Ships wrecked in channel, but not forgotten

Marine historians create plan to protect sunken artifacts

Posted: Sunday, April 09, 2006

A team of marine specialists has been studying the Princess Sophia, Princess Kathleen and Clara Nevada shipwreck sites for the last four days as part of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources' first step toward creating a management plan for underwater heritage sites.

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The team is taking underwater photographs, compiling Global Positioning System data, collecting sediment samples and interviewing experienced divers to chart how the submerged sites are shifting and decaying.

"We're just collecting static information, photographic material on what the shipwrecks look like now, so if we go back in 10 years we can see what kind of processes are occurring that changed the wrecks," said Dave McMahan, an archaeologist with the state Department of Natural Resources Office of History and Archaeology.

"One of the things that we're going to do in conjunction with the proposal is talk to local divers and ask them to share their information about the changes they've seen on these wrecks over the years," he said. "If they have any video or photography that might show how they're changing, that would be very interesting."

The Office of History and Archaeology manages historic and archaeological sites throughout the state, including those on state submerged lands. For now, Alaska does not have its own underwater archaeological program, McMahan said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provided a grant for the project.

History event

• What: free maritime heritage lecture.

• When: 7 p.m. monday.

• Where: mendenhall glacier visitor center.

"We have various sorts of underwater cameras and video cameras we're going to be using, as well as some pretty sophisticated sonar units," McMahan said. "Just because of our limited time, we're not going to see a whole lot first hand. That's why it's important for us to talk to folks who are familiar with the wrecks and tell us what they've seen."

The Princess Sophia sank in late October 1918 after striking Vanderbilt Reef, 30 miles north of Juneau. The Princess Kathleen went down in 1952 off Lena Point, roughly 18 miles north of Juneau. The Clara Nevada ran aground in 1898 near Eldred Rock, just south of Haines, and burned. All three sites are protected from disturbance under state law, McMahan said.

"One reason we chose these particular wrecks is that they are accessible and they are popular dive sites," he said.

"We're not trying to prevent anybody from going on these wrecks, but what is discouraged is the disturbance of the wrecks and the collection of artifacts from these sites," he said. "There's really no way to enforce that very well, because most of the sites are so remote. The only way to address it is through public outreach."

McMahan will lead a free lecture on the state's collaborative maritime heritage projects at 7 p.m. Monday at Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.

John F. Kelly, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Marine Science, will offer a virtual tour of Alaska's coastal regions. John Jensen of Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass., will lecture about the S.S. Portland, a long-missing steamer found in 2002 off the coast of Massachusetts. Hans Van Tillburg, of the NOAA Marine Sanctuary Program in Hawaii, will talk about that state's heritage program and dive sites near Pearl Harbor. Mike Burwell, of the U.S. Minerals Management Service in Anchorage, will discuss the Russian steamship Politofsky that sank in the early 1900s near St. Michael.

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