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In search of Antarctic shipwrecks

In search of Antarctic shipwrecks

Editor Dave Moran while at the DEMA Expo in Orlando USA 2009 caught up with National Geographic deep water photographer

Dave Moran (DM): Emery what projects do you have on the horizon?

Emory Kristof (EK): We’re planning to look for two historic wrecks from the age of exploration in Antarctica.

Shackleton’s ship the Endurance and a Swedish ship the Antarctic. Her story is similar to Endurance being crushed by ice. The Antarctic sunk in about 500 metres (1640 ft) in 1903 and Endurance in 3050 metres (10,000 feet) in 1915.

The Antarctic crew, after two weeks walking, arrived at Paulette Island where they built a shelter which tourists visit today.  The connection with Shackleton is the Endurance crew tried to sail to Paulette Island because they knew about the shelter. I guess due to sea conditions they finally sailed to Elephant Island. Shackleton then took five of his best men to sail to a whaling station on South Georgia Island, 1300km across the world’s most unforgiving seas.

They landed on the opposite side to the station. Shackelton and two of his men made that historic 35 km (22 miles) trek over the island’s frozen interior before virtually sliding and falling into the whaling station 36 hours later.

During the Southern Hemisphere’s summer of 2009/10 we’re going on Michael Aw’s Elysium, Shackleton’s Antarctic Visual Epic trip, which has the who’s who of photographers on board. After diving around the Antarctic Peninsula we’re going to follow the route that Shackleton took with his men to Elephant Island and then on to South Georgia.

We are going to document what we experience for an Imax series about global warming. The series starts in the Artic followed by Antarctica. On this trip we will seriously look into the feasibility of diving these wrecks on a future expedition.

DM: Do you have a search area?

EK: Deep water recovery specialist, David Mearns (he discovered the HMAS Sydney off Western Australia in 2009) did a study on the possible positions of both ships in 2006. He located some interesting targets. A 2009 NASA picture shows there is about zero ice cover where the Antarctic sunk. I figure on this Elesium trip I’m going to be 500 metres from that spot. When we return I’ll use a Deep Sea Systems ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) which is capable of working 3,050 metres (10,000ft)

Technology now provides us with Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV – no umbilical cable) which you can programme to do a search. Chuck it over the side, pick it up later and check the information.

DM: GPS (Global Positioning System) information can not be picked up underwater so how does the AUV navigate?

EK:  They record the AUV’s GPS position at the start of the dive then the AUV navigates by its preprogrammed (Intermap) internal navigation system. The most popular is probably manufactured by Hydroid. They have models that can work from 1,000 to 6,000 metres. (3280 – 19685ft) These machines can have all the toys; sonar, magnetometers, depth sensors, video and still cameras etc. The trick is to get it to come back to the hole in the ice! Otherwise it is a very expensive loss as some people have unfortunately discovered!

DM: What is the cost of these AUVs?

EK: It’s horrifying! Recently a deep water system with two units for a project cost US six million.

DM:  What needs to be done to achieve your goal of finding and filming these wrecks?

EK: This year’s expedition organized by Michel Aw is mainly for photographers and artists to get some amazing pictures. We have on board National Geographic’s photographer David Doubilet and renowned marine artist Wyland. Basically what I want to do is check out the ice coverage over the possible locations of these wrecks.

I’m involved in the proposed making of an Imax film.  For that to precede finance is needed, so on this trip I’ll be shooting the best pictures I can plus checking on the thickness of the ice etc. If it all comes together we will go back in 2011 to find and film the Antarctic. One of the big questions being asked is, ‘What will be left of the ship?’ Wooden ships get consumed by Teredo worms even in the deep ocean. The only old wooden ship that we have studied in a similar location is the Bredalbane (1853) in the Arctic, discovered in 1980. It’s well preserved. It’s sitting proud on the bottom at 103 metres (340ft). It has only minor worm damage. The question is: do the same environmental conditions affecting Teredo worms in the Arctic exist in the Antarctic? Will we find the hull all eaten up? We’ll learn a lot about deep water biology locating the Antarctic.

So after the Elesium trip my priority will be getting the Imax film completed then looking at the Antarctic project.

It reminds me of when we started searching for the Titanic. Side scan sonar was used many times and failed and finally using a photo vehicle we found it by seeing and following the wreck’s debris trail.

This time we are not looking for a 268m (880 ft) steel vessel but 30m (100 ft) wooden vessels.

Shackleton’s Endurance position is well documented. They had nothing to do but sit and watch their ship being crushed plus they had a theodolite so their positioning was pretty good. Ice cover and depth are our main challenges using an AUV.

DM: Could the ice cover be metres thick?

EK: Yes, if it’s too thick you don’t mess with it! The ice in the Weddell Sea is mostly from the Larsen Ice Shelf which has big chunks of ice breaking off it. These chunks are fairly thick. You can have multi-year ice over the site. If the ice is too thick for an icebreaker we may be buggered. I’ve seen NASA space pictures that show the Antarctic site with no ice and with 70% covered.

DM: What is the main challenge to filming these wrecks?

EK: Visibility! When we proposed filming Titanic our main concern was, what will the visibility be? This would determine if we would be able to take wide angle pictures. We determined that the visibility was 30m (100ft) so we had to build a camera system to be able to do the job at 3840m (12,600 ft). We designed a system to fit onto the large camera sled Argo. We had the camera at the front of the vehicle and the flash and the lights at the back end to allow us to obtain wide angle pictures. In the 1980s we tested the system on the submersible Alvin in the Caribbean where they test nuclear submarines. We produced the largest underwater pictures anybody had made. This all takes time! We started in 1978 to check the visibility, did the dummy runs with Alvin I guess in 1980-81. I had told National Geographic management that it could take 10 years to find and film the Titanic, it took eight.

With the new AUV technology we do not have some of the logistics you have when deploying large manned submersibles such as Alvin, so we are looking at trying to complete the project in three years. By that time I’m 70 so that’s kind of where the plan is right now. The biggest problem as always is financing and the next one will be the ice cover. So Dave with the Imax project and another project involving deep water animal I’m keeping busy!

DM: Thanks Emory, our readers and I appreciate your time to cover some of your inspirational projects.