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From Crabs to Shipwrecks August 26, 2004

The Russian American Company shipwreck of the Kad'yak would still be sitting untouched 80 feet below the surface of Alaskan waters were it not for the perseverance of one astute marine biologist. Bradley Stevens, a scientist at the NOAA Fisheries' Kodiak, Alaska, Laboratory, ventured out of his usual realm of marine animal research to locate Kad'yak, which sank in 1860. Without his work the wreck migh have been an unlikely pursuit by excavators, but Stevens managed to both locate the wreck and arrange its excavation by trained archaeologists. ARCHAEOLOGY spoke to Stevens about Kad'yak.

Bradley Stevens, who helped bring about Kad'yak's discovery, holds a spider crab (NOAA) [LARGER IMAGE]


How did you become interested in the Kad'yak shipwreck?

Mike Yarborough, who is an archaeologist in Anchorage, has unearthed some of the original documentation. And I'm not sure how he did that, but he came across--he was intentionally looking for and he found--the logs written by Captain Archimandritof when he surveyed the coast of Spruce Island in July of 1860. And he had those logs translated from Russian by a professor at the University of Alaska. The logs, by the way, are on microfilm in the National Archives. They were apparently part of the property of the Russian American Company. It was transferred to the United States when we purchased Alaska in 1867.

Well, Mike Yarborough had the information, and he must have had it for a couple years. At some point we crossed paths, probably in about 1991, and he knew that I was doing some underwater research in Kodiak, and he thought I might be able to search for the Kad'yak. I'm a marine biologist; I'm not an archaeologist or historian, but I've been doing a lot of work with fairly deep-water research using submersibles--two person and three person submarines, that is--remotely operated vehicles, scuba, and other types of underwater equipment. I felt I had the tools and the skills to go look for the ship, and since it was in my own backyard, I just thought that it would be a good match for my interests. I also felt it was important that the ship be found by someone like myself who was a scientist rather than being found by treasure hunters and at one point we did have to deal with that issue. I'm a scientist, and my interest is really the history and science behind doing the search and doing the archaeology. And it's great fun too, to dive on it and to see the stuff, but I'm not interested in commercial exploitation of the site, and really I'm interested in preventing that to some degree. So I felt it was important to do it before it was done by someone else.

Can you describe what the past 12 years of searching for Kad'yak have involved?

Well, the first about six years that I had the information we didn't actually do any searching, although we did go over there in 1992 with a two-person submarine, and we dropped it down in the outer part of the bay and looked around. But due to the maze-like nature of the reefs and pinnacles over there, we couldn't penetrate into the bay very far with the submersible. We did see that it was a gravel bottom and the visibility was pretty clear, so that suggested that it would be a good place to look. I didn't get around to really searching for it until probably, let's say, 1998. I started writing grant proposals because I knew that it would take some money to get over there and mount a proper search. We'd need a magnetometer, we'd need some side-scan sonar, we'd need a vessel. We'd probably need a minimum of a week, preferably two weeks, to search well for it. So I started writing grant proposals and sending them around, and they were met with sort of a lukewarm response, I think primarily because of the fact that I was not an archaeologist, and the site was not known.

We didn't know exactly where it was, and we didn't know whether we'd find it, so it was a gamble. And I thought about the possibility of just getting some volunteers together and going over there and looking, but I really shied away from that because I didn't want anybody pointing fingers at me as being a recreational salvage diver, so I wanted to make sure it was done in a very transparent operation with some community backing. Eventually I hooked up with Dave McMahan, who is the state archaeologist for Alaska, and he knew Tim Runyan and Frank Cantelas at East Carolina University and put me in touch with them. And together we rewrote my proposals and submitted them to the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration in 2003. We did not, however, get funding in that year, but we built up such a momentum that I didn't want to let it die.

I did finally put together a team of volunteers and go out and look for the ship and we found the wreckage in July of 2003. And that almost proved to be my undoing because two of the people that were involved in that operation were interested in recreational salvage and commercial use of the site, and there were a few months of intense, shall I say, concern over the removal of some artifacts. But that was finally straightened out, and I think that it's not an issue anymore. I'd like to believe that (laughs).

[image] Stevens with the artifact that solved the mystery (Courtesy Bradley Stevens) [LARGER IMAGE]

Did you have any doubts that the ship that you and your volunteer team found actually was Kad'yak?

Well, from a scientific point of view, I have to say that we didn't have any proof that it was the ship that we were looking for initially. But there were no other historical records of shipwrecks in that area. And the fact that we found a cannon on the ship and an old style anchor pointed to a mid-nineteenth century sailing vessel. So I would say I was fairly certain that we had found what we were looking for. But that certainty became very certain this year when we pulled up an artifact that had the name of the ship on it.

So how did you feel when those archaeologists were able to verify it for real when they did find that artifact?

