How climate change is threatening New York's shipwrecks
Share on Linkedin
The waters around New York are littered with shipwrecks – some are visible, but most are not (Credit: Carlo Borlenghi/Getty Images)
Hidden from sight beneath the waves, the seabed around New York's harbour is littered with historic sunken vessels that met a variety of fates in the waters around the great city. Now they face a new threat to their existence from the changing climate.

It might not be the first thing you notice when visiting Calvert Vaux Park, where Brooklyn meets Coney Island. But stand with your back to the highway and your nose to the public housing blocks across the water and you'll spot it if the tide is low enough.

A splash of yellow paint at its top is the only colour other than rust that announces the 45 feet (13.7m) long shipwreck. This is what remains of the Quester I, a submarine made in 1967 by Jerry Bianco. Built from salvaged metal, the shipyard worker had hoped to use his craft to explore an Italian ocean liner, sunk off Massachusetts a decade before. He never managed to. Tipping sideways, the submarine slipped into the mud, before coming loose from its moorings and ending up in the middle of the Coney Island Creek. It's been there ever since.

The Quester I is one of many sunken vessels that now rest within New York's brackish waters. America's gateway for centuries, there are thousands of wrecks packed on the seabed between Manhattan and the shores of Long Island. And though there are almost too many to count, some locals are trying. Often amateurs, these men and women mix technology, tenacity and enthusiasm to locate and visit barges, battleships, tugboats and civil war-era steamers submerged beneath the surface.

Their work is important – this patchwork of diverse wrecks holds many secrets that can reveal much about the world of yesterday. But they won't last forever. Although the vessels begin deteriorating underwater almost as soon as they are sunk, their destruction is being hastened by climate change and the storms that accompany it. Some are simply ripped apart while others are being lost beneath thick layers of silt.

Yet over the last few years, shipwreck hunters, amateurs and professionals alike have worked hard to save, or at least document, these precious artifacts before they disappear. With powerful new technology, they're systematically imaging hundreds of wrecks, then publishing their findings for a wide audience online. In some cases, specialists even advocate a more drastic solution – artificially covering wrecks until they're safe to explore once again.

While the rusting hull of the Quester I is visible from the shore, many of New York's shipwrecks lie hidden out of sight (Credit: Sergey Yatunin/Alamy)

While the rusting hull of the Quester I is visible from the shore, many of New York's shipwrecks lie hidden out of sight (Credit: Sergey Yatunin/Alamy)

This work leads to other questions too. Given these wrecks are often graveyards, after all, should divers even be visiting? And when they do, how should they treat the artifacts they find there? None of these questions have straightforward solutions. But every day they go unanswered, the Quester I and hundreds of vessels like it continue to decompose, their secrets and stories vanishing beneath the waves. 

There have been shipwrecks in New York before the city even existed. Twelve years before the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, and five decades before the English renamed it, the Tyger ('Tiger') burned in the Hudson. Captained by a Dutch trader and privateer, the ship caught fire while laden with beaver and otter pelts with the local Lenape people. From that day in late autumn 1613, the charred hull of the ship, once the length of two city buses and boasting guns weighing around 1,500 pounds (680kg), would lie ignored and undisturbed, until it was finally rediscovered 303 years later, during construction work for the New York subway.

Start with the Tyger and you can trace a waterlogged story of America in New York's coastlines and rivers. From the War of Independence, there's the Hussar, a British frigate lost in the East River. From the Gilded Age, there's the Harold, a barge carrying $20m (£14.5m) of Guggenheim family treasure before it floundered near Staten Island. And as John Noonan, a diver and wreck hunter from Long Island, explains, more recent dramas have left their prints too. "There are submarines from World War One and World War Two," he says. "There are American ships sunk by German mines off the coast. We have pretty much every type of shipwreck – ships that were scuttled, sunk during storms, strandings on the beach."

You might also like:

This variety is matched by quantity. There are perhaps 5,000 wrecks in and around New York, says Ben Roberts, another diver and expert. They are peppered like shrapnel from the Jersey Shore, past Manhattan, and on to the far tip of Long Island, about 120 miles (190km) away. "In this area we probably have one of the highest concentrations of wrecks and submerged history in the world," says Roberts.

Examine the city's geography and this is easy to understand. With its immense sheltered harbour, New York's port has historically belonged to all of North America. Early Dutch sailors understood this immediately, claiming that the bay could one day host "a thousand ships" on their journey up the Hudson River into the American interior. That only became truer with the completion of the Erie Canal, in 1825, which via the Hudson linked New York to the Great Lakes and Midwest. And by World War Two, the harbour reached its peak with over 1,000 vessels – including 575 tugboats and 543 ships – packed there in March 1943, all flanked by 750 active docks and 39 shipyards.

First, he fashioned his own makeshift oxygen equipment out of PVC pipes and then tested his new gear in a lake 30 feet deep, for a full 10 minutes

With so much traffic, sinkings were inevitable. During the 1840s, an average of three vessels wrecked in the shipping lanes approaching the city each month.

