THROUGH A GLISTENING snow of organic debris, the behemoth appears before the remotely operated vehicle: a sunken aircraft carrier human eyes haven’t seen in 65 years. “Oh my God,” Jim Delgado mutters over the comms, “hello Mighty I.” He’s finally glimpsed his unicorn, the USS Independence.
On Monday evening, scientists aboard the research vesselNautilus piloted two ROVs 2,600 feet deep off the coast of San Francisco to find this icon of World War II, all the while livestreaming their discovery for the world. Last year they’d used an autonomous vehicle to map the Independence with sonar, but that was a simple overhead shot. And what the researchers learn with those ROVs could be big for not only oceanic archaeology, but biology as well.
But first, some backstory. The USS Independence joined the Pacific Fleet in 1943, participating in several raids on Japanese installations before encountering the business end of a torpedo. After a patch-up, it returned to fighting for the remainder of WWII, before encountering the business end of two nuclear bombs.
That was intentional, mind you. The Independence was just a pawn in the Bikini Atoll’s infamous Operation Crossroads bomb tests. “This isn’t hey, let’s put a bunch of ships out there and drop a bomb on them,” says Delgado. “This is a very carefully thought-out scientific experiment trying to come to terms with this new powerful weapon and its implications for the future of navies, of armies, and the future of mankind.” Hence “Operation Crossroads.”
Somehow the carrier survived the tests in one piece, so the Navy towed it to San Francisco. There, sailors used it to learn how to deal with irradiated ships. Finally, in 1951 the Navy towed it out off the coast, loaded it with experimental torpedo warheads, and sank it.
Glimpsing the Independence for the first time yesterday, Delgado could tell how the ship landed. She came down with a whole lot of inertia, that’s for sure, and landed on her nose. “She settled bow-first, which was probably heavier because of the removal of the machinery aft that was done.” The evidence? Tell-tale flexing and breaking at the bow—something the overhead view of the sonar couldn’t show.
But perhaps the most incredible discovery (by metric of the livestreamed astonishment of the crew) was the carcass of aHellcat fighter plane in the belly of the carrier. Which might get you wondering: Why on Earth would the Navy sink a plane instead of scrapping it?
Well, ships weren’t the only casualties at Bikini Atoll. The whole idea of those tests was to show the effects of radioactive blasts—not only on vehicles, but weapons as well. That’s why the Independence still has some of its guns. Once the Navy got the ship to San Francisco, sailors could work with a more complete simulation of an irradiated ship.
Now, though, it’s unlikely that the Independence is still radioactive enough to pose a danger to humans. And indeed, life thrives here. “In this case, we’re seeing biological colonization,” says Delgado. “We’re seeing ongoing processes of deterioration that aren’t only chemical or environmental, but they’re also bacteriological.” Understanding what’s going on here could have big implications for science’s conception of deep-sea life.
Really though, Delgado is an archaeology man at his core. But no matter. The beauty of the dive was that by livestreaming it, the team essentially recruited other scientists around the world who could help identify species and military artifacts on the fly. “When I was at Bikini, I was floating with a handful of colleagues making measurements and observations,” says Delgado. “And now, being able to do so with thousands of informed engineers, architects, historians, biologists, oceanographers—that’s powerful.”That’s the future of oceanography.
And what does the future hold for the Independence? Delgado is particularly interested in figuring out how shipwrecks decay differently in different environments. At the moment, the team is only observing the Independence, not removing metal samples. But from mere observation, Delgado can tell the carrier has held up far better than irradiated ships that sunk at Bikini Atoll. Is that a function of it resting in colder, less oxygenated waters? Perhaps additional expeditions to collect metal from theIndependence could tell.
For now, though, the ROVs have pulled away, and darkness has crept back over the USS Independence. Not such a bad retirement.