CHAUMONT — A recent identification of a shipwreck by a pair of veteran divers and historians has shown that regardless of decades of revelations and explorations, there are more secrets to be uncovered under the waves of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.
Also, many of those shipwrecks are being seen in a new light by divers and non-divers, as 3D images created by photogrammetry creates a new way of viewing, exploring and researching those wrecks.
“The technology itself is amazing,” said Kenneth Merryman, avid shipwreck hunter, diver and founding member of the Michigan-based Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society. “I think this is one of those breakthrough technologies that will be used throughout our lives and throughout different areas.”
One of the missions of the preservation society is its photogrammetry project, 3DShipwrecks.org, launched in 2020 by Mr. Merryman. Its goal is to create a database of 3D photogrammetry models for all or as many as possible shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. It depends on support from the diving community and diving and historical organizations to help create content. Its “Great Lakes”data area includes the St. Lawrence River.
One of its partners is the of the St. Lawrence River Historical Foundation, Inc., co-founded by Dennis R. and Kathi McCarthy, Cape Vincent, who direct the nonprofit. The SLRHF has created several 3D models of local shipwrecks on their site, Thousand Islands 3D Shipwrecks.
The McCarthys plan to add their latest discovery to the list of 3D models.
For years, local fishermen have known of some sort of shipwreck located just before the isthmus of Point Peninsula. It’s near shore, off a New York State fishing access site and boat launch. From the “mainland,” it’s near the beginning of Beach Road, located on the isthmus which heads southeast to Point Peninsula, town of Lyme.
The shipwreck site has also been known for years by the McCarthys.
Mr. McCarthy retired in 2009 from his career in engineering management in the Consumer Electronics and CATV industries. Having traveled to 28 countries in his business profession, he now prefers to spend his time with Kathi in Cape Vincent and enjoying the Thousand Islands and St. Lawrence River.
A certified scuba diver for about 40 years, he made his first dives in the river in 1971. His other interests are photography and local history. He has written, co-authored and published several scuba diving guides to the Thousand Islands.
Mrs. McCarthy has summered in the Thousand Islands since her parents bought property in Cape Vincent in 1948. Being so close to Carleton Island spurred her interest in history even as a pre-teen. While working at Eastman Kodak Co., she became a certified scuba diver in 1970. Her main hobbies, besides being a researcher for their books, are history and genealogy.
They formed the nonprofit St. Lawrence River Historical Foundation, Inc. in 1994 to promote research and education regarding the maritime history of the St. Lawrence River. It’s supported by individuals, companies and other nonprofits.
Mr. McCarthy said he and members of the Clayton Dive Club tried to dive the site near the isthmus area in the late 1970s.
“With the bad water visibility back then, we only saw some timbers and did not go back,” he said. “Last month, Kathi and I were on the way to Fox Island when we decided to go over the site with our side imaging sonar. To our surprise, the wreck was much larger than we expected.”
They notified New York State’s Historic Preservation Office.
“This fall when we have time, we plan to do a full map and 3D image of the site,” Mr. McCarthy said.
The wreck has been tentatively identified by the couple as the schooner Minerva Cook. A report made by Mr. McCarthy with contributions from Jim Kennard, Brendon Baillod and Richard Nagel notes the remains of the ship measure over 80 feet, close to the reported 88-foot length of the Minerva Cook.
The remains rest in less than 10 feet of water above a bottom of flat rocks, boulders and gravel. Wreckage is spread over about 10,000 square feet of Lake Ontario.
“It’s a very exposed area and with all the ice pack coming in there, I was totally surprised that much ship was left there,” Mr. McCarthy said. “It’s located not too far off the DEC boat ramp and it’s a good kayak site. If anybody wants to see a shipwreck, they can kayak over top of it.”
Compared to other shipwrecks in the area, the remains of the Minerva Cook don’t add up to much. It’s basically just the hull of the ship. But any discovery of a shipwreck and its identification, especially one that originated from a sinking in the 1860s, is notable, Mr. McCarthy said.
