Sunken Studies - Students Describe Their Experience in a Shark Tank

Jonathan Erdman, Danielle Kroesche, Alex Parkhill, Cassie Peters, Claudia Erb, Kevin Schneck, and Annie Vargo


Office for Research Protections     |     Scientific Diving

While Penn State was cheering on their former Big Ten champs at the Blue and White game, students in EMSC 441: Advanced Science Diving traveled south to North Carolina Monitor.jpgto practice underwater science and educate the public on the importance of National Marine Sanctuaries and conserving the oceans. The weekend spent at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island included more teeth than your average class assignment as we surveyed, measured, and mapped a shipwreck replica inside the aquarium’s shark tank: The Graveyard of the Atlantic Exhibit.

The shipwreck within the exhibit is a one-third scale version of a historical shipwreck that exists 16 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras: the U.S.S. Monitor. The Monitor was a Civil War era, iron hulled, steam warship, the first ironclad ship ever commissioned by the United States Navy. The ship revolutionized naval warfare. Not only did the legendary battle of the ironclads mark a turning point in the Civil War, it lead to the construction of 60 new and improved ironclad warships. Unfortunately, the magnificent machine met an untimely demise. After proving its success in battle, the U.S.S. Monitor was being towed to its next engagement when it was caught in a storm off the coast of North Carolina and sank.

The Monitor’s legacy was not lost, however, as it became the first National Marine Sanctuary designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). National Marine Sanctuaries are areas that seek to protect all the wonders of the ocean. This includes everything from historical shipwrecks to endangered species. As science divers in training, we learned how to study submerged cultural resources.

Anchor.jpgBut, underwater research is no simple task. Operating in an underwater environment poses many challenges such as pressure changes, currents, and limited communication, to name a few. Maneuvering underwater is also much different than walking on land or even swimming at the surface. Divers are trained to achieve a state of neutral buoyancy which allows them to hover horizontally in the water column and control their movements more precisely. Interestingly enough, the same training is employed by astronauts as they prepare for missions in outer space. 

As a diver, your life support system is carried with you in the form of an air cylinder strapped to your back. These cylinders have a limited capacity to hold air which makes proper planning and efficiency a key part of any dive operation. The previously mentioned challenges coupled with the need for efficiency make this field the perfect place for problem solvering. Dive Safety Officer and Instructor Tim White emphasizes diver safety and the need for problem solving throughout the course. The weekend trip to North Carolina was no exception.

We completed four scientific training dives over the course of two days. The first dive at the aquarium was simply for acclimation to the new environment, to interact with the guests viewing the aquarium, and admire the various organisms that roamed the waters. These aquatic creatures included drumfish, two sand tiger sharks, several sandbar sharks, and one very peculiar Harry Hogfish.jpghogfish named Harry.

The second dive was when the real magic happened. We began measuring the Monitor replica using only standard tape measures and a clipboard with waterproof paper attached to record data. We were charged with creating a digital outline of the ship’s facade from the data collected underwater. It is important to note that while documenting the ship’s features is indeed vital work, this information is incomplete without knowing the ship’s precise location relative to the surrounding objects. Therefore, when mapping shipwrecks, whether in an aquarium or in the open ocean, specific “fixed” points are required in order to properly establish the ship’s location. This proved to be a more daunting task than anticipated and highlighted the instructor’s emphasis on planning and problem solving abilities.

The last two dives proved much more rewarding for us. After puzzling out the problems encountered on our first attempt at collecting data, we swam away with a thorough data set, a better understanding of the challenges faced with subaquatic research, and an appreciation for the hard work it takes to become an scientific diver.