Digital Preservation Efforts to Save Great Lakes Shipwrecks from Deterioration

Archeologists, historians, and divers are collaborating to digitally capture over 1,000 shipwrecks at the bottom of the Great Lakes before they succumb to accelerated deterioration. The combined effects of invasive mussels and climate change have taken a toll on these underwater relics, endangering their preservation at an alarming rate.

The Great Lakes region is renowned among diving communities for its abundance of well-preserved shipwrecks. The cold, fresh water creates ideal conditions for preservation, even in shallow depths. However, the entry of invasive zebra and quagga mussels from Europe, likely introduced through the ballast water of international cargo ships, has catalyzed the deterioration process. These thumbnail-sized mollusks have drastically transformed the underwater landscape, decimating local mussel populations, and encrusting shipwrecks in dense layers of shells.

Durrell Martin, president of the non-profit group Save Ontario Shipwrecks, has witnessed this profound change during his 30-year diving career. Previously, visibility underwater was limited, requiring artificial light sources to explore wrecks. Today, the water is crystal clear, eliminating the need for additional lighting. However, the shipwrecks themselves have become encrusted with invasive shellfish. Unfortunately, this increased visibility for divers comes at the cost of rapid disintegration of the shipwrecks. Martin warns that these historical artifacts may vanish within the next 10 to 20 years, reducing them to mere piles of lumber on the lakebed.

The invasive mussels attach themselves to surfaces using filament-like threads, which burrow into wooden shipwrecks, weakening their structure. On steel and iron wrecks, mussels produce corrosive acids in their feces, accelerating metal deterioration. Over time, the weight of the attached mussels causes ship materials to weaken and collapse.

The deterioration of these shipwrecks has been extensively documented in various studies, spanning decades. However, little action has been taken by authorities on both sides of the border. Ken Meryman, a shipwreck hunter and diver, emphasizes the urgent need to address the issue. He notes that shipwrecks face threats from not only invasive mussels but also iron-eating bacteria, believed to be supercharged by climate change.

To counteract this loss of historical artifacts, Meryman has dedicated his retirement to documenting shipwrecks with a 3D scanning technology called photogammetry. This scanning process captures a series of images to create a detailed 3D model of each shipwreck. Collaborating with divers, historians, and archeologists, Meryman has compiled a catalog of 160 shipwrecks on his 3Dshipwrecks website. These digital models serve as valuable resources that can help authorities understand the historical significance of each wreck and determine the level of decay.

While the urgency to save these shipwrecks remains high, the digital preservation efforts offer a glimmer of hope in protecting these valuable underwater treasures. With accurate documentation and increased awareness, there is a chance to save some of these shipwrecks before they are lost forever.