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Famed steamship rests in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

NOAA side scan sonar image of Portland as it rests at the bottom of the ocean.August 29, 2002 — NOAA today confirmed the final resting place of New England's most sought after and mysterious wreck, the steamship Portland. All 192 passengers and crew were lost in the Nov. 27, 1898 storm. The wreck is located within NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, off the coast of Massachusetts. (Click NOAA side scan sonar image for larger view of Portland as it rests at the bottom of the ocean. Click here for high resolution version at 205 dpi. Please note that this is large file. Please credit “NOAA.”)

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In a late July and early August joint research mission, NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the National Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut, mapped and shot video of the wreck lost in the "Portland Gale of 1898.” The video and side-scan images from the mission provide visual documentation to earlier work by American Underwater Search and Survey.

"We are excited to be able to bring some closure to one of New England's most mysterious shipwrecks," said Craig MacDonald, NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary superintendent. "The story of the Steamship Portland and its fatal last run from Boston to Portland, Maine, has intrigued maritime historians for years due to the wide-ranging reported sightings of the ship during the storm. This mission allows us to start putting some answers to the questions about its loss."

The location of the wreck within the sanctuary’s boundaries provides protection unavailable in other federal waters off Massachusetts. Sanctuary regulations prohibit moving, removing or injuring, or attempting to move, remove or injure any submerged cultural or historical resources, including artifacts and pieces from shipwrecks. Anyone violating this regulation is subject to civil penalties.

"While the Sanctuary has been most associated with whales and whale watching, it also serves as a steward of the submerged historical and cultural resources within its boundaries," said MacDonald. "We are extremely proud that our first dedicated mission to search and explore has produced such exciting results. Future missions hold promise for similarly rewarding finds."

The expedition to confirm the location and identity of the Portland involved many organizations and a range of technologies. Discovery of the wreck site was first reported in 1989 by a team from a Massachusetts firm that specializes in locating lost objects at sea. John Fish and Arnold Carr of American Underwater Search and Survey announced their find but were unable to produce high quality photographs for evaluation and verification.

Production of a high quality map of the region by the U.S. Geological Survey, using multi-beam and side-scan sonar technologies, indicated more than 50 anomalies in the sanctuary, including a target at the Fish/Carr site. The detailed map allowed scientists and marine archaeologists to deploy other imaging equipment to get more detailed close-up views on the July and August research cruises.

"Side-scan images from the research vessel Connecticut and the NOAA ship Ferrel showed that the wreck sits upright on the seafloor, with its hull largely intact but much of its superstructure gone," said primary investigator Ben Cowie-Haskell of the sanctuary. Wreckage from the vessel found along Cape Cod beaches in the days after its loss included pieces from its upper decks. "All passengers and crew were lost, but the exact number has never been determined due to the lack of a passenger list on shore," said Haskell. "The latest estimate is 192 individuals lost, with only 38 bodies recovered as they washed up on Massachusetts beaches between Truro and Monomoy."

Remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operations from the R/V Connecticut in July produced high quality video footage of the wreck that showed some of the distinctive features of this type of coastal passenger steamship, including a steam release vent, rudder assembly, paddle guard, paddle wheel hub and overall length. The observation of these features positively identifies this wreck as the Portland as there are no other coastal steamers of this type reported to have been lost in Massachusetts Bay.

Abundant and colorful marine growth, including anemones, tunicates and sponges, cover much of the ship; and cod, redfish, cusk and other fish swim about the wreck. The ROV was able to make these close-up inspections due to the installation of a dynamic positioning system on board the ship which allowed for precision maneuvering, according to Ivar Babb, director of the National Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut.

Although artifacts displaying the ship's name could not be found, a team of independent marine archaeologists confirmed the identification based on the evidence provided by the side-scan and video images.

Congress designated the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in 1992 as “an area of special national significance.” Virtually the size of the state of Rhode Island, the sanctuary stretches between Cape Ann and Cape Cod in federal waters off of Massachusetts. The sanctuary is renowned as a major feeding area for marine mammals, particularly humpback whales, and supports an ecosystem of diverse wildlife.

NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program seeks to increase the public awareness of America’s maritime heritage by conducting scientific research, monitoring, exploration and educational programs. Today, 13 national marine sanctuaries encompass more than 18,000 square miles of America’s ocean and Great Lakes natural and cultural resources.

NOAA’s National Ocean Service manages the National Marine Sanctuary Program and is dedicated to exploring, understanding, conserving and restoring the nation’s coasts and oceans. NOAA Ocean Service balances environmental protection with economic prosperity in fulfilling its mission of promoting safe navigation, supporting coastal communities, sustaining coastal habitats and mitigating coastal hazards.

NOAA's National Undersea Research Program funds six research centers around the country at major universities. A key strength of NURP is its partnership with the nation’s science community. Each of the regional centers is funded by a grant from NOAA. Research projects are chosen based upon peer review. The open, competitive nature of the process ensures that a variety of high quality science projects are undertaken.

The Center for the North Atlantic and Great Lakes is located at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point. This center supports and conducts research in the waters off the northeast coast of the U.S. including the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, Southern New England Bight, including Long Island Sound and the Great Lakes.

Other centers in NURP include The National Undersea Research Center for the Caribbean region which is located at the Caribbean Marine Research Center in Tequesta, Fla.; The National Undersea Research Center for Hawaii and Western Pacific located at the University of Hawaii with the research program conducted by the University’s Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory; The National Undersea Research Center for the Middle Atlantic Bight located at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.

The National Undersea Research Center for the Southeastern United States and Gulf of Mexico is located at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and conducts research in the South Atlantic Bight (North Carolina to Florida), Florida Keys, and the Gulf of Mexico. The National Undersea Research Center for the West Coast and Polar Regions is located at the University of Alaska-Fairbank’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Services. The region served by the Center includes a vast area along the western margin of North America (70% of the U.S. continental shelf area) and supports a major portion of the annual U.S. fisheries take and production of mineral resources.

Relevant Web Sites
NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

NOAA’s National Ocean Service

NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program

NOAA's National Undersea Research Program

Media Contact:
Stephanie Balian, NOAA Ocean Service, (301) 713-3066