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Spill threatens region’s historic shipwrecks

Fish swam by the PC Barge and Towers off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. Some notable wrecks are near the leaking well. Fish swam by the PC Barge and Towers off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. Some notable wrecks are near the leaking well. (Associated Press/ File/ 2007)
By Cain Burdeau
Associated Press / July 5, 2010

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TIMBALIER ISLANDS, La. — Not just flora and fauna are getting caked in oil. So is the Gulf of Mexico’s barnacled history of pirates, sea battles, and World War II shipwrecks.

The gulf is lined with wooden shipwrecks, American-Indian shell midden mounds, World War II casualties, pirate colonies, historic hotels, and old fishing villages. Researchers now fear this treasure seeker’s dream is threatened by BP’s deepwater well blowout.

Within 20 miles of the well, there are several significant shipwrecks — discovered by oil companies’ underwater robots working the depths — and oil is probably beginning to cascade onto them.

“People think of them as being lost, but with the deep-sea diving innovations we have today, these shipwrecks are easily accessible,’’ said Steven Anthony, president of the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society.

“If this oil congeals on the bottom, it will be dangerous for scuba divers to go down there and explore,’’ Anthony said. “The spill will stop investigations; it will put a chill, a halt on [underwater] operations.’’

The wrecks include two 19th-century wooden ships known as the “Mica Wreck’’ and the “Mardi Gras Wreck.’’ The German submarine U-166 and ships sunk by other German submarines during World War II are within the spill’s footprint.

The Mica was a 200-year-old, two-masted schooner that sank sometime before 1850, according to a report by the Minerals Management Service. It was discovered about 2,500 feet deep in the Mississippi Canyon during work to lay a pipeline.

In 2002, the Mardi Gras wreck was discovered by oilfield workers in even deeper waters: about 4,000 feet down some 35 miles off the Louisiana coast. The wreck got its name from the pipeline project where the wreck was found: the Mardi Gras Gas Transmission System, a huge deepwater pipeline system.

Researchers with Texas A&M University believe the ship may have been a gun runner or British trader in the War of 1812.

BP played a part in finding the U-166, a German U-boat sunk in World War II off the Louisiana coast. Then, as now, the Mississippi River was an important corridor for merchant shipping.

Crews surveying a pipeline project for BP and Shell in the Mississippi Canyon region came across U-166 in 2001. On July 30, 1942, the German submarine torpedoed the passenger-freighter Robert E. Lee, and then itself was sunk by depth charges from the Navy escort PC-566.

Last week, oil washed ashore in the Florida Panhandle, where the USS Oriskany aircraft carrier lies off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. The Navy sank it in May 2006 to make an artificial reef. Senator John McCain once flew bombing runs off the ship’s deck.

The tedious task of examining the wrecks for damage is beginning, though it is uncertain whether BP will be held responsible for ruining underwater sites.

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