The images on the laptop in front of me look more like the surface of the moon than the bottom of the ocean. There’s no plant or animal life evident. The seafloor is a barren desert with massive unrecognizable crevices in areas the sonar can’t reach.
One of the images shows what looks like a raised footprint, what is actually the last remains of a wooden shipwreck, long disintegrated into the rough waters that define the Atlantic Coast. The next image is easier to decipher. It’s a 20th-century ship, perhaps the victim of a German U-Boat during the Second World War.
A team of students enrolled in Terry Dwyer’s unique Shipwreck School surrounds me. They’ve gathered in a patrol boat at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography early on a Thursday morning to complete the third and final day of a side-scan sonar course, a technology used more and more to locate impossibly hidden wrecks in the vast and murky ocean.
Dwyer’s Shipwreck School is the only school in the world where you’ll find Shipwreck Hunting 101 on the class list. Dwyer and his fellow instructors also have courses ranging from operating ROVs to marine magnetometers and other technologies now associated with wreck hunting. Dwyer literally wrote the book on wreck hunting after years in the industry as a commercial and recreational diver. With thousands of wrecks off the coast of Nova Scotia, the province seems like a natural fit for a school of this nature.
But the group I’m here with today isn’t taking Shipwreck Hunting 101. The RCMP Underwater Recovery Team enrolled in Dwyer’s school to use side-scan sonar to recover evidence from crime scenes such as sunken cars or weapons that occasionally gets discarded in bodies of water. They will also use the technology to recover bodies. With sonar technology, recovery work takes a fraction of the time it would take with only divers and unlike diving operations can run 24/7 until the task is complete.
Another sonar image flashes across the computer screen in the patrol boat. It’s this last image that haunts me the most. The image is of a swollen body, floating like an astronaut in space. The sonar shows no details of the person, but the shape is unmistakable. It’s images like these the new team members must learn to recognize while they scan the ocean floor in real time.
One of the divers on the boat explains to me that what gives the images such a surreal look is the way the sonar picks up matter. It’s like shining the beam of a flashlight horizontally across the ocean floor. What you see in the images are the shadows cast by the objects. Like looking directly down on a camel in the desert, only the long shadow reveals an otherwise invisible object.
After two days in the classroom, Dwyer and the RCMP team head off to known wreck sites like the Good Hope, which sank off McNabs Island, and the SS Havana, rammed by a steamer one night in 1906.
Since the Treasure Trove Act was repealed in 2010, treasure salving is now illegal in Nova Scotia. Therefore a school on how to hunt for shipwrecks seemed like just the kind of grey zone industry that might attract someone like Dwyer.
The hunt of shipwreck exploration tantalizes the scientist, the historian and the boy in him.
He says after years of divers asking where to look and if they could tag along on his explorations, he felt it was time to share his knowledge, and make some money while he was at it. The school will operate on a part-time seasonal basis for now while word spreads. Dwyer hopes in the future the school will attract international salvagers who can take the skills to places where salvaging is legal.
For now though, Dwyer’s local students are more interested in the courses for other avenues of work. Thomas McLeod is head of the RCMP Underwater Recovery Team. He explains that closure is what draws him to this work, providing families who have lost a loved one with closure so that in time, they have at least the chance to bury their loved one and begin to heal.
The RCMP crew will be the first in Halifax to employ the side-scan sonar technology. Once they learn how to use the technology the hope is that they will be able to buy their own equipment or rent from Dwyer in times of need. “I think for them it’s a relief,” says Dwyer. “It’s a job that’s not for everybody and it’s a blessing to have this sort of technology.”
What sold McLeod on the side-scan sonar technology was it’s aid in a recovery mission in July 2013, when five teenagers attempted to cross Ingonish Harbour in the middle of the night in an old wooden rowboat they found on shore. The boat capsized and the teens had to swim 300 metres back to shore. None were wearing lifejackets. One boy, 14–year-old Gregory Hibbs, never made it.
Divers searched the waters for days. With visibility of less than a metre, Dwyer says it’s worse than finding a needle in a haystack. On the fourth day, officials located the rowboat using side-scan sonar but deteriorating visibility prevented them from continuing the recovery mission. The next day though, they were able to locate and return Hibbs’ body to his family.
As I peer at another image of a sunken wreck I find myself wondering how the ship met its end. Was it the result of a careless accident in the harbour, or perhaps ambushed by a German U-Boat? Even without taking any actual artifacts from the wrecks, experienced divers can glean so much about the ships and the lives of those on board, all by what they left behind.
All someone needs to do is care enough to look for the answers.