Going deep for the Monitor

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In the Graveyard of the Atlantic at 40 fathoms deep, the water is mysterious and teasing.

Churned up by the contrary paths of the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current, it can be clear and warm one moment, then cold and murky the next - with sudden shifts of blue and green marking the endless shoving match between powerful, river-like forces.

Inside the Johnson Sea Link II, however, all seems quiet and still as pilot Phil Santos calmly guides his 29,000-pound submersible through the quarrelsome currents toward the ocean floor.

Surrounded by a protective sphere of clear, 5-inch-thick acrylic, he follows the red numbers on his instruments instead of staring into the gray-green haze, and he smiles enigmatically as the depth gauge starts to tumble.

"What do you see, Mark?" asks Monitor National Marine Sanctuary historian Jeff Johnston, his voice crackling over a headset into my right ear.

"Nothing," I say, straining to find any hint of form in the stubborn water.

Less than 5 minutes have passed since the Sea Link II dropped from the stern of the research vessel Seward Johnson, plunging into the waters where one of history's most famous ships - the USS Monitor - sank almost 140 years ago. Yet it doesn't take long before the nimble craft, which is operated by the Florida-based Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, glides to the bottom some 240 feet below.

Sprawled out in the rear observation compartment, Johnston and a Harbor Branch photographer search for signs of the baffling wreck, which must be surveyed before Navy divers can begin a $7.1 million attempt to recover its historic gun turret. Santos and I stare into the void, too, with me scribbling notes for a newspaper story while watching the featureless seascape trail off into a watery blur.

Then the distinctive, upside-down profile of the Monitor appears without warning, looming into view as if it had always been just a few feet from our noses.

"It's like walking through a fog at first," Johnston had said earlier, trying to describe his previous trips to the wreck of the pioneering Civil War ship.

"Then it just seems to jump right out of the murk."

Such elusiveness has dogged the Monitor's rescuers since its Dec. 30, 1862, sinking, enabling the ship to lie undetected for more than 110 years.

Even after archaeologists videotaped the hulk by a remotely operated camera in 1973, the pictures went unrecognized for months, Johnston says.

Then the wife of one of the scientists, after repeated encounters with the grainy images taped to a refrigerator door, realized the legendary "cheesebox on a raft" had flipped over as it sank.

Similar kinds of confusion have hindered later efforts to retrieve the most historic parts of the deteriorating vessel.

Though hundreds of drawings and engravings and a few photographs exist, the innovative ironclad ship was constructed so quickly that most of the images came after the fact - and after the Monitor was no longer around to measure.

That leaves Johnston and his sanctuary colleagues, who work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with a less than reliable set of guides for making their plans and guiding the Navy divers.

"I can open any Civil War book in the world and guarantee you that the drawings of the Monitor will be wrong," Johnston says.

"They show the deck plates running the wrong way. They show this and that part in the wrong place. They leave things out.

"And the reason is that a lot of these images were made long after the Civil War, when everybody was trying to put down on paper what had taken place years before.

"Unfortunately for us, they stuck."

Retired Navy Capt. Ernest Peterkin, who died in 1993, did yeoman's work in helping solve the Monitor's puzzle.

Scouring through old government archives and forgotten business records, the determined naval historian assembled a phonebook-thick volume of notes and drawings - now known to the sanctuary staff as "the Bible" - that documented much of Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson's pioneering design.

Nevertheless, it still takes extensive video and still-photography surveys to map out the difference between those plans and the way in which the ship was actually constructed - not to mention the changes that have taken place since the Monitor sank.

"We know a lot more than we did just a few years ago," Johnston says.

"But what we know doesn't necessarily match what we actually find in the wreck."

Even the best pictures, however, fail to capture the presence of the shadowy, 178-foot-long hulk as it stretches out across the ocean floor.

The Monitor is simply too big - and the surrounding water too deep and too obscure - to capture all of it in a single photograph.

Red light filters out at this depth, too, leaving the camera even more vulnerable to making the optical mistakes that result in muddy and incomplete portraits.

"No matter what we do, the image always blues out on the horizon," Johnston says.

"We've tried from day one, but the technology just isn't here."

Such frustrating lapses give divers and passengers on subs such as this the best chance to see one of the Civil War's most important artifacts.

And the privileged view they get is always changing.

Sometimes the wreck is cloaked in thousands of small schooling fish, their shiny, quick-moving bodies glistening in the diminished light of the sun.

Amberjack, grouper and other larger species pass by here regularly, too, attracted by the potential for feeding.

Today, the visibility can be measured in the scores and scores of feet, revealing the broken skeleton of the rusted iron ship in a way that has Johnston smiling.

All too often, he says, silt and haze obscure the view, forcing him and his colleagues to struggle through an altogether different kind of encounter.

"It's one thing to read about the Monitor.

"It's another to look at the pictures. But to actually see it up close - in these conditions - is pretty amazing," he adds.

"I just wish I could get out and do a little walking around."

Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or by e-mail at merickson@dailypress.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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