwreck for instance and the GIS expert can be very critical in helping to document the location of things as small as individual artifacts on a site or the relationship between a number of shipwrecks in one spot. And an example there might be, using the Battle of the Atlantic as an example, the relationship between a number of shipwrecks lost at the same time during a particular battle begins to form a battlefield landscape. And typically we think of battlefields as terrestrial concepts, but as we look at sites off North Carolina and really around the world related to maritime history, we see that there’s actually these battlefield landscapes that exist under the water as well. So the GIS professional can help us better understand the relationships of those wrecks. 
HOST: Thanks Dave. I never thought about the storytelling aspect that really lies out there for maritime heritage, that’s great. How do we find shipwrecks? Are they typically found while we are looking for something else on the sea floor or are there missions that go out to look for a specific shipwreck?

DAVE ALBERG: I think it’s a little bit of both. And the classic example of the approach where we’re looking for a particular shipwreck would be the Monitor or the Titantic, we knew roughly where these shipwrecks were and many people were involved, in some cases, for many years trying to track down and locate that particular shipwreck knowing approximately where it was, but involving generations of people trying to track it down.

So there are shipwrecks that are found that way and then there are shipwrecks that are found through accidental means I guess and that could be through surveys of ocean bottom which are conducted by NOAA or other people. In many cases we get information very informally from fishermen and from divers who are either recreating or working in areas where they come across data on hangs, where they’re hitting something on the bottom with their fishing gear, or in the case of divers where they’ve found shipwrecks or objects on the bottom, and often times those things lead to terrific partnership opportunities where the Sanctuary Program has gone in and helped pull back the curtain so to speak by providing resources and expertise to help uncover the real mystery of what the shipwreck might be or more about its history.

HOST: Dave, how are maritime heritage resources studied or interpreted? What do you look for when you’re first exploring a site and how do we use the information that’s collected?

DAVE ALBERG: Well I think it depends on the objectives of the expedition. In the case of the Monitor for instance, the maritime heritage resources that were associated with the wreck site, the way that they were studied was through recovery, very careful and in many cases, long-term conservation of those artifacts so that they’d be preserved forever in a public institution like the Mariners’ Museum so that future generations of Americans for hundreds of years will be able to come and study these artifacts. Scholars will be able to use these artifacts to better understand and preserve the history of the Civil War and the role that the Monitor played in that event.

But I think in other cases, where we are studying a maritime heritage site, maybe recovery is not part of the dynamic at all. In those cases, it’s trying to preserve and capture the history and the stories associated with that site or that shipwreck without having to do excavation. So for instance last summer and this summer when we’re continuing our work on the Battle of the Atlantic sites, it will include photo-documentation and archaeological site plans and a great deal of harvesting of research and information that’s been out there from a number of sources so that we’re capturing and preserving this history within the final report which will then be released to the public and hopefully that research is built on by other researchers in years to come.

HOST: Are there threats or impacts that can degrade or destroy these historical resources like you’re mentioning the Monitor or Titanic, other ships?

DAVE ALBERG: Absolutely and I think they, for the most part, fall into two categories – environmental or human impacts. The environmental impacts are obvious. Time being probably one of the most significant ones – an iron shipwreck, in the case of the Monitor, in saltwater is of course making a very slow march towards decay although much slower than many people may have thought years ago, but the environment does take its toll. Storms and hurricanes that move through areas, for instance off coastal North Carolina can certainly have an impact on a shipwreck.

But there’s also human factors. For the most part the dive community is very respectful when they go to archaeological sites or to a shipwreck site, but unfortunately it doesn’t take much impact to destroy a wreck. And that always isn’t intentional, often times it’s unintentional. Things like anchoring on a shipwreck that has been in saltwater for a long time where the metal is fragile and you have a heavy boat that’s bouncing on its anchor – that can do a tremendous amount of damage. And of course looting and disruption of the site by souvenir hunters can certainly rob future generations and our generation of the opportunity of a better understanding of the histories and the stories that these shipwrecks can tell.

HOST: Well, it’s amazing with all of the impacts and threats that there are out there, that we’re able to preserve shipwrecks at all. How actually do we preserve these shipwrecks over time to prevent even further degradation than what we just talked about?

DAVE ALBERG: Well, I think it’s a couple things and it depends on the circumstance. In the case of the Monitor, it’s done through a very complex conservation partnership with the Mariners’ Museum which will last many decades to physically preserve the artifacts from the Monitor. But I think in many cases because nobody has the resources to preserve every shipwreck that’s out there in the ocean and quite frankly I don’t think you would want to do that even if you did have the resources. I think what we try to do when we talk about preservation of the vast majority of shipwrecks, it is about changing behaviors of folks that interface with these wrecks so that the fishing community, the dive community, people that have the ability, the technical ability, to get to them, treat them with a level of respect so that those shipwrecks are preserved for their children and the next generation of divers.

But I think the other piece is also that we work very hard to preserve the histories and the stories. It’s the histories and the stories of these shipwrecks that really the team here within the Sanctuary Program and the Maritime Heritage Program are working very hard whether it’s at the Monitor or in Thunder Bay or in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. As we uncover more and more fascinating and dynamic human stories and maritime heritage stories, is to work to preserve those through photographs and through technical reports so that that history is not lost.

HOST: Dave, you mentioned the impacts that people can have on these sites during exploration. Are underwater archaeological sites open to the public in any way to visit or directly interact?

