Richard Stockton College students and staff are set this summer to help study a 150-year-old shipwreck off the Atlantic City coast that was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.
From May to July, students will map the wreck of the steamship Robert J. Walker, which sank about 10 miles off the coast of Atlantic City in June 1860. In August, dive teams will incorporate students’ data into their study of the site.
The project will offer students a valuable opportunity for hands-on experience in a less-publicized area of marine science, said Stockton’s Assistant Director of Academic Laboratories and Field Facilities Steve Evert.
“Marine science isn’t all about biology and critters. There’s this whole mapping and underwater survey part that we’ve been getting more and more involved in,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to expose the students to that part of marine science.”
The Walker was a survey ship in the service of the United States Coast Survey, the predecessor of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from 1848 until its sinking in 1860 due to a collision with another vessel. Twenty people died in the sinking, making it the deadliest event in NOAA’s history, said NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Maritime Heritage Program Director James Delgado.
The wreck has been a popular dive site since its discovery by fishermen in the 1970s, but it was not identified as that of the Walker until last year. Now that it has been named a historic site, groups have taken on the task of cataloguing it to facilitate future dives.
In addition to creating a map of notable areas of the site, the expeditioners hope to install a historical display about the wreck at the Absecon Lighthouse. There will also be a display featuring artifacts recovered at the site at the New Jersey Maritime Museum starting in September.
The project will be led by the New Jersey Historical Divers Association. Also involved are Stockton, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and marine technology training company Black Laser Learning.
Stockton was brought onboard by expedition co-leader Steve Nagiewicz, an Atlantic City High School science teacher and graduate of the school’s Professional Science Master’s Program.
For their part, students will map the 130-foot-by-26-foot wreck site using side-scan sonar, a magnetometer and the school’s remote operating vehicle. Students will be on the water for four or five days, with about four on-site hours each day.
Three students have signed up for the project so far, and the school’s boat can accommodate two more, said Stockton associate professor of biology Pete Straub. Many more students will be served by the incorporation of the data into future lessons.
Straub said the project will benefit not only his students but the local dive community.
“We’re very excited that Steve (Nagiewicz) asked us to come in and help, because I think it’s going to be of lasting value to the wreck diving community and the local dive community,” Straub said. “People don’t realize what’s right on their doorstep.”
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