The bow of the Confederate paddle steamer Mary Celestia emerges from the sands off the South Shore. Conservation Services will this summer work to rescue artifacts at the diving landmark.
By Owain Johnston-Barnes
This summer, the Marine Heritage section of the Department of Conservation Services will work to rescue artifacts from the shipwreck of the blockade runner, the Marie Celeste.
Recent storms have exposed more of the ship’s bow, revealing its contents while at the same time placing the artifacts at risk.
Dr Philippe Max Rouja, Custodian of Historic Wrecks from the Department of Conservation Services, said he believes a large storm sometime in the last 20 years blew out the light, loose sand out of the bow and exposed the denser seabed material below, together with the artifacts buried inside.
“With this protective layer gone little by little, the denser material gets washed away so that now, each subsequent time the sand is removed, in even a light storm event, more of this dense layer is removed, exposing and endangering these unexpected artifacts,” he said.
The Marie Celeste, also known as the Mary Celestia a Confederate paddle steamer sank in 1864 in mysterious circumstances while being piloted by John Virgin. It has since become a popular landmark for divers, enjoyed by both locals and visitors. Dr Rouja said that since 2004 his department has carried out post-hurricane assessments at several wrecks around the Island.
“I decided it was important to conduct these surveys after hearing reports from some of Bermuda’s most experienced divers and dive shops that hurricane Fabian had exposed a significant portion of the Marie Celeste, including remnants of broken artifacts, specifically in and near the bow,” he said.
“The shipwreck of the Marie Celeste is an artifact in its own right. Unlike almost any other shipwreck in Bermuda, it speaks directly to our wider Atlantic maritime history.”
In January, following a series of winter storms, divers discovered a well-preserved and still corked bottle of wine and the top of a wooden crate, leading many to believe that a portion of the ships Civil War era cargo, intended to be delivered to Wilmington, remains in part inside the bow.
“We initially speculated that if she sank bow first, the wine bottles and case may have tumbled there from the general cargo are at the time of her sinking,” Dr Rouja said.
“However, this area, though seemingly relatively open today, would have in 1864 consisted of a series of small bulkheads.
“I think we can safely speculate that these items were hidden there quite on purpose, representing someone’s private stash of contraband.”
The discovery of the artifacts, combined with the knowledge that even winter storms could potentially damage the site, inspired the Government to join with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to rescue the artifacts.
Minister of Public Works Derrick Burgess said: “It’s great to be partnering with our American counterparts in this endeavour, and I think everyone is thrilled at the prospect of finding something new and interesting about both the shipwreck and the American Civil War.
“If the bottle of wine happens to be full and the case is in good shape and we can identify the maker, then that will be just the icing on the cake.”
As work is being done on the site, the wreck will be closed to recreational divers, but Andrew Pettit, Director of Conservation Services said that dive shops will be able to run specific, planned dive tours of the site.
Mr Pettit said: “Considering this is a valuable tourism commodity, we want to be sure that all opportunities are taken advantage of to enhance and invigorate our diving and tourism product.”
Local production company Look Bermuda has been following the process for the past several years, and will be embedded with the dive team for an upcoming film on the historic vessel.