A team of scientists led by Dr Ruth Plets, School of Environmental Sciences at Ulster University aboard the Marine Institute’s Celtic Voyager research vessel has revealed detailed images of World War I shipwrecks in the Irish Sea.

The  team set out to capture the highest resolution acoustic data possible of WWI shipwrecks lost in the Irish Sea using a new multi-beam system (EM2040).

SS Chirripo. RMS Leinster 2015 survey

    RMS Leinster torpedoed off Howth Head in 1918 and SS Chirripo stuck a mine in 1917 off Black Head 

“Some of the wrecks, too deep to dive on, have not been seen in 100 years. This is the first time we can examine what happened to them during sinking, and in the intervening 100 years, to try to predict their future preservation state,” explained Dr Plets.

Among the shipwrecks surveyed are SS Chirripo which sank in 1917 off Black Head (Co Antrim) after she struck a mine; SS Polwell which was torpedoed in 1918 northwest of Lambay Island and RMS Leinster which sank in 1918 after being torpedoed off Howth Head with the loss of over 500 lives.

“This multidisciplinary team is making an important contribution to understanding and protecting our maritime heritage and to our ability to manage our marine resource wisely,” remarked Dr Peter Heffernan, CEO Marine Institute.

The process

“We moved away from traditional survey strategies by slowing the vessel right down to allow us to get many more data points over the wreck, with millions of sounding per wreck. The detail is amazing as we can see things such as handrails, masts, the hawse pipe (where the anchor was stored) and hatches,” added Dr Plets.

Some of the vessels have split into sections, exposing their internal structure. “With the visibility conditions in the Irish Sea, no diver or underwater camera could ever get such a great overview of these wreck,” she said.

As well as acoustic imaging, the team collected samples from the wreck to assess its potential impact on the seabed ecology. Sediment samples were also taken for chemical analysis to determine pollution impact.

The project was carried out to coincide with WWI centenary commemorations.

“We often forget the battles that were fought in our seas; more emphasis is put on the battles that went on in the trenches. At least 2,000 Irishmen however lost their lives at sea, but unlike on land, there is no tangible monument or place to commemorate because of the location on the bottom of the sea,” Dr Plets noted.

“In the Republic of Ireland there is a blanket protection of all wrecks older than 100 years, so all these will become protected over the next few years. To manage and protect these sites for future generations, we need to know their current preservation state and understand the processes that are affecting the sites,” Dr Plets stated.

The next step for the team is to use the data to create 3D models that can be used for archaeological research, heritage management and dissemination of these otherwise inaccessible sites to the wider public.

“There is so much data it will take us many months if not years, to work it all up. Some of the wrecks are in a very dynamic environment and we are planning to survey them again next year to see if there is a change, especially after the winter storms, to give heritage managers a better idea if any intervention measures need to be taken to protect them.” 

Dr Plets added that the data could signal a new era in the field of maritime archaeology.

“We hope it will inspire a new generation of marine scientists, archaeologists and historians to become involved. Above all, we want to make the general public aware of the presence of such wrecks – often located only miles off their local beach.”

The research survey was supported by the Marine Institute, through its Ship-Time Programme, funded under the Marine Research Programme by the Irish Government.

The team included maritime archaeologists Rory McNeary, Northern Ireland Department of the Environment and Kieran Westley, University of Southampton; geologists Rory Quinn and Ruth Plets, Ulster University; biologists Annika Clements, Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, and Chris McGonigle, Ulster University; marine science student, Mekayla Dale, Ulster University and hydrographer Fabio Sacchetti, Marine Institute who works on Ireland’s national seabed mapping programme, INFOMAR, run jointly with the Geological Survey of Ireland.

Read the team’s blog on http://scientistsatsea.blogspot.ie