HOUGHTON – The crew of the Polar wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary when they hit the water and began gearing up for a day’s work surveying underwater invasive Eurasian watermilfoil. Then Michigan Technological University Marine Operations Specialist Colin Tyrrell noticed an unusual shape on the fish finder.
Tyrrell made another pass, and student summer employees Buck Poszywak and Levi Rhody lowered Tech’s towfish side-scan sonar off the back of the small research boat. Slowly, just off Prince’s Point at the west end of campus, a piece of sunken history appeared on the sonar monitor.
“I wasn’t expecting to see anything,” Poszywak remembered. “On the computer, we saw it come up on the screen, we weren’t sure what it was. We went back with the sonar and realized it was really big, about 15 meters by five meters.”
‘It’ turned to be a previously undiscovered shipwreck, a wooden barge e about 60 feet long.
Once the Polar had pinpointed the wreck, Tyrrell and colleague Jamey Anderson unleashed more of Tech’s underwater arsenal. First, they surveyed it further with a side-scan sonar equipped autonomous underwater vehicle they programmed and let loose right from Tech’s docks at the Great Lakes Research Center. Finally, they got up close and personal, taking video of the barge from a remote operated vehicle controlled from a boat above.
From what started as an unusual fuzzy shape, said Anderson, they’ve been able to learn all kinds of details about the barge, all without sending down a diver.
“It’s absolutely flat across the top,” Anderson said. “It has a square man hatch up front that’s not connected to the main storage bins.”
It’s built out of wooden beams more than a foot across, he added, and joined at the corners like a log cabin.
“You could probably dump that thing out and float it,” he said.
Actually, finding lost wrecks is nothing new for Tech boat crews. The Portage Waterway is littered with wrecks, Anderson said, from a civil war vessel sunk just off of Tech’s facilities buildings, to the 100-foot Sea Fox on the north side of the canal, once owned by a commodore of the Onagaming yacht club.
Very close to the barge, Tyrrell said, they’ve seen what appears to be a sailboat, but they haven’t had time to go back and explore it carefully.
“When we run where we never run we almost expect to find new shipwrecks,” said Anderson. “It’s really cool.”
Normally, Anderson noted, finding shipwrecks is a side benefit. The real reason Tech acquired the expensive side-scan sonar devices are for research. For more on that, see the accompanying article.
But when the wrecks showed themselves, Great Lakes Research Center leaders recognized a great opportunity to show off their underwater capabilities. On June 18, they hosted Tech’s Presidential Advancement Council on the university’s largest boat, the Agassiz.
After cruising the Waterway and identifying various known wrecks, sunken mine cars and assorted debris using the towfish sonar, they zoomed in a GPS waypoint for the barge and motored up to it, while their visitors watched it appear on a big screen set up on the Agassiz’s work deck.
Once they’d rediscovered the wreck, the dropped a ROV for close-up video images.
“There were quite a few fish floating around,” laughed council member Marie Cleveland. “It’s exactly the same as when you’re right next to it. We were so engrossed.”
As a diver, though, she’d all that before. The real wonder of the deep, she said, was how Tech’s crew had used the technology to find it.
“It’s right off Prince’s Point,” she mused. “Without that, no one could see it.”