The Gulf of Mexico is one of the wealthiest locations for maritime archaeology in the world. An estimated 4000 shipwrecks litter the seabed across the stretch of water. They include those in the nearshore shallows and those sunk in thousands of feet of darkness. Research has shown that 2,000 ships have gone down on the Federal OCS between the years 1625 to 1951 with thousands more being sunk closer to state waters. The Mica Wreck, however, named for the oilfield in which it was found, might just have more secrets than even archaeologists can uncover.
It was in February of 2001 that oil workers for Exxon-Mobile made a startling discovery 2,600 feet deep on the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico, 30 miles off the mouth of the Mississippi River. They had just drilled an eight-inch pipeline straight through the midships of a shipwreck. Immediately reported to the Mineral Management Service (MMS, now known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) who have jurisdiction over such wrecks, a preliminary investigation got underway with the involvement of the Department of Oceanography and the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University (TAMU).
MMS Regional Director Chris Oynes explained the rich maritime archaeology that can be found in the Gulf of Mexico.
“To meet this responsibility, MMS reviews nearly 1,700 planned wells and pipelines every year for their potential effect on archaeological sites on the Outer Continental Shelf. Because of this regulatory requirement, many historic shipwrecks have been discovered on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Several shipwrecks have been investigated by MMS, including the Civil War Union gunboat USS Hatteras, the side-wheel steamer Josephine, and just this year the World War II German submarine the U-166 and the passenger freighter it sank, the S.S. Robert E. Lee.”
Chris Oynes, Regional Director
The impressive operation at the archaeological site included the use of the United States Navy’s 145-foot Nuclear Research Submarine, NR-1, and her support ship, MV Carolyn Chouest. Together, the team constructed side-scan sonar imagery and photo-mosaics of the vessel and area, gathering enough data to estimate that the copper sheathed ship was around 200 years old, dating the wreck to between 1775 and 1830. Copper sheathing was used to protect the vessel from wood-eating marine life and was an expensive addition to the boat, meaning that its presence was unusual on a suspected coastal merchant vessel.
The 60 feet long ship, two-masted and possibly a schooner, was laying upright on the seafloor and mostly intact. Planks recovered from the wreckage showed evidence of burning, and further research on the wood revealed that the hull of the ship was made from eastern white pine. This wood only grows along the east coast of the United States, north of Virginia. With a hull hand sheathed in copper, the most likely dating was post-1800 and pre-1830. These vessels were vital to the US economy and were the backbone of maritime trade in the early days of American independence. They would frequently be seen in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and throughout America’s own waters and it is believed the mysterious wreck was likely leaving or headed to New Orleans. There was speculation that the vessel was sunk during the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812
Brett A. Phaneuf, the Texas A&M scientist who coordinated the expedition, was confident of putting a name to the wreckage. Yet, his efforts soon began to be hampered by what he jokingly called “bad voodoo”.
“Everything that can go wrong has.”
Brett A. Phaneuf, Texas A&M, as quoted in the New York Times
In 2002 and 2003 the MMS/TAMU team were seeking to produce more detailed mapping and recording of the site and wanted to collect further data alongside the first artefacts and samples from the wreck. Phaneuf was looking to bring up artefacts from the wreckage such as porcelain and metal, hoping to put a definitive date on the sunken ship. The mission, like others, would be beset with mishaps. Sending down a mini-submarine around the size of a lawnmower to view the wreck, the submersible was barely in the water 30 minutes before the hydraulic system in the docking station baulked. The problems didn’t end there, with the video monitor always blacking out each time the thrusters were fired.
One might think that such an incident was merely the unreliability of technology. After all, even the most advanced equipment can become prone to failure where weather and water are concerned. However, the problems didn’t stop there. After the submarine actually reached the wreck, the sonar failed. The scientists attempted to reboot the system to no effect. “The curse of the wreck” would continue yet further as the Captain misheard a direction, yanking the sub away in the near opposite direction.
Six months later, in July of 2002, the so-called gremlins that had beset the project were getting no better. Working aboard the NR-1 and the Carolyn Chouest, the team sought to launch a robotic sub down to the wreck site. The second the rover entered the water it veered to the right and went out of control. The tether had caught in the propellers which caused the vessel to smash into the underside of the ship. They never saw the rover again.
Meanwhile, on the seabed, the crew aboard the NR1 set about their own work. They mapped the site and shot video of both the wreckage and the area. The robot arms of the vessel were utilised to attempt to recover artefacts, the crew soon realising that they were too short to grab the desired pieces. Deciding to go for the sternpost where the rudder once stood, Phaneuf believed there were identifying marks to be found on the part. Returning to the surface, the hydraulic system failed, and the robotic arm suddenly went limp. The post fell and, like the rover, was never seen again.
Later in the summer of 2002, the “curse” would strike again as a ship from the Sustainable Sea program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offered to pick up artefacts from the site. The first time the vessel attempted to leave the dock, debris lodged in the propeller. The second time, the propeller locked and the ship ended up in dry dock for repairs. Given the delay, the research crew decided not to visit the wreck site on their way out of port. Instead, they planned to join the team on the way back. However, they never made it that far.
“They break a prop shaft. It goes out the back of the boat, floods the engine room, almost sinks the ship. And they had to call in a Mayday.”
Brett A. Phaneuf, Texas A&M, as quoted in the New York Times.
The second half of the expedition was, thankfully, less cursed after another shaky start. Another rover was sent down to the wreckage in 2003. Again, the attempt was met with failure as the vehicle died on deck as a leak had caused a 1,500-volt cable to vaporise. After this, however, the team were able to successfully send the rover down twice following repairs, even sailing to a second shipwreck.
Yet, despite taking countless hours of footage an obtaining high-quality imaging of the site and wreck, the research team learned little of the wreckage beyond a possible build location and rough dating. The only physical object recovered from the wreckage was a small piece of the copper plating. ‘There’s nothing on it,” Phaneuf said. “No good.”
Whether you believe that the mysterious Mica Wreck in the Gulf of Mexico is cursed or a victim of coincidence and the fragility of technology, the fact remains that very little is indeed known about the mysterious ship. While roughly dated, the only artefact ever recovered is that small scrap of copper plating and a few burnt planks. Nobody knows who was aboard the ship, nor its definitive destination, nor even its name. Not investigated by archaeologists again since Phaneuf’s last mission in 2003, just what lurks in the darkness at 2,600 feet remains a real mystery.