High-Resolution 3D Sonar Images Taken Of US Navy Ship USS Hatteras

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

The only US Navy warship to be sunk in the Gulf of Mexico during the Civil War has been painstakingly detailed using new 3D sonar imagery at its resting place in the murky southern waters. The new images paint a detailed description of how the vessel may have met its demise: a gaping shell hole in the ship´s hull.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration´s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) worked with ExploreOcean, Teledyne Blueview and Northwest Hydro to offer the never-before seen details of USS Hatteras, which was sunk during a fateful battle with the famous Confederate raider CSS Alabama.

The high-resolution images of the 210-foot, iron-hulled Hatteras are being released this month to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the fateful battle between the two ships. Besides the devastating shell hole, the images also show some previously unknown details like a paddle wheel and the ship´s stern and rudder emerging from its sandy bottom graveyard, some 20 miles off the coast of Galveston, Texas.

The wreck is resting 57 feet underwater in sand and silt. A barrage of hurricanes and ocean storms last year removed some of the sediment that had encased the vessel for more than a century, keeping it locked away like a time capsule waiting to be unearthed. Because the same storms that shifted the sands off the wreck could later re-encapsulate the vessels remains, the team of researchers decided to take this window of opportunity and film the Hatteras over a two-day venture last fall in order to create a 3D mosaic for educational and research purposes.

“This vessel is a practically intact time capsule sealed by mud and sand, and what is there will be the things that help bring the crew and ship to life in a way,” said Jim Delgado, the project’s leader and director of maritime heritage for the NOAA´s ONMS, adding that the 3D imagery is giving “a view no diver can get.”

The very-low visibility in the silt-filled waters meant 3D sonar technology was the best way to map out the wreckage since it isn´t affected by the murkiness like regular photography would be. The sonar technology produces computer-colored images by analyzing sound waves bouncing off objects.

“We have very crisp, measurable images that show the bulk of the steam machinery in the engine room is there,” Delgado said. “Some of it is knocked over, been toppled, which suggests we probably have 60 percent of the vessel buried.”

The 3D Sonar imagery also revealed the platforms for the ship´s 32-pounder guns and the bow. The paddle wheel shaft appeared to have been bent when the ship capsized and the engine room machinery also appeared damaged due to the battle, said Delgado.

“Very exciting,” Jami Durham, manager of historic properties, research and special programs for the Galveston Historical Foundation, told Michael Graczyk of the AP. “We knew the ship was out there, and to finally see the images. It seemed to make it more real.”

The ship, which remains the property of the US Navy, is in waters administered by the federally-run Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The Hatteras was built in 1861 in Wilmington, Delaware as a civilian steamship, according to the Navy Historical Center. But it was later purchased by the Navy and repurposed as a naval warship, joining a fleet of ships blockading the Florida coast from vessels trying to deliver supplies, weapons and ammunition to the Confederacy.

The ship had an active tour of Florida and destroyed seven schooners and facilities before being transferred to the Gulf.

After spending some time in the Gulf under the fleet command of David Farragut, who is famed for his order “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” the USS Hatteras met up with the notorious Confederate raider CSS Alabama, who itself was credited with some 60 kills.

Forty-three minutes into battle, the Hatteras was burning and taking on water. Commander Homer Blake surrendered and he and his crew were taken aboard the Alabama as prisoners before the Hatteras sunk. Of the 126-man crew, two were believed to have gone down with the ship; the rest later ended up in Jamaica.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Hatteras is protected by the Sunken Military Craft Act as a war grave.

Funding and support for the project was provided by the Edward E. and Marie L. Matthews Foundation, ExploreOcean, and Teledyne BlueView.