A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The National Park Service's elite team of underwater archaeologists safeguard our nation's sunken treasures.
On a scorching May morning, the surface of Lake Mead, the vast reservoir created by the construction of Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border, is as smooth as glass. One hundred seventy feet down, four divers with the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center (SRC)--probably the leading underwater archaeology team in the world--are examining the wreck of a B-29 Superfortress bomber that crashed into the lake in 1948. SRC is surveying the plane and preparing it for the recreational divers they predict will soon be coming.
With only five full-time members--four archaeologists and a photographer--SRC is a tightly knit group. Based in Santa Fe, their official responsibilities are to inventory and evaluate the submerged archaeological sites and artifacts in the National Park System, but their tasks include everything from raising shipwrecks to recovering drowning victims. It's demanding work, combining the technical skills of archaeology with the risks of diving.
The highest-profile project SRC has undertaken is USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Since 1941, the ship has become a memorial to the 1,177 servicemen who died aboard, yet when SRC was called in to map and document the site in 1983, no management program for it existed. Navy salvage teams had cut away large parts of the ship's superstructure for scrap and to make room for the memorial above it, but what was left beneath the surface--and what condition it was in--was still unknown.
SRC surveyed the 608-foot-long wreck--at the time, the largest underwater object ever mapped--and began to study the condition of the ship's hull and how quickly it was corroding. Over the next decade, SRC worked with other Park Service divers to investigate the interior with a small remotely operated vehicle and to deploy long-term environmental monitoring instruments. They also collected samples of the oil that continues to float to the surface, drop by drop, adding environmental concerns to the already complex balance of preserving a wreck and memorializing the dead.
Sometimes SRC is called on to recover drowning victims or police evidence that winds up in the waters of a National Park--occasionally long after the events. On July 3, 1929, Russell and Blanch Warren disappeared while driving on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, leaving behind two young sons. Investigators suspected that the couple's 1927 Chevrolet may have ended up in Lake Crescent in what is now Olympic National Park, but it wasn't until 2002 that their car was found by the Park Service dive team, who finally located it 170 feet deep and 66 feet from shore. Human remains were discovered nearby, and in 2004, SRC documented the site and recovered some of the remains for DNA testing. The car was confirmed to be the Warrens', and the remains were probably Russell's. The couple's grandchildren were grateful the mystery was finally solved.
Currently SRC has about half a dozen projects in progress, including ongoing work in Lake Mead and on USS Arizona, as well as an upcoming dive-training course for National Park employees on the Archeological Resources Protection Act at Key Biscayne National Park in Florida. They've also been asked to evaluate the wreck of the Ellis Island Ferry, which carried thousands of immigrants to American soil and sank in its moorings in 1964.
Julian Smith is a writer, editor, and photographer specializing in travel and science. The author of guidebooks to Ecuador, Virginia, and the Southwest, he is based in Santa Fe, NM.