When the American Heritage sank in 1995 off the California coast, the Coast Guard was able to save everyone onboard. Owned by the diving and remotely operated vehicles (ROV) company American Pacific Marine, the ship's loss was seen more as a financial burden than a tragedy. But a new study of the wreckage has shown the ship's second life as a gorgeous reef.
“The propeller shaft separated and there was water coming through a six-to-eight-inch hole in the engine room. And down it went,” says Knute Brekke, a pilot working for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institue (MBARI), in a . Brekke was called out on the night the ship sank in a futile effort of recovery. There wasn't even enough time for a rescue ship to leave port.
Beyond those it immediately effected, the American Heritage was mostly forgotten. In 2008, MBARI researchers noticed the crash site during a survey and dismissed it as "an anomaly,” says Brekke.
However, earlier this year in May 2018, another survey was able to cast light on the anomaly. What they found was a wreck nearly 200 feet long that was around 2,300 feet below the ocean's surface. ROV missions in September started to move closer to the ship, curious about its origin.
Brekke was piloting these missions and suddenly, memory drew him back to 1995. Looking at nautical charts for guidance on where the Heritage could have last been, he realized that it was likely the same ship. “I may know what boat this is,” he told colleagues.
Taking advantage of some extra time on a research mission, divers decided to investigate.
While loose cables and murky water kept the ROVs from getting too close, they got all the signs they needed. Letters started appearing. A, M, E, and R on the bow of the boat. That was the final confirmation needed. “That’s it. It says American Heritage,” said Ben Erwin, Brekke’s copilot.
“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Brekke responded.
Inspired by their find, Erwin pieced together thousands of images and created a three-dimensional (3D) rendering of the Heritage as it currently lies, which can be found on . It shows a ship that has become heavily colonized by deep-sea sponges and other animals.
It's been a good year for discovering shipwrecks. One of America's first warships was found in 2018, as was a Greek trading ship 2,400 years old. A Russian ship carrying $130 billion worth of gold was discovered in July. But these finds barely scratch the surface of what lies below—studies estimate that less than 1 percent of shipwrecks have even been explored.
Here's to more discovery in 2019.