From seafloor mappers to seafloor archaeologists – a field-work day for the books!
The waters surrounding Newfoundland and Labrador are some of the most treacherous and unpredictable in the world (1). The island hangs out into the Atlantic ocean where the Gulf Stream meets the Labrador current; dense fog and stormy seas are an unwavering part of everyday life. Combined with Newfoundland's characteristic rugged and rocky shoreline, the harsh conditions create havoc for even the most experienced mariners. Historically a region of high vessel traffic, it is estimated that thousands of ships have wrecked on these shores - many have never been found.
Our story begins like any other - in 1904, with a passenger ship christened the SS Champlain. The vessel was a "short and beamy 120-passenger icebreaker" registered to the Canadian Government (the Gulf of St. Lawrence Shipping & Trading Co.), and was in service in Québec shuttling passengers, mail, and other goods from the South Shore railhead at Rivière Ouelle, up the St. Lawrence River to St-Irenèe, Murray Bay, and Cap-à-l'Aigle on the North Shore (2). The SS Champlain was converted to a tugboat in 1937 and was employed by a paper and pulp mill in Newfoundland until it ran aground and sank about 2 miles off Cape Chapeau Rouge, Newfoundland in 1942.
Back to present day.
A typical day of field work here at 4D Oceans consists of long hours, mild seasickness, and some incredible sightings both on the surface of the water and deep below. Our work is driven by ocean exploration as we embark on missions to characterize seafloor habitats and discover unique habitats and communities across the seabed. During one of our field work expeditions, our team transