By William E. Gibson - Sun Sentinel
While scientists watched intently on computer screens in Florida and across the world, the crew of a federal exploratory ship cruising in the Gulf of Mexico last month grew increasingly excited as they maneuvered a robotic undersea vessel toward a major find nestled on the seafloor 4,000 feet below.
First an anchor appeared. Then a hull, remarkably intact, revealing the remains of a wooden ship from the early 1800s.
As the robotic vessel's high-definition cameras swept across the wreck, the crew on the surface and those watching on shore could see a stunning array of artifacts: ceramic plates, bottles, cannon and a box that appeared to contain muskets.
"There was a burst of pride from the whole crew," recalled Mashkoor Malik, expedition coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The shipwreck was just one of several remarkable discoveries during the latest voyage of the Okeanos Explorer. Perhaps most important were many unexpected signs of marine life, notably forests of deep-sea coral in the Gulf and off the shores of northeast Florida.
The ship keeps exploring wherever it goes. So after completing a 56-day expedition across the central Gulf — from the Texas coast to near the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill south of Louisiana — the crew sailed through the Florida Straits and up the state's east coast, stopping near Jacksonville to map the sea floor, confirm the presence of deep-sea corals and briefly escape a storm at sea.
After leaving Florida waters this week on their way back to home port in Rhode Island, the crew talked with the Sun Sentinel via NOAA's command center in Silver Spring, Md.
"We wanted to stay forever, because it was new and we were finding big concentrations of fish," said Elaine Stuart, a NOAA senior survey technician.
"I think even the scientists were surprised to see all the life down there because they weren't sure what those populations were.
When we actually went down with the ROV [remotely controlled vehicle] and saw all the clam beds and the mussel beds, it was a major find for them to know that these existed."
These signs were especially heartening after the massive Deepwater Horizon spill spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf in 2010, fouling waters already burdened with stormwater runoff, fertilizers and many other sources of pollution.