ECU Maritime Studies hunts for USS Alligator
(Aug. 26, 2004)
Researchers with East Carolina University's Maritime Studies program are searching for the remains of the Navy's first submarine, the USS Alligator, which sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras in 1863.
The 47-foot, 30-ton iron submarine was being towed to Charleston, S.C., when a storm caused the crew to cut the rope securing the vessel. The submarine operated with 17-22 crew, but it was unmanned during the April 2, 1863, storm, when it was released to drift and sink to the bottom of the Atlantic.
This year, researchers with the university, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Office of Naval Research began hunting for the ship, which is considered the prototype of the modern-day submarine. "It's like finding a Wright Brothers' airplane, if one were ever lost," said Tim Runyan, director of ECU's Maritime Studies program.
The search, based out of Ocracoke Island, was launched from the Navy's 108-foot survey ship YP-679, also known as the Afloat Lab.
On the first day of the hunt, after departing in the early morning hours of high tide, researchers searched 50-60 square nautical miles in a rectangular shaped area 25 miles off the coast.
Data from the side scan sonar is transmitted back to the research vessel in image form as shown on this LCD screen. This image shows an object found on the first day of the hunt for the Alligator.
ECU researchers used two main pieces of equipment — the side scan sonar and the magnetometer — for the search. Attached to the Afloat Lab, both sent data in the form of images and charts back onboard.
The magnetometer scans the ocean floor to detect metal. Any anomalies in the earth's magnetic field cause the screen radar to alert researchers.
"With a 47-foot iron boat you would get a big spike," Runyan said.
The other tool — the side scan sonar — is a 35-pound piece of equipment that looks somewhat like a giant yellow dart. The device sends sound waves through the ocean, which then transmit a two-toned image to an LCD screen on the lab. Runyan said even if the submarine is not found, the research is worth the effort.
"If we don't find the Alligator, we'll find other things," he said.
Runyan's optimistic prediction proved true on just the first day. After 24 hours of "mowing the grass," (a term nautical researchers use to describe the back and forth sonar searching), data showed two possibilities. One was too large to be the Alligator. The other, covered by sand, will be revisited in future searches.
More than 2,000 shipwrecks exist off the coast of Cape Hatteras, earning the area the nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic. The USS Alligator is considered the grandfather to the modern-day submarine due to several innovative-at-the-time features, including a diver lockout chamber, designed to transport divers from the submarine to ships with missions of attaching remote detonation devices.
Designed by Frenchman Brutus de Villeroi, the Alligator was named because of its dark green hue, resembling the tone of its namesake's scales. The ship was equipped with oars for propulsion, but was later refitted with a hand-cranked screw propeller — an improvement shown proudly to President Abraham Lincoln.