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The underwater world of the National Park Service

Plumbing the depths to preserve history's sunken gems

Created date

September 16th, 2016
A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) prepares to descend on the wreck of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.

A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) prepares to descend on the wreck of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.

When we hear about the National Park Service (NPS), a number of sites usually come to mind: Yellowstone National Park, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Valley Forge, and Gettysburg. They are all places that you can visit on good old terra firma.

What many Americans don’t realize is that a substantial amount of the NPS’s historical treasures are underwater. And that’s where the amazing work of the little-known Submerged Resources Center (SRC) comes into play.

For over thirty years, this elite team of divers and underwater archaeologists has been plumbing the depths in an effort to preserve and protect the sunken gems of the American past.

The SRC’s early incarnation dates back to the mid-70s, when the NPS teamed up with state and federal agencies to investigate Native American sites that had been flooded by the construction of dams throughout the Southwest. During this project, park officials realized they had an invaluable resource at their disposal—a group of talented underwater archaeologists who could contribute to NPS’s overall mission.

By the 1980s, the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, as it was originally called, had become an official national program. 

Wide range of watery sites

The unit started out mapping the shipwrecks in Lake Superior surrounding Isle Royale National Park. It went on to assist the NPS in the submerged stewardship and interpretation of the underwater world, from the Dry Tortugas and Yellowstone National Parks to the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

“People are often surprised when they learn that so much of the National Park Service is underwater,” says Brett Seymour, deputy chief and photographer for the SRC. “But once they think about places like the Dry Tortugas and the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, they immediately understand.”

The Arizona has been a major responsibility for the SRC since its divers first descended on the ship’s wreck in the early 1980s. Submerged in 50 feet of water, the battleship, which sank after sustaining a catastrophic bomb hit during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, attracts millions of people every year.

Standing on the memorial, visitors can see the Arizona’s silhouette. What isn’t visible is the work that Seymour and his team are doing to preserve and understand the ship.

Seymour, for one, has spent almost two decades photographing the ship’s incredible artifacts, many of them the personal belongings of the roughly 1,000 sailors and marines whose remains are still inside the wreck. He’s discovered and photographed unfired .50 caliber bullets, cooking pots and bowls, even a sailor’s shaving kit, complete with a straight-edge razor and tonic bottle.

All of these things are lying on or near the Arizona essentially as they were when the vessel went to the bottom of the harbor three quarters of a century ago.

Monitoring the ship’s condition is another important job the SRC performs.

“Over the years, we’ve been mapping the Arizona, cataloguing artifacts, and doing corrosion analyses,” he explains. “By our estimate, it will be several hundred years before the ship sustains a total structural collapse.”

Assisting in such determinations is precisely what the SRC is here to do. Of the more than 400 NPS units, a quarter of them have significant water resources that require some type of investigation or management through preservation.

Take Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada, for instance. The SRC has put a great deal of effort into investigating a hidden historic treasure here—the remains of a B-29 Superfortress that crashed in the lake in 1949. 

Safety for visitors

Furthermore, the SRC helps determine which parts of the lake are safely accessible to divers. 

“People sometimes think that our job is to cordon off the national parks,” says Seymour, “but, in many cases, we’re very much about expanding a visitor’s experience.”

The reefs off of the Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys are a great example. Those divers who wish to explore the multiple sites that make up this natural “ship trap,” can do so thanks to the SRC, which, among other tasks, has helped devise a set of rules and regulations for cultural preservation and diver safety.

“Like other divisions of the Park Service, our purpose is not only to make sure that these great resources are around for future generations, but also to help people interpret and understand our nation,” Seymour says.

Whether it’s the USS Arizona’s place in World War II or Yellowstone’s in natural history, it all comes down to telling the story of America.

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