- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - With a small splash, the foot-long remotely operated vehicle dove below the surface of Lake Erie to the wreck of the S.K. Martin.

Fish followed the ROV as it passed over the coal freighter that foundered in a storm in 1912 and came to rest in about 58 feet of water about 2 miles off the Harborcreek Township shoreline.

“Here’s one of the hatches,” said Matt Walderon, the state Department of Environmental Protection Coastal Resources Program specialist who guided the ROV that sent video to the surface.

Monday’s visit to the underwater site was part of a DEP project that gathers information about the bottom of Lake Erie. DEP officials said the project documents shipwrecks and maritime graves and also provides information about habitat for fish and could prove helpful if development projects involving wind turbines, pipelines or cables in the lake are proposed in the future.

“We’re trying to characterize what the bottom looks like,” said Don Benczkowski, Coastal Resources Program manager.

He and Walderon said creation of a map of the lake’s bottom would identify in advance the critical areas that developers would need to avoid so special habitat and historical areas remain undisturbed.

Benczkowski said the project is funded by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant.

Walderon, who works on the 24-foot DEP boat with intern Ben Eppley, said they started by looking at wrecks with known locations. They confirm a location and get a good map of it during multiple visits.

In addition to the ROV, Walderon and Eppley operate equipment that scans the sites with sonar as they “mow the lawn,” maneuvering their boat back and forth in parallel lines over the shipwrecks.

“We can get a picture of what the wreck site looks like,” Walderon said.

Then they anchor and deploy the ROV, which has a camera in the front and is tethered to the boat by a bright yellow line. The ROV feeds to a laptop on board the boat that records video that will be examined more closely later in a lab, Walderon said.

Using hand controls, he guides the ROV over a wreck. The work is both exciting, revealing what’s below, and nerve-wracking, trying to avoid tangling the tether line on boards and posts sticking out from the S.K. Martin, he said.

The freighter was carrying 12 sailors when it sank.

“Luckily, on this wreck, there were no fatalities,” Walderon said.

Sediment, mostly sand, covers the remaining deck boards the sailors once walked. Sections of planking appear on the screen as the ROV sweeps from the bow to the stern along the starboard side.

The white debris is old crushed zebra mussel shells, Walderon said. He said most of the wrecks are covered by zebra mussels. Another invasive species the crew sees is the round goby.

As the ROV revealed what appeared to be a plastic bag on the S.K. Martin, Walderon said, “We get some trash on the wreck.”

The video feed visible on the laptop also showed that the freighter’s large boiler is still intact. Walderon said it’s a magnet for fish. The ROV also revealed three open cargo hatches on the vessel that was bound for Erie from Buffalo.

“It’s like taking a snapshot back into history,” Benczkowski said.

He and Walderon said that in addition to the historical significance of shipwreck sites, they also provide habitat and cover for fish like walleye, bass and perch, which are drawn to the minnows attracted by the plankton.

The fish also seem to like the ROV when it descends into their world. They sometimes follow it as it sweeps from one end of the wreck to the other.

“They get interested and curious,” Walderon said.





Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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