According to Michigan’s Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library, the two-masted Minerva Cook was built in 1840 at Garden Island, Ontario and was wrecked in November of 1868.
Exposed to western winds from Lake Ontario, many ships have been lost in the area where the Minerva Cook succumbed, Mr. McCarthy said.
“Any ship that lost control of their sail or got lost in a storm, they would ground on the rock bottom,” he said.
Identifying the remains of ships lost in the early to mid-19th century in the region can be difficult, Mr. McCarthy explained.
“We were having a hard time identifying down to what ship it was that would have been left there,” he said of the Minerva Cook.”The shipping records, historical records and newspaper accounts are much easier from the 1880s up to the 1900s.”
Mr. McCarthy said the Minerva Cook appears similar to a section of a ship discovered in the area last year when recreational scuba diver Daniel J. Gildea dove in Henderson Bay to explore the remains of a vessel: an apparent three-mast wooden schooner that most likely dates back to the mid- to late-1800s, sitting down about 20 to 30 feet on the bottom of Henderson Bay. He has said it most likely dates back to the mid- to late-1800s. Mr. Gildea told the Times in April that he believes the wreckage is from the steamer Martha Ogden, which sank in 1832. Other seasoned divers and those versed in shipwreck identification of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River do not necessarily agree with that supposition.
Another recent discovery literally called attention to itself. In the early spring of 2020, parts of an old ship washed ashore at Sandy Pond Beach, Oswego County. Experts believe the remains, a 20-by-20-foot section, came from the 137-feet long, 307-ton Hartford, a three-masted ship launched in 1873. In 1894, she struggled in a fierce fall gale off Mexico Bay and finally succumbed to it. Since it washed ashore, nearly all of the ship’s section has been naturally reburied in the sand.
The recent discoveries demonstrate that underwater mysteries in the form of shipwrecks in the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario continue to intrigue. That’s one of the reasons why a U.S. National Marine Sanctuary managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is being considered for Lake Ontario and possibly portions of the St. Lawrence River.
NOAA is now holding a series of online public meetings to gather public input. Lake Ontario would become the third Great Lake sanctuary and the 16th National Marine Sanctuary. This area, NOAA says, contains a “nationally significant” collection of historic shipwrecks.
“In the Thousand Islands, there’s really not much left to find, and in Lake Ontario, you’ve got to go really out in the deep water,” Mr. McCarthy said.
Many of the photos and videos of shipwrecks the McCarthys have taken over the years are now being used for photogrammetry — the process used to create a 3D scan of an object, using multiple images.
According to Mr. Merryman, structure from motion photogrammetry is the type most commonly used by underwater archaeologists. SfM creates a 3D model from overlapping images by comparing large numbers of key points. Eventually, a 3D image/structure is constructed using complex calculations and camera lens optics.
“We’re doing this with existing videos that I’ve taken over the years,” Mr. McCarthy said. “The quality of the models aren’t great because the video wasn’t done for that purpose.”
The St. Lawrence River Historical Foundation recently began working with 3DShipwrecks.org as part of its project to provide 3D models of every shipwreck in the Great Lakes for view by the public. Locally, with assistance from 3DShipwrecks.org, the McCarthys created Thousand Islands 3D Shipwrecks.
They will work with the local dive clubs, divers, and shops to acquire videos to produce 3D models.
“Anyone who has a video of a wreck site that we can extract a 3D image from, we will process it for free and give back the files for a 3D model,” the Thousand Islands 3D Shipwrecks website says. “The only provision is that we get to post it on 3D Shipwrecks.org and our own sites with appropriate credits.”
3D Shipwrecks.org is a project of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society of Minnesota, a nonprofit established in 1996 to stabilize and protect deteriorating shipwrecks of the Great Lakes region.
