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It was the golden age of wreck discoveries. For what?

Some were legendary ships that have fascinated people for generations, like EnduranceErnest Shackleton's ship that sank in the Antarctic in 1915. Some were simple beasts of burden that disappeared into the depths, like the Irontona barge carrying 1,000 tons of grain when it sank in Lake Huron in 1894.

Whatever their place in history, more shipwrecks are being discovered today than ever before, according to those who work in the rarefied world of deep-sea exploration.

“More is being discovered, and I also think more people are paying attention,” said James P. Delgado, an underwater archaeologist based in Washington, DC. He added: “We are in a transitional phase where the real period of underwater exploration and ocean exploration in general really begins.

Experts point to a number of factors. Technology, they say, has made it easier and cheaper to analyze the seabed, opening up the hunt to amateurs and professionals alike. More and more people are studying the ocean for research and commercial ventures. Wreck hunters also seek out shipwrecks for their historical value rather than sunken treasure. And climate change has intensified storms and beach erosion, exposing shipwrecks in shallow waters.

Experts agree that new technologies have revolutionized the exploration of the deep sea.

Free-swimming robots, known as autonomous underwater vehicles, are much more common than 20 years ago and can scan large areas of the ocean floor without having to be tethered to a research vessel, according to J. Carl Hartsfield, the director. and senior program manager of Oceanographic Systems Laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Remote-controlled vehicles can travel 25 miles under the ice cap in polar regions, he said. And satellite imagery can detect wrecks of sediment plumes moving around them which are visible from space.

“The technology is more capable and more portable and relies on scientists' budgets,” Mr. Hartsfield said, adding: “You can sample larger and larger areas of the ocean for a dollar.”

Jeremy Weirich, director of ocean exploration at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the increased use of telepresence systemswhich broadcasts images of the ocean floor to anyone with an internet connection, has allowed more people to explore and discover shipwrecks in real time.

And the digitization of archives has made historical records easier to find and view, said David L. Means, a marine scientist and shipwreck explorer.

Still, it's still easier to organize a mission to find a famous wreck than an obscure one, Mr. Hartsfield said.

“You can get investors to find out what happened to Amélie Earhart, but not to find cargo ships,” he said. “It’s all about the compelling story.”

Climate change is playing a role, experts say, in producing more frequent and powerful storms that have eroded shorelines and overturned sunken ships.

In late January, for example, several months after Hurricane Fiona hit Canada, a 19th century shipwreck washed up on shore in the isolated region of Cape Ray, Newfoundland, causing a stir in the small community of around 250 residents.

In 2020, a couple walking along a beach in St. Augustine, Florida noticed wooden beams and bolts protruding from the sand. Archaeologists said the coins were most likely remains of Caroline Eddya ship built during the Civil War that sank in 1880. They were likely exposed, experts say, from coastal erosion caused by a tropical storm named Eta and by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017.

These types of coastal finds could become more common, Dr. Delgado said. “As the ocean rises,” he said, “it unearths things that have been buried or hidden for over a century.”

Private treasure hunters are still searching for shipwrecks, hoping to find gold, coins or sunken jewelry. But their discoveries often get mired in legal battles and their claims are rarely realized, said Deborah N. Carlson, president of the Institute of Nautical Archeology, a nonprofit research organization.

She pointed out that the underwater archaeologist Peter Throckmorton formerly called ocean treasure hunt”the worst investment in the world” and found that this “only benefits developers and lawyers.”

Private claims regarding a sunken ship may be disputed by nations or insurers. Spain, for example, has succeeded defended his request that she retained ownership of a Spanish frigate that had been sunk by the British in 1804 after an American treasure hunting company discovered the wreck off the coast of Portugal in 2007 and transported its trove of gold coins and money in a Florida warehouse.

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, adopted in 2001sought to protect the wrecks from looters and said countries should preserve them and other underwater relics “for the good of humanity.”

Mr Hartsfield said if the aim is to “observe and not disturb” a wreck, the cost goes down because there is no need for anyone to lower a submersible on a winch to retrieve items from the bottom of the ship. 'ocean. Scientists, he says, can simply use a video camera to record the artifacts they find.

“Now your gold coin is a 4K image,” Mr. Hartsfield said, referring to a type of high-definition video. “If your sensors are better, you don’t necessarily have to pick up an object to examine it.”

While treasure hunters still ply their trade, they have been joined by more commercial and research enterprises that have expanded the field of deep-sea exploration.

Mr. Weirich said more and more wrecks have been discovered over the years, largely thanks to private companies pursuing oil and gas leases, cables and pipelines.

Phil Hartmeyer, a marine archaeologist at NOAA Ocean Exploration, said more private research groups are also peering into the ocean floor and helping to bring scientists around the world closer to a goal of map the entire seabed by 2030.

NOAA, for example, works with the Schmidt Ocean Institutea nonprofit research group founded by Eric Schmidt, former chief executive of Google, and his wife, Wendy Schmidt; the Ocean Exploration Funda non-profit organization founded by Robert Ballardwho led the expedition which I found the Titanic in 1985; And OceanXan ocean exploration company founded by billionaire investor Ray Dalio and his son Mark.

Dr. Carlson said the field of underwater archeology has also “expanded dramatically,” with more graduate programs producing archaeologists interested in excavating sunken ships for their historical value.

“There are a lot more people in this discipline than there were 50 years ago,” Dr. Carlson said, “and a lot more people are looking for wrecks and finding them.”

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