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Effects of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill on Historic Shipwrecks

By Edited Oct 20, 2016 1 2

The BP oil spill of 2010 caused mass devastation on many levels. When the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion occurred, it tragically resulted in the death of 11 workers. Several other people suffered injuries. It also created a number of other issues ranging from environmental to economic to political and everything in between.

The oil and methane flowed from an uncapped wellhead, 1 mile beneath the Gulf, for 87 days. Eventually, a court judge ruled BP was responsible for 3.1 million barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf (the federal government estimated 4.2 million whereas BP claimed it was much lower). 

Going on six years later, the effects are still felt across the region from an economic perspective and, while some areas look a lot better than they did in the months after the spill, in other areas the cleanup is ongoing and can take years.

Gulf Oil Spill
Credit: Green Fire Productions accessed via Flickr/CC by 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/76145908@N08/7085032489/

Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Caption states, "Day 30 of Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010."

Historical Wreckages Endangered

In July 2010 the Associated Press reported another potential issue related to the BP oil spill - the many historical wreckages that are resting quietly on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. As workers frantically worked towards stopping the already massive damage from the 2010 oil spill, archeologists had brought up the several ways these historical shipwrecks, artifacts and other remnants are now threatened as well.

Steven Anthony, President of the Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society, said at the time, "People think of them as being lost, but with the deep-sea diving innovations we have today, these shipwrecks are easily accessible." (Associated Press via Boston.com) 1 At the time it was speculated if the oil were to collect and settle on the Gulf's bottom this could significantly affect archaeological operations. Not to mention disrupt the sea life that have made these wrecks their home.

Down-looking mosaic of Lophelia covering the bow of the sister ship to the Gulfoil, the Gulf Penn. Gulf of Mexico
Credit: NOAA Photo Library/Public Domain image https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Expl2314_-_Flickr_-_NOAA_Photo_Library.jpg

Photo caption states, "Down-looking mosaic of Lophelia covering the bow of the sister ship to the Gulfoil, the Gulf Penn. Gulf of Mexico". Photo is dated December 2010.

The Gulf Holds Many Secrets

In addition to the physical presence of oil causing damage, the actual cleanup efforts and subsequent disruption underneath the waters presented another serious threat of disrupting precious history. There are many shipwrecks laid to their respite in the Gulf, which include two 19th century wooden ships known as the "Mica Wreck" and the "Mardi Gras Wreck". Also among the buried treasures of the past are pirate era remnants, World War II period submarines and the ships they sank, American-Indian shell midden mounds, and old fishing villages. Other history lurking beneath the sea's surface include War of 1812 wreckage and ceramics of still yet unknown origins (Associated Press).

A deck gun of the sunken German U-boat U-166.
Credit: NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program; Collection of LCDR Jeremy Weirich, NOAA Corps/Public Domain image - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:U166.jpg

A deck gun of the sunken German U-boat U-166 in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the past, shipwrecks were believed to be forever lost, however, with today's abilities and technological innovations which include electronic detection, underwater exploration, and diving and recovery capabilities, what was unreachable yesterday is possible today.

Belle Bronze Cannon
Credit: Cmeide/ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Belle_bronze_cannon.jpg

Decscription from Wikimedia Commons: "This photograph was taken in February 1997 at the site of the Belle shipwreck. This sunken vessel was discovered by the Texas Historical Commission in 1995 and fully excavated by the THC in 1996-1997 after building a cofferdam around it in order to drain away the ambient seawater. This image shows two bronze cannon in place at the bottom of the hold on the starboard side. Also visible are a few wooden barrels of gunpowder (to the right of the guns), and a large stack of iron bar stock (behind the cannons). These guns were ornately decorated and were identical to the first gun discovered on the wreck in 1995, which lead to the positive identification of this vessel. The Belle was the ship of French explorer La Salle which was lost in Matagorda Bay, Texas, in 1686. This photograph was taken by one of the archaeologists working on the project."

Look at the amazing recoveries Robert Ballard and his team have done with the Titanic wreck site, not only in terms of preservation, but with camera capabilities showing society what couldn't previously be seen. So much has been learned from that tragedy due to the progression of technology.

The Gulf can also be explored similarly and, while much is known, there is undoubtedly much left to be discovered. There are reportedly more than 2,000 ships resting beneath the Gulf spanning a period of 500 years – and these are the known wrecks, not any others that also are lying beneath the waters.

As personnel and equipment are moved in, in addition to the known wreckage, it was said those efforts could potentially disrupt the remains of what has not yet been discovered resting on the Gulf’s floor.

Oil Slick in the Gulf of Mexico June 19, 2010
Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center accessed via Flickr/https://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/4721299117/

Oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, June 19, 2010

As technical progress becomes even more promising for the future, and the methods of extracting history get even better, these abilities to explore and retrieve increase. However, if the remnants of yesteryear are disturbed, or worse, destroyed, due to the oil spill devastation, there could be little left to preserve.

What’s the Latest?

I originally wrote this article five years ago, however, more news has been recently released. As I noted above, most of this was reported and/or speculated back in 2010, however, recent study and news reports suggests this appears to have been on target.

According to a February 2016 report the “lingering oil” from the Deepwater Horizon spill could speed up deterioration of these shipwrecks. Researchers from presented the findings on Feb. 22, 2016 at the American Geophysical Union’s Ocean Sciences Meeting.

Scientists tracked how oil exposure “increases metal corrosion caused by microbes”, according to a press release about the study. 4 The project and research, approved in 2013, conducted by a multidisciplinary team of scientists commenced in early 2014. They placed high-carbon steel wafers in the vicinity of the sunken ships and let them set for four months and in special water tanks for 16 weeks.

The findings were the wafers in the contaminated water corroded a lot faster than those in “pristine seawater”. Researchers also explored how the local ecosystems were affected by the spill and they found, even four years later, the oil was still causing an impact on the ecosystems. Additionally, the dispersant used during the clean-up “significantly alters” shipwreck microbial community – causing a domino effect for coral, crabs, fish and other sea life.

Additionally, the team is examining the shipwrecks, noting that human remains may also be present.

"These are pieces of our collective human history down there and they are worth protecting," said Melanie Damour, a marine archaeologist at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in New Orleans, Louisiana, and a co-leader of the project. "We are concerned that the degradation of these sites a lot faster than normal will cause the permanent loss of information that we can never get back." 4



Apr 22, 2016 12:11am
This is not an aspect of the disastrous oil spill that most people even think about, and it makesan interesting topic for an article.
Apr 27, 2016 9:18am
Thanks so much Lesley. I'm always intrigued by what secrets the seas hide and was fascinated when I first saw this topic in the news.
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  1. Cain Burdeau, Associated Press "Spill threatens region’s historic shipwrecks." Boston.com. 5/07/2010. 11/03/2016 <Web >
  2. Debbie Elliott "5 Years After BP Oil Spill, Effects Linger And Recovery Is Slow." NPR. 20/04/2015. 11/03/2016 <Web >
  3. Drew Griffin, Nelli Black and Curt Devine, CNN "5 years after the Gulf oil spill: What we do (and don't) know." CNN. 20/04/2015. 11/03/2016 <Web >
  4. "Gulf of Mexico historic shipwrecks help scientists unlock mysteries of deep-sea ecosystems." American Geophysical Union (AGU) press release. 22/02/2016. 11/03/2016 <Web >

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