Super Sub, Sunken Ship
Plumbing the backstory of the Monterey Bay ‘Mystery Barge’ with help from a visiting vessel.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
“Life support is functional,” says pilot Tym Catterson into the hydrophone. “We are ready to dive, dive, dive. Over.”
The message travels through the water as sound waves from the little yellow submarine Antipodes to the support vessel Kraken, the same way whales communicate with each other.
Catterson opens a bank of valves, and water floods the ballast tanks as air blows out, escaping to the surface in bubbles the size of jellyfish. Antipodes plunges downward.
It reaches the sea floor, a depth of 60 feet, in two minutes. It will remain submerged for nearly two hours.
“It’s primal,” Catterson says. “You are going back to the sea. It’s kinda where we came from such a long time ago.”
He’s also going back to a shipwreck covered by starfish, spider crabs and the occasional octopus. Sealife thrives around this artificial reef off of San Carlos Beach, known to local underwater explorers only as the “barge,” 600 feet from the breakwater.
So does a marine mystery: What is a barge doing there? When did it sink? Why did it sink? Was it even a barge?
By diving where the sun’s rays hardly penetrate, though, things get a little clearer. Normally a favorite destination of local scuba drivers, the sunken barge received a number of visits this fall from a less common kind of swimmer: Antipodes, a 7-ton, 15-foot-long leviathan carrying as many as five submariners at a time, uses six electric motors to cruise along the seafloor.
Antipodes is like a giant tube with 5-foot wide viewing domes capping off each end. Looking outside is like watching from inside a fishbowl. When a fish swims at it head-on, then stops right in front of the dome I’m in, it stares straight at me with bulging eyes. Its face seems to read, “What the heck are you and what the heck are you doing here?”
Powerful LED floodlights illuminate an area within 15 feet of the submersible. As a result, not much of the wreckage can be seen at any one time. Scuba divers get even less of a view since they are more limited by lesser lights.
Good information on how the ship ended up there is similarly difficult to illuminate. Back on dry land, historical records about the barge are hard to find, which is strange since it is so close to shore in an accessible area of the much-researched Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
The only real clue to the barge’s identity comes from a study the Bay Area Underwater Explorers conducted in 2006. These scuba divers had mapped the position of the barge and determined its rough size and shape. Their work revealed it isn’t shaped like barges that might be seen floating down the Mississippi River – it’s a surprising 100 feet long and less than 15 feet wide. In other words, this is one narrow ship.
Beyond that information is murkey. So I returned to the crew of Antipodes to find more answers.
OceanGate, the company operating Antipodes, was on a local campaign to demonstrating their sub-for-hire’s capabilities to filmmakers, researchers, educators, students and investors. Among its 34 dives here were sorties to the Art Riedel Sr shipwreck at 300 feet deep and along the bottom of the Carmel Canyon to a depth of 920 feet, close to its maximum depth.
Joel Perry, the VP of expeditions, provided sonar scans of the barge taken by the Antipodes. “It is not the traditional flat bottom vessel that you and I are familiar with,” he says.
Based on experience with other wrecks he adds, “Vessels like these might have been used for other purposes early in their lives. When they got older, they would be converted to barges.”
Tim Thomas, the former long-time historian at the Monterey Maritime Museum, has spent decades researching local lore of the high seas. He has his own theory: “The barge probably was used when they built the breakwater in 1934. It probably carried lumber, concrete, and rocks and was used as a working platform. They sunk it when they were done with it.”
It was common practice in the past to set barges and ships that were no longer needed ablaze. They sunk as the fire burned to their waterlines, which might explain why the shipwreck is so narrow.
These sea stories and sonar scans bring the mystery of the barge closer to the surface, but leave plenty of questions floating around. The greatest certainty, then, comes from creatures of the sea that inhabit the barge rather than the amphibious humans who inspect it. They don’t speculate on where it came from. They trust in the fact that they can call it home.
For more photos and video from the Antipodes and the “mystery barge,” visit www.mcweekly.com/sub