Betsy Petrick: Career Choice – Marine Archaeology, July 1, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Betsy Petrick

Aboard R/V Point Sur

June 24 – July 3, 2019

 Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico

Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico

Date: July 1, 2019

Interview with Scientist Melanie Damour

Melanie Damour is the Co-Principal Investigator and Co-Chief Scientist on the expedition.  She is responsible for directing all archaeological aspects of the investigation. We talked about her path to her career, and her advice for young people who might want to pursue ocean science.

Melaine Damour
Melanie Damour, Marine Archaeologist

When I asked her what sea creature she would choose to be, she immediately answered  “A mermaid. Mermaids have the agility of fish, but they are smart.” Melanie may not be a mermaid, but she is agile as a fish and smart.  

Melanie knew from early childhood what she wanted to be when she grew up.  Her father was a fire and rescue diver, and Melanie sometimes got to see him at work.  She was fascinated by scuba diving. With her father’s support, she learned to scuba dive when she was only eight years old.  The second event that shaped her career was a visit to the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. This historic sailing ship is open to the public and played an important role in the war for independence from Britain. When Melanie visited this ship, she was awed by the ship and its history, and decided that somehow she was going to marry her two favorite things – diving and maritime history – for her career.  

She got her scuba diving certification when she was 14 years old, and studied history in high school.  She went to Florida State University to study anthropology. She took classes in archaeology, cultural and physical anthropology, and linguistics, all the disciplines within Anthropology.  She was offered a teaching assistantship which allowed her to get into a graduate program and study submerged paleoindian sites in Florida.  The offer was too good to refuse, so she began her graduate work at Florida State right away. Now she works for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) as a marine archaeologist. 

Melanie reflected on what makes a good scientist.  Her first response was that good scientists are always asking questions; being curious is what leads to new understandings.   It’s also important to be open-minded. Scientists can’t expect things to turn out a certain way as this would blind them to what is actually happening.  A scientist has to be persistent in the face of problems and always be looking for different ways and better ways to attack a problem. The ability to work well in a team is key.  Each member of a good team contributes to the end goal. Taking into account different perspectives leads to a more accurate and complete picture.  

Melanie has worked on projects in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Pacific.  Her personal research interests led her to Guatemala, where she worked in Lake Petén Itzá  on a submerged Mayan port site.  She went to Panama to map a Spanish merchant ship that sank off the coast in 1681.  This is her favorite shipwreck so far. It is well preserved by the river sediments that poured into the Gulf there. The ship contains hundreds of wooden boxes full of supplies that Spain had sent to the colonies. The boxes contain nails and scissors, and some yet to be opened my contain books that are still preserved.  After this expedition, Melanie is heading to Mexico to dive with her husband on a site that may turn out to be her new favorite. They will be looking for the wreck of one of the ships belonging to Hernán Cortés, the Spanish explorer.  In 1519, Cortés sank his own ships to prevent his crew from leaving and returning to Cuba. This set the course for the conquest of the Aztecs. Last summer, Melanie and her husband found an anchor and wood that dated to the early 1500s. The wood was determined to be from Spain. This puts the anchor in the right time frame to be one of Cortés’ sunken ships.

Melanie pointed out that it isn’t easy to get a job as a marine archaeologist because it is a small field and there are not many permanent jobs.  But she also encourages anyone who wants to pursue this as a career to be persistent and not give up. “It’s not always a straight line from A to B,” she says; in fact, you may discover that when your plan isn’t working out, you actually prefer the new track your life takes – that Plan B option that you may not have known existed when you began your career. 

“The greatest threat to our oceans today is humans,” Melanie said.  “Our lack of consideration for the consequences of our actions is the greatest threat we face.”  

Marine archaeology is one of many subdisciplines in ocean sciences, and the future of our oceans depends on many scientists working together to reverse the trajectory of degradation we are on.   

Sunset on the Gulf of Mexico
Sunset on the Gulf of Mexico

Dena Deck, June 27, 2006

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Dena Deck
Onboard NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai
June 26 – July 30, 2006

Mission: Seabird Survey
Geographical Area: Central Pacific Ocean, Hawaii
Date: June 27, 2006

Science and Technology Log

In maritime archaeology, as well as in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. Whereas in the towns and cities we use roads to locate a house, when studying a shipwreck, maritime archeologists use a method called “trilateration.” Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, Pacific Islands Region Maritime Heritage Program Coordinator, explains “trilateration is the technique we use to record the precise position of artifacts and their distribution on a wreck site. It’s a hands-on, relatively simple method for divers to map out these artifacts on the bottom.”

A shipwreck, much like a car accident, is often the product of a violent event. And once a ship is on the ocean’s bottom, wood decomposes and metals rust. The remains of a ship are scattered by currents and inhabited by animals. It often takes many years, hundreds of years sometimes, before these remains are seen again. A shipwreck no longer resembles its original shape, and its many parts are found far from the original structure, and some are never found again. How would you locate all these remnants?