Oh, I was flabbergasted, because we'd seen this artifact early in the dives this year when we were initially scanning the site, and the nameplate wasn't visible the first time we saw it. But we sort of wroteit down as--okay, here's an interesting item, let's come back and look at it once we lay out our grid and have all the major artifacts sort of scouted out. And Frank Cantelas did go back and turn it over a few days later and saw the writing--but he didn't tell anybody (laughs) until late in the day after dinner. We were all sort of sitting around, drinking a glass of wine and eating, and he said, "Oh, by the way--the artifact has the name of the ship on it!" My jaw about hit the table. I was just surprised that it was there and that he'd wait so long to tell us.

I know you work as a biologist, not an archaeologist. Ordinarily, what sort of work do you do? What does it involve?

Well, I work primarily on crabs, and I specialize in deep-water crab species such as king crabs and Tanner crabs, and I do a variety of things, which mostly related to the archaeology work is that I deal with--I use tools such as submarines and remotely operated vehicles and sonar. And as a matter of fact, right now I'm writing a proposal to develop some scanning sonar systems for monitoring crab populations. So I have a lot of experience in doing underwater searches with video cameras on a string, so to speak. And that's what led me to be interested in finding this wreck. I figured if I can find a couple of crabs on the bottom of the ocean in hundreds of meters of water, I could find a shipwreck, right, using the same tools?

Makes sense, yes.

It makes sense. And I just thought I had the drive and the skills to do it. And the other thing I do is a little laboratory work on reproduction of crabs and especially the larval biology. So we have crabs in the laboratory that are hatching eggs. We call them developing larvae, and we're doing experiments with them. That's a very intensive sort of hands-on, in the laboratory type of work. And it related to deep-water work because we're trying to look at how environment and habitat affect their behavior in terms of reproductive timing and hatching.

So do you have any plans to become a trained archaeologist?

(Laughs) I don't have any plans to change my career. I've learned a lot working with the archaeologists from ECU, but I would say--you know, it's all science, and it all follows sort of a very similar process. You go down and you make observations and you make measurements, and whether I'm counting crabs per unit area on the seafloor or measuring artifacts and distances from a transect line, it's all pretty much the same kind of work. You're asking slightly different questions and you're trying to achieve slightly different goals, but the methods and the ideas are pretty similar. And I think a marine biologist can adapt to that pretty easily. Likewise, I think an archaeologist can adapt to marine biology pretty easily. It's just a matter of what questions you're asking.

Do you have any projects in the works that involve finding other underwater sites?

Not really. I'm really interested in pursuing the completion of this Kad'yak project. I'd like to see the site examined in a little more detail. I mean, we did a lot of work this year. We recorded everything we could find on the surface, but we also found that there were areas we hadn't searched well that had some things in them. I'd like to see us go through some of the sediments down there and look for small artifacts, and I'd like to see some artifacts recovered and preserved for display. And that's about my interest--you know, I don't plan on becoming a shipwreck hunter. It was sort of an accident---not really an accident, I mean, we did it on purpose, but it just happened to fall into my area--my geographic area of interest as well as my professional area of interest. I like diving, and I'm going to continue that for many years. My daughter is a new diver, and I want to do some of that with her--but I don'texpect to become a (laughs)--I don't expect to have a career finding lost ships.

Do you think excavations will continue on Kad'yak in the coming years?

Yes, I do. This year our funding was almost entirely federal, and it was a really good start and it generated a lot of interest, and I think that we can translate that now into some state and local funding for the completion of this project. At least that's what I'd like to see happen.

Is there anything else about Kad'yak that sticks out in your mind?

Well, do you know the story behind the sinking?

The ship sank near the chapel of Saint Herman because Captain Archimandritof didn't pay homage to the saint?

Yes. That's really the interesting part, and that's really what got me hooked on finding the shipwreck--is the story is fascinating. I'm not associated with the Russian Orthodox Church, but I just find the story fascinating because it's such an interesting link with both the church and with local history. And being able to convert that story to reality by finding the physical, you know, evidence that it actually occurred the way it was supposed to have happened is really a thrill. Honestly, at times I read those accounts and it almost read like mythology, because they were kind of vague and different versions were slightly different, and even having the skipper's logs in my hand they were very difficult to interpret, and a minor error could lead you totally astray. I began to wonder if there was a real truth, a real ship out there to find. So finding it is a thrill to verify all that stuff. And there it is, right there where it was supposed to be.

Right, so you literally went back from the documents and worked your way to finding the ship.

And here's another interesting thing, is that the bearings that the skipper took were sort of vague. And he only took one bearing to the mast, which was just a compass line. Finding where he took that from was the hard part, and when I finally concluded that--okay, he was standing at this point on the map, and he took this bearing; the ship is on this bearing somewhere, but I don't know how far along the line it is, it's just a line that goes out across the water--I took an educated guess and drew a point on that line and said, "This is where we're going to start searching." Well, it turns out our initial contacts with the wreckage were about 100 meters from that point, and where we finally found parts of the rudder were about 150 feet from that point. So it was a pretty good guess.

* See also "Tracking Down Kad'yak."

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America