Wrestling with the spider

Armed ForcesScienceDefenseUSS MonitorHatterasPhotographyNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Eighteen times heavier than the CSSHunley -- and trapped under seas nearly nine times as deep -- themassive gun turret of the USS Monitor was a far more forbiddingtarget than the historic Confederate submarine recovered in 2000.And many of its rescuers feared it might break apart after 140years on the bottom.In Chapter 4, reporter Mark St. John Erickson describes theperilous attempt to drop a 26-ton lifting frame -- nicknamed the"spider" -- down through the unpredictable currents and around thefragile iron cylinder. Pushed off course by a buried obstacle, theenormous spider lands askew, confronting the divers with such astaggering task that the expedition seems doomed.


FROM 502 MILES ABOVE THE EARTH, the Gulf Stream is virtuallyinvisible -- at least to the human eye.

Scanned by a thermal-imaging device aboard a NOAA satellite,however, its warm, sub-tropical waters appear angry and red. Andit's easy to trace their path as they gush up from the tip ofFlorida, curve to the northeast along Georgia and the SouthCarolina coast, then careen away from the Outer Banks of NorthCarolina into the Atlantic.

The cold flow of the Labrador Current, similarly, looks blue andgreen as it drops down from Canada and pushes southwest toward CapeHatteras. There, these two oceanic rivers meet in an offshoreshoving match of such colossal and often fatal proportions that theregion has become a legendary maritime graveyard.

No one knows how many wrecks lie on the bottom here, brought downby this unpredictable clash of geophysical forces. But the sunkenfleet of some 2,000 ships recorded as lost since 1526 includesWorld War II U-boats as well as Spanish galleons -- plus one ofhistory's most famous naval vessels.

For nearly 140 years, the upside-down hulk of the USS Monitor hasmarked the line where these waters collide, providing the backdropfor a nutrient-rich, sub-tropical ecosystem that teems with lifeand color. Tiny red barbier zip and swirl over the Civil War shipin enormous schools, chased by predatory packs of golden-brown,lavender-bellied amberjacks. Solitary black sea bass troll moreslowly through the clouds of fleeing fish, as do the ominous formsof an occasional hammerhead shark and its sand tiger cousins.

Other species swim by, too, then dart to safety as the 325-pound,yellow-and-black frame of a Navy ROV whirrs its way through themurky depths toward the wreck on the bottom. Trailing a windingred-and-white umbilical cord, this robotic "bug" sends the firstviews of the Monitor's newly uncovered gun turret back to thesurface, where a joint Navy and NOAA archaeological expeditionwaits 40 fathoms above.

Though it measures 22 feet in diameter, the renowned turret makesfor a confusing sight -- with much of it hidden under the jumble ofwooden timbers, iron plates and other debris that fell down whenthe sailors cleared away an overhanging section of hull and armorbelt.

But as the ROV's images stream back through the water to thederrick barge Wotan, the initial results of this $7.1-million,industrial-sized recovery project check out much better thanimagined.

Equally good are the pictures captured by a Fleet Combat Camerateam, which descends to document the changes in the wreck a shorttime later. Scrambling up a stepladder to the remaining section ofthe Monitor's portside armor belt, Petty Officer First ClassChadwick Vann peers down onto the turret with a digital videocamera -- surveying the newly exposed artifact -- while Chief PettyOfficer Eric Tilford records the scene with a digital still.

So dramatic is Tilford's photograph that it makes the pages of TheNew York Times. But the chief reason for excitement aboard theWotan is the unexpectedly good condition of the Monitor's140-year-old gun turret.

"So far, we're encouraged by what we see," drawls archaeologistJohn Broadwater, chief scientist and manager of the NewportNews-based Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, as he describes theflow of photographs from the bottom.

"Anything can happen at Hatteras, of course. Our predictions havebeen wrong in the past. But right now, we're aiming at recoveringthe turret sometime between the 20th and the 25th (of July)."

That gives the divers and archaeologists a target that's nearlythree weeks away.

They also have another 15 days in which to take care of anyunexpected snags.

"We'd really like to have a few days to clean the site up after weget the turret to the surface," says Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley, head ofthe Navy's Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two -- and the mission'stactical leader.

"Let's hope that's what we're doing when it's time to go home."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Armed ForcesScienceDefenseUSS MonitorHatterasPhotographyNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • SPIDER

    Above: Petty Officer First Class Chadwick Vann looks down the Monitor's gun turret with a video camera after the removal of the overhanging armor belt. Chief Petty Officer Eric J. Tilford/U.S. Navy

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