Thursday, September 01, 2005


Napa marine scientist holds the key to underwater wreck


Napa News
By David Eyan
August 30, 2005

Dr. Sheli Smith is a Napa marine archaeologist who has spent the last 20 years studying shipwrecks near California and around the world.

Last month Smith led a team off the Florida Keys for a look at a 19th century shipwreck, but the crew was not hunting for treasure.

Instead Smith, a former Napa Valley College professor, is preparing the first map of the 120-year-old Austro-Hungarian merchant ship called the Slobodna for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She was relying on a team of students around the world, ranging in experience from high school to graduate school.

While the map will give sport divers and scientists a better understanding of the wreck, the real purpose of Sheli Smith's expedition is to teach students about marine archaeology as director of the nonprofit PAST Foundation, based in Columbus, Ohio.

"Our main goal is to provide life skills for young adults and for full adults to understand the need for stewardship," she said.

The PAST Foundation mounts archaeological expeditions around the globe, lumping students together from high schools and universities around the world. Students hailing from Tajikistan to Ohio descended into the clear coastal waters off south Florida to check out the Slobodna.

The ship once ran cotton from the deep south to Europe, but in 1887 it got caught in a fierce storm while rounding the Florida Keys. It ran aground along shallow reefs while its hold was laden with cotton.

Since then it's been logged in history books as one of more than 100 wrecks near the Florida Keys known as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary -- a tourist destination for adventure-seeking divers.

The NOAA doesn't have enough money to map all the wrecks, so the PAST Foundation offered to help it out by mapping the Slobodna.

Smith and more than a dozen students spent two weeks exploring the Slobodna, identifying different parts of the 170 foot-long ship and wreckage they found spread over a mile, about four miles from the Florida Keys.

"This was by far the best conditions I'd worked in," said Stephanie Allen, a graduate student from New Hampshire who helped map the wreck. "The wreck was gorgeous -- you could see about 70 feet underwater compared to one I was on earlier in the summer, where you could see six inches.

"Allen said the wreck is home to all kinds of marine life including coral, angel fish and the occasional black tip shark. A moray eel lives in the mast.

"If you were down there first thing in the morning ... you could kind of look at the hull and he was kind of poking his head out looking at me," she said.

Smith said the map of the wreck led the team to discover the process by which nineteenth-century salvage crews tore apart pieces of the boat they could reach. They also discovered previously unexplored parts of the wreck.

Annalies Corbin, who helped lead the team, said the Slobodna wreck is part of the PAST Foundation's mission to do research that would make otherwise obscure matters more accessible to the public. The foundation writes teaching curriculum based on their project and often has a documentary filmmaker in tow, taping their explorations.

"If you wanted to be Indiana Jones when you were young, we can help you experience some of those things," she said.


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