DAVE ALBERG: Absolutely, the Monitor is open. There’s a permit process to dive the Monitor, but we work, in fact in June of 2009 we had a private research trip to the Monitor, we have another one in August of 2009, and for years, really for 30 years, we’ve had a long history of private research trips to the Monitor where people can get down on the site and experience first hand the history and the tremendous value that the Monitor represents in terms of our national story.

HOST: Thanks Dave for what you’ve given us so far today on a little bit more background and really explaining the concept of maritime heritage to us more. Can you take a few minutes to talk to us specifically about the role of the National Ocean Service in maritime heritage?

DAVE ALBERG: Well, my office, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, which falls under NOS, has really been on the cutting edge of preserving maritime heritage not only within NOAA, but really within the federal government. There are terrific programs dedicated to interpreting and preserving maritime heritage. The Park Service and their Submerged Cultural Resource Unit has done work for many years, the Army Corps of Engineers, but I think it is fair to say that the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, NOS, and NOAA have really developed a program that is second to none in terms of helping the public better understand their maritime history and their maritime heritage.

HOST: Dave, we know from our earlier podcast on national marine sanctuaries where I interviewed Dan Basta that sanctuaries serve a variety of purposes such as conservation, education, research, maritime heritage – this is just to name a few. Do all of our national marine sanctuaries contain shipwrecks or other archaeological preserves?

DAVE ALBERG: I think I would answer that by saying that without a doubt all of our national marine sanctuaries have maritime heritage stories to tell and maritime heritage resources. They may be shipwrecks in some cases, they may be indigenous cultures in other cases, they may be communities that have existed within that sanctuary long before it was even a sanctuary and understand those waters like nobody else. So I think the answer is clearly yes, there are maritime heritage resources in all of our sanctuaries.

But with that said, we do try to be consistent with the program and the goals and objectives of the Sanctuary Program and better understand the natural environment there at the site as well, so that these sites can also not only be important to the nation in terms of capturing that maritime history, but also can serve really as sentinel sites as the nation and the world begin to struggle with complex issues such as climate change, sea level rise.
HOST: What was the first national marine sanctuary designated with a maritime heritage component or that as the main purpose?

DAVE ALBERG: Well, I’m glad you asked that question Kate because the first sanctuary that was created with a maritime heritage component was the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of North Carolina. And it was dedicated, or established I should say, in 1975, not only as the first site with a maritime heritage component, but as the first site in the system. And our system today contains 14 sites from the East Coast of the United States to the warm waters of the Pacific, off Hawaii and American Samoa, to the Great Lakes and the great maritime heritage resources in Thunder Bay and to the Olympic Coast. But all these sites that we see today have their origins back at the Monitor and the decision made by the people of the United States and by Congress to protect this one shipwreck which played such an important role in our nation’s history. 

HOST: Thanks Dave, I imagine many of our listeners are familiar with the Monitor just from our history lessons growing up. How was the Monitor first found?

DAVE ALBERG: The Monitor was found in 1973 by researches from Duke University who were testing out a new type of sonar. They had picked the Monitor specifically as a target because of its unique shape and its location off the coast of North Carolina. So the wreck was found in the summer of 1973, was positively identified in 1974 as the wreck site although most of the researchers had little doubt that what they’d found that summer before was in fact the Monitor, and then in 1975 was designated the first national marine sanctuary.

HOST: Dave, what have we learned from having the Monitor as our first national marine sanctuary? Has this been a successful preservation site over the last…almost 35 years now?

DAVE ALBERG: Oh I think absolutely, not only have we learned a great deal more about the history of our nation’s most famous ironclad and the role it played in the preservation of the Union, but I think we’ve learned a great deal about life in the Civil War, life in the Union Navy. We’ve also learned a great deal about the value of protecting special places and important national resources and why we need to keep doing that.

I think that the establishment of the National Park Service taught the nation a great deal about preserving terrestrial places within our country, but I think before the Monitor and the creation of the National Marine Sanctuary Program, few people thought about the underwater counterpart to the National Park Service. So I think, from my perspective, the real value of the Monitor and what it has done for the nation, not only historically, but I think the real value has been in helping our nation better understand the value of the oceans and the resources that lie beneath the waters of the sea.

HOST: What is needed to maintain a maritime archaeological site for this period of time like the Monitor? How does your staff avoid the degradation that we talked a little bit about earlier, some of this you’ve touched on? And just what goes into maintaining a site for this long?

DAVE ALBERG: Well, for the staff of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary most of our efforts in terms of maintaining the site are done through education and outreach in helping the public better understand this history and better understand the impacts that they can have on an archaeological site when they’re out diving them or fishing in these areas. And helping them understand that there is a balance that can serve everybody.

But certainly at Monitor, we also are involved with a very lengthy conservation process to preserve and protect the artifacts that have been recovered already. And I think another component to maintaining the site is, we’re out at the site every year, monitoring the site, looking at the conditions, studying it, and better understanding the natural processes of decay at a wreck site.

But I think what has really been remarkable about it is that we’ve also through the course of that come up with a much better appreciation of how stable many of these wrecks like the Monitor can be. In the case of the Monitor who’s been in saltwater for close to 140 years now or more than 140 years, what we find is that many of the artifacts that are coming up are as pristine today as they were the day they were made. That they enter a point of equilibrium with their environment and become stable and that there are stories that the Monitor wreck site and other archaeological sites that have been in water much longer than the Monitor can tell us hundreds and hundreds of years from now if properly managed and protected.

HOST: Thank you Dave for joining us on today’s episode of Diving Deeper and talking more about maritime heritage, NOAA’s role, and why this is important to us. To learn more about maritime heritage or the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, please visit 

That’s all for this week’s show.