For the last five years, Mr. Merryman has spent his summers circumnavigating the Great Lakes in his 1947 Owens Cruiser. For decades, Mr. Merryman, 71, used the boat in his diving charter business. The Canton, Ohio native, who now lives in Minnesota, is a retired computer engineer.
Mr. Merryman said that he and a shipwreck diving buddy, Jerry Eliason, first began thinking about photogrammetry and how it could be used on shipwrecks about seven years ago.
“We got some successes, lots of failures,” Mr. Merryman said.
Linking up with Tamara Thomsen, maritime archaeologist at the Wisconsin Historical Society helped their efforts. Ms. Thomsen and fellow maritime archaeologist Caitlin Zant did a study on the technology and how it can be used on shipwrecks.
“Photogrammetry has become a tool for maritime archaeologists not only to visualize underwater sites as a whole, but allows us to compare models of individual sites collected over time as means of site monitoring,” Ms. Thomsen said.
Mr. Merryman’s 3D database, aided by partners such as the St. Lawrence River Historical Foundation, now has about 50 3D wrecks to view.
Mr. Merryman himself has added about 25 videos of wrecks to the site this year.
“A lot of them take extra work,” Mr. Merryman said. “I have a big computer on my boat and during downtime, I work on it. I’ve been trying to get one done a week, but that hasn’t always worked. When it’s good weather, we’re out taking pictures. When the weather is bad, I’m processing pictures.”
Mr. Merryman said that his 3D shipwreck project is not unique, noting that others taking advantage of photogrammetry for shipwreck research include the National Parks Service, Parks Canada and NOAA.
“The estimates that we use is that there’s around 1,200 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes that are divable and which you can visit,” Mr. Merryman said. “Even if you subtract the ones that are at parks and preserves, there’s still well over a thousand. And we’re discovering new ones every year. It’s still a giant job.”
The 3D images, Mr. Merryman said, can be used to create tangible models by using a three-dimensional printer; a development he said has attracted the attention of some museums.
Mr. McCarthy said that in addition to the general public, the 3D technology can be useful to experienced divers.
“I’ve had a number of divers who have looked at the photograming of the 3D models who said, ‘I didn’t understand what I was looking at. Now I see the whole thing. I got a better lay of the shipwreck and how it’s laid out.’”
Any diver interested in joining the project, Mr. Merryman said, should go to his 3Dshipwrecks.org website for more information. He added that it’s not unusual to use older, existing footage — requiring hundreds of images, to create a 3D model.
“A number of the wrecks on the site are created from older video,” Mr. Merryman said. “We’re creating a baseline today, but being able to look back is valuable, as well as looking forward. Where we have old video and know the date it was taken, that gives us a history of what it was like 15 years ago or whatever. It works. Sometimes, it doesn’t have quite the resolution, but it still gives us a point of reference.”
The videos can be used to study what could cause a wreck to degrade, Mr. Merryman said.
“I don’t know if we have the resources to do much in the way of abatement or protection,” he said. “But at least preserving and documenting what’s there, what was there, is significant.” And sometimes, he added, it’s not known what exactly is being documented with the images.
“If we get the right person looking at the data, they can potentially help identify shipwrecks or identify things that have been misidentified.”
Mr. McCarthy knows of some promising photogrammetry occurring in other bodies of water in the state.
“They’ll have some dramatic discoveries in Cayuga and Seneca lakes in deep, cold water and amazing canal boats,” he said.
When conditions are right, the McCarthys plan to return to Point Peninsula and film the remains of the Minerva Cook for their 3D project.
“It’s so shallow, with any sunlight hitting ripples on the surface, you’ll see on the bottom, all these moving and undulating lines,” Mr. McCarthy said.
That basically throws a wrench into the photogrammetry correlation process.
“We’re going have to go back with a camera that works with a little bit wider angle and would work in six feet of water,” Mr. McCarthy said. “And we’ll have to find a calm and a clear day. On the coast of Lake Ontario, that’s not very easy to find.”