For objects within 3 meters (approx. 10 feet) of this baseline, a single transect line is used, placed at right angles to the baseline. For objects which are farther away, two transect lines are placed, each beginning at different points on the baseline, forming a triangle. This triangle can be relocated on graph paper, plotting each artifact’s position with accuracy. For small objects, only one reference point is required (one triangle). For larger objects, such as an anchor, two reference points are used to have an idea of the size and orientation of the artifact, each point requiring two transect lines and yielding two triangles. For each transect line, the distance from the baseline is measured and drawn, underwater, on water-proof paper. At the end of a dive, all measures and drawings are combined into a single diagram of the wreck. What can you find at a shipwreck? Cannons, anchors, boiler pieces, fasteners, and rigging.First, start with a baseline. A baseline is a temporary line, a reference for the position of all artifacts in its vicinity. It consists of a measuring tape placed temperately at the bottom of the sea floor near the wreck. Once this baseline is set, transect tapes are used to measure the distance to every artifact.

Because the amount of artifacts related to a wreck are large, and bottom time is limited, marine archaeology teams often cannot fully catalog an entire site on a single cruise, and often have to come back to it several times. When dedicated teams of scientists return to the neighborhood to continue work, they grow more familiar with the area and artifact, a site of past human history and tragedy under the waves. It’s all about location, location, location.Find, locate, measure, draw. It might sound simple enough, but when you are working with a team of people underwater, communication is limited. Everyone on the team has done this before, but not together. Dr. Van Tilburg mentions the importance of team practice by noting that “Some of [the] team is from Florida, some from the West coast, but it’s good for us to practice this because we all have our tricks and gimmicks and we want to make sure we are on the same page of who’s doing what underwater, because you do this these things on dry land, it all seems very simple, but as you well know, when you get on the water, everything gets twice as difficult.

Nancy Lewis, September 14, 2003

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Nancy Lewis
Onboard NOAA Ship Ka’imimoana
September 15 – 27, 2003

Mission: Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO)/TRITON
Geographical Area: Western Pacific
Date: September 14, 2003

Nuku Hiva:  Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia

Personal Log 

A group of us from the Pearl Lodge signed on to make the day long trip back into the interior of the island to see a one thousand foot waterfall.  We were to have Jean Pierre, a native Marquesan, as our guide, but first we had to take a boat over to Hakaui Bay to reach the trailhead.  Once we reached the mouth of the bay, things got really interesting, with  our pilot expertly navigating the moderate sea swells that seemed much bigger from our small craft.

We came well south of the bay passing sheer headlands that plunged right to the sea, and then entered into Hakaui Bay facing a gray sand beach fringed coconut trees, the perfect picture of a wild, tropical beach.  As we all gathered on shore to begin the trek, an old Marquesan woman appeared with a dog on a leash, seeming to come out of nowhere. She reminded me of the stories of Pele back home in Hawaii. We soon started our trek, and found the very small village of Hakaui, and Jean Pierre, our Marquesan guide, told us that there had been many people living in this valley until 1942 when a malaria epidemic forced most of the inhabitants to leave.  We also met Daniel, a spry Marquesan who’d lived in the village since 1927.

The hike to the waterfall first passed through some of the village’s cultivated cleared areas where they were growing bananas, coconuts, and papayas.  We soon entered some dense tropical jungle, and were glad for the deep shade provided against the hot sun.  We passed many stone foundations of houses, called in Marquesan “papais”, remnants of former human settlement.  At one point, I saw a stone tiki sitting on top of one of these papais, and it seemed to be guarding some secret.  Although there was a trail, we had to cross the river several times, and so we definitely needed Jean Pierre’s services.

Just before reaching the falls,  we encountered several hunters on horseback, who had their kill wrapped in cloth and slung over their saddles.  A little further on, spiky ramparts of needlelike rocks rose up five hundred feet, and Renault, our other guide, told us that there were the bones of human sacrifices hidden in the clefts of one of the needles.

We soon reached the base of the falls with its sheer cliffs rising up in a narrow gorge that reminded me of certain places in Utah.  There was a spacious pool easily accessible,  but further back behind some rocks was the pool where the cascade roared down.  Several of us jumped into the cold fresh water, and eventually we found a way into the cascade pool, and discovered a hidden grotto behind the rocks.  The water was very cold, but invigorating.

After our swim, and a bit of lunch, we started back , but took a slightly different route, arriving at the beach of Hakatea Bay where our boats were waiting.  The ride back to Taiohae was exciting, and well, dangerous.  The seas had kicked up to between 9 and 12 feet, and we were literally holding on for dear life to stay in the boat as it crashed into one trough and rose up to meet the next:  and we had no life preservers! Jean Pierre was in my boat, and a few times had a worried look on his face, but I enjoyed it immensely.

We cruised into the harbor past the KA and piled into the back of an open Land Rover to go back to the lodge.  It was satisfying to turn in early after the excitement of our expedition into the interior of the island, and to once again hear the soft sounds of surf at the close of  a great day.