Yet, according to many experts, few New Yorkers appreciate the historical treasures off their shores. There are many explanations here, from a lack of education to the challenges of mapping (let alone visiting) sites hundreds of feet underwater. Kate Sutter, the associate program officer at LabX, a public engagement body at the National Academy of Sciences, has a different take. The blame, she says, may ultimately lie with the power and glamour of the Big Apple itself.

"Everyone thinks about the city, and the people, and the businesses that thrive," says Sutter, who in her spare time uses underwater drones to examine New York's wrecks. "That makes it really easy, myself included for a while, to not even think about the history and the waters that surround it."

But the rich history hidden underwater doesn't escape everyone's notice.

When Roberts was growing up, he decided to go diving. That's hardly shocking for an adventurous teenager, but Roberts was different. After reading how an underwater treasure hunter had impressed his childhood friends by sitting in the neighbourhood pool with a homemade scuba kit, Roberts decided to follow suit. First, he fashioned his own makeshift oxygen equipment out of PVC pipes and then tested his new gear in a lake 30 feet (9.14m) deep, for a full 10 minutes. "I scared my parents pretty bad," says Roberts. "They decided: 'Hey, before this kid hurts himself, maybe we should get him certified!'"

Few shipwreck hunters have a diving baptism to match that. Yet in his dedication and passion – and maybe too in the dash of fanaticism his story betrays – Roberts is typical of his peers. Like him, most are amateurs, with day jobs as machinists or contractors or police officers. They spend their weekends and vacations scouring the seabed for New York's unremembered wrecks. According to both Roberts and Sutter, the falling cost of technology has helped amateur shipwreck hunting enter a golden age.

The Adriatic was sunk during the American Civil War and remained lost until it was rediscovered recently by divers (Credit: Ben Roberts)

The Adriatic was sunk during the American Civil War and remained lost until it was rediscovered recently by divers (Credit: Ben Roberts)

For a spectacular example of what this means in practice, consider the Adriatic. Sunk by Confederate raiders off Long Island, towards the end of the American Civil War, the ship was lost for a century and a half. But after years of planning, a team led by Noonan first explored the wreck in 2016. Instead of traditional scuba tanks, Noonan, Roberts and several other divers worked with rebreathers, which recirculated breathing gases and helped them stay submerged for longer. Conclusively identifying the ship was helped along by sophisticated sonar equipment.

But while Noonan calls his excursions a "thrill", he also suggests that the wrecks' histories are ultimately what he and his friends love about diving. Just as in landlocked archaeology, finding a vessel that fundamentally rewrites our understanding of history is rare. That's especially true in North America, given written records were already plentiful among Europeans by the time the Tyger floated up the Hudson. Even so, what the team found in the hull of the Adriatic was still revealing. Stoneware ink bottles, rolls of zinc and iron railway tracks all speak poignantly to a continent that was frantically industrialising. The fact the Adriatic was sunk by a raider so far from the Mason-Dixon Line, moreover, hints at how desperate the Confederacy was to disrupt Northern trade during the Civil War.

More generally, however, Roberts says he values wrecks like the Adriatic for the tales they preserve in wood and steel. "They all have their own stories to tell," he says. Remember, after all, that many wrecks aren't just the husks of the vessels themselves. They're also the beds where passengers slept, the pots and pans they used to cook, the lamps they lit to read at night. To put it another way, says Dan Lieb, from the New Jersey Shipwreck Museum, these places are nothing less than a snapshot in time.

To explain what he means, Lieb describes a millstone in the museum's collection. Salvaged from a European cargo ship lost near New York in the 1850s, in a parallel universe it might have ground corn on some Nebraska farm. Though it wasn't to be, Lieb says you can still see the chisel marks of the nameless artisan who made it, a striking reminder of an age before mass production and factory quotas. As Lieb says: "It's literally the thumbprint of manufacture." Other discoveries even drag divers back by their tastebuds. After visiting the Oregon, a passenger liner sunk off Long Island in 1886, some divers managed to collect a few unopened beer bottles – then asked a local brewer to recreate the recipe. The result, Roberts says, was delicious.

Yet as fascinating as finds like these are, there are signs that future discoveries could become impossible.

Making landfall in October 2012, Hurricane Sandy left behind a maelstrom of destruction, wrecking 300 homes, inflicting $19bn (£14bn) of damage, and leaving 44 people dead. But as residents assessed the wreckage, fixed leaks and filed insurance claims, a beach nearby experienced its own moment of excitement. At Fire Island, a popular tourist spot east of the city, the remains of what might have been the Bessie White, a wrecked 1919 schooner, were uncovered and ripped apart by Sandy's winds. So badly damaged by the storm were the ship's beams, however, that archaeologists struggled to confirm the vessel's identity. Much of the ship, whatever its real name, had already disintegrated.

While the shipwrecks naturally decay over time, there are fears that climate change may hasten their destruction (Credit: Ben Roberts)

While the shipwrecks naturally decay over time, there are fears that climate change may hasten their destruction (Credit: Ben Roberts)

Though the hurricane was unusually violent, the drama at Fire Island speaks to a broader problem. Sat at the bottom of a saltwater bathtub hundreds of feet deep, shipwrecks decay naturally. But now, with climate change strengthening the ferocity of the strongest storms since 1975, the risk to these wrecks is increasing.

