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College of Arts & Sciences
Maritime Research Division

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management-South Carolina Cooperative Agreement Survey to Begin off Myrtle Beach

By Daniel Brown, MRD

            In November 2014, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Office of Renewable Energy Program (BOEM OREP) signed a Cooperative Agreement with the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium to explore potential Wind Energy Areas (WEA) offshore South Carolina’s portion of the Outer Continental Shelf. The result of this agreement is the Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Development Project: Geophysical Mapping and Identification of Paleolandscapes and Historic Shipwrecks Offshore South Carolina. This is a joint project with several South Carolina state agencies and universities that includes the South Carolina Energy Office, Coastal Carolina University, with Paul Gayes, Ph.D., acting as primary investigator, along with University of South Carolina’s Camelia Knapp, Ph.D., and SCIAA’s Jim Spirek, M.A. as co-principal investigators. The aim of the project is to conduct geophysical and archaeological survey of seafloor 11-16 miles offshore North Myrtle Beach and Winyah Bay to explore the possibility of developing future WEAs. The first year of the project consists of a remote sensing survey utilizing a suite of electronic instruments consisting of a side-scan sonar, multi-beam, sub-bottom profiler, and magnetometer. Certain areas of the survey will be refined for paleolandscapes, shipwrecks, and objects of archaeological/historical significance to be ground-truthed later by members of SCIAA’s Maritime Research Division (MRD) and BOEM for further investigation.

            As interest in WEAs has increased all along the east coast, BOEM seeks to explore the archaeological potential of prehistoric and historic sites submerged in the Outer Continental Shelf. As BOEM is responsible for managing offshore energy interests, the organization has participated and funded similar surveys off Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, the Gulf of Mexico near Florida, and the Pacific coast. Since the 1980s, evidence of drastic prehistoric sea level change has fueled speculation on the existence of submerged prehistoric habitation sites, technological advances in remote sensing are beginning to make detection of those sites a reality. As a result, scientists, along with divers and fishermen, continue to discover evidence of prehistoric habitation along the now submerged Atlantic OCS before sea levels rose to modern levels around 6,000 years ago. Other surveys aside, remote sensing and underwater survey off South Carolina has revealed potential for evidence of habitation, including a 10,000 year old projectile point recovered from Gray’s Reef [off Savannah, GA] and an 11,000 year old drowned cypress forest located 19 miles off Georgetown. Recent re-nourishment of Folly Beach resulted in finds of prehistoric stone artifacts by local residents; the sands were dredged from several miles offshore, the borrow site apparently included an Early Archaic site. All this supports the exciting possibility of discovering evidence of peoples who occupied areas of the OCS as far back 12,000 years ago.  

      Maritime archaeologists also hope to locate previously unrecorded shipwrecks within the survey area as well as confirm the location of known historic shipwrecks. According to the Atlantic Shipwreck Database (ASD) created by BOEM, there approximately are 400 shipwrecks in the OCS off South Carolina. Within the survey area off North Myrtle Beach and Winyah Bay, there are 37 documented targets. Most of these are artificial reefs listed by SC DNR, including ships; subway cars; concrete tubes and structures; and even decommissioned armored personal carriers. Some are unconfirmed historic wrecks, such as the British built blockade-runner Princess Royal. Commissioned in 1861, the Union Navy captured the notably fast vessel in 1863. The navy decommissioned Princess Royal in 1868 and sold her to a private company who renamed her Sherman; on January 6, 1874 she sprang a leak off Cape Fear, North Carolina, finally sinking four days later somewhere in Long Bay. The ASD lists this vessel under both names in two locations 43 miles apart. Which is the actual blockade-runner the survey hopes to answer. Among the handful of known historic wrecks within the survey area is the side-wheeled steam packet North Carolina, a mail carrier that collided with its sister ship, SS Governor Dudley in the early hours of July 26, 1840. Both mail ships operated between Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina, traveling the same route in opposite directions. Despite a clear calm night and fair warning, both vessels saw the other miles away, one of the vessels deviated from protocol and Governor Dudley rammed the quarter of North Carolina. Crew and passengers evacuated, and the vessel sank within fifteen minutes; no lives were lost but newspapers reported the shipment of mail and personal cargo, including congressional payroll of $15,000 to $20,000, was lost. With the hundreds of known shipwrecks off the Carolinas, what other vessels lay buried beneath the depths offshore the Grand Strand is a mystery the survey hopes to solve.

Look forward to updates regarding the SC-BOEM Project as fieldwork begins this spring.