John Bricker, one of the divers who helped discover the Adriatic, has seen this deterioration with his own eyes. Comparing his first visit to an armoured cruiser, lost off Fire Island in 1918, to a second, more recent dive, this amateur shipwreck hunter and co-owner of a plant manufacturing machine parts describes an "amazing" amount of damage. "It was almost like things were collapsing week-to-week." Explorers from Bricker to Roberts directly link these changes to storms like Sandy, noting that higher winds create bigger waves, which in turn can break or bury deeper wrecks.

Jennifer McKinnon, a marine archaeologist at East Carolina University, makes a similar point. "Climate change is definitely something that we need to track," she says, adding that in the Pacific, her area of focus, typhoons have started "wreaking havoc on underwater cultural heritage". Of course, New York is spared those particular squalls. But as non-renewable resources, McKinnon warns that all shipwrecks are precious, and specialists like her need to take the threats of climate change seriously. As McKinnon puts it: "There's not going to be another 19th Century trading ship that goes down in New York Harbour – what we have is what we have." 

Other marine archaeologists are approaching these questions from a slightly different angle. In 2016, for example, Jeneva Wright wrote a paper arguing that experts like her can actually make a positive contribution to the fight against climate change. "Maritime archaeological data," Wright wrote, "can inform on environmental shifts and submerged sites can serve as an important avenue for public outreach by mobilising public interest and action towards understanding the impacts of climate change." Roberts agrees. If shipwrecks can't always revolutionise our understanding of history, they can certainly remind us of the "destructive power of nature" – both hundreds of years ago and in our current climate emergency.

Even weekend to weekend, the sands and currents can take away parts of wrecks that will never be found again – Kate Sutter

At any rate, the feeling that these underwater treasures are disappearing has affected how divers approach their hobby. "Even weekend to weekend, the sands and currents can take away parts of wrecks that will never be found again," says Sutter. "It's of the utmost urgency – we need to get things documented, and documented fast."

But some professional archaeologists worry that the rush to find and visit wrecks by amateur enthusiasts, whatever their motivations, could risk causing fragile wrecks more harm than good.

Though he's keen to highlight his warm working relationship with amateur shipwreck hunters, Joe Hoyt is arguably one of the professional archaeologists who has concerns. Amateurs are both fiercely enthusiastic and have unparalleled knowledge about their chosen patch of ocean, he says. But as a full-time marine archaeologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, he's been taught since college to understand archaeology contextually.

Essentially, that means studying a wreck and the artifacts it contains as a collective. Bringing a piece of cutlery, a millstone or beer bottle to the surface, for example, can mean less if you can't also examine where it was found or what was nearby. This is especially true given how tricky it is to preserve waterlogged artifacts once they're back on dry land. Even after 20 years, professional archaeologists are still drying out sections of one Civil War ship recovered off North Carolina.

Even in its early days New York's harbour and surrounding waters were filled with vessels (Credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/Getty Images)

Even in its early days New York's harbour and surrounding waters were filled with vessels (Credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/Getty Images)

All the same, the gap between professionals and amateurs isn't insurmountable. Together with Lieb and other amateurs, Hoyt and his colleagues at the NOAA recently examined the Robert J. Walker, a research ship sunk off New Jersey. Places like the New Jersey Shipwreck Museum also act as depositories of artifacts for the wider community. Ultimately, Hoyt adds, the pressures of climate change might force everyone to make some tough choices about what can be explored – and which wrecks should be prioritised. Older examples, further on the path to oblivion, might need to be abandoned to their fate.

Not that the situation is completely hopeless. Both McKinnon and Roberts highlight improvements in imaging technology, making it far easier to record vulnerable sites effectively. Over this summer, to give one example, Roberts sailed from Massachusetts down to Virginia. Along the way, he used a custom sonar system to snap over 150 underwater sites in vivid detail – then posted maps and pictures on a dedicated Facebook page.

McKinnon, for her part, proposes a different solution. If a wreck risks being destroyed by the next storm, it could always be artificially covered with sand. Of course, this approach might frustrate divers eager to see a vessel with their own eyes. But as McKinnon notes, fragile treasures worth preserving, from national parks to ancient ruins, are often blocked from public view. "You can literally love a site to death," she says. "You have to be able to make decisions – maybe it's smarter for us to rebury a site. It may mean that we don't see it, but are we thinking about our future generations?"

Whatever the future holds for New York shipwrecks as a collective, meanwhile, divers like Ben Roberts are busy hunting for the next Adriatic. A new project, he explains, is finding a freighter that vanished in a storm during World War Two. "It's been this legend in the wreck community," he says. "I think it'd be neat to bring closure to the mystery." As the search continues, and Roberts follows his leads, the Quester I sits just as it always has – largely ignored and waiting for the storm that will one day pull it from the Coney Island Creek and into the waters beyond.


Join one million Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called "The Essential List" – a handpicked selection of stories from BBCFuture, Culture, Worklife, Travel and Reel delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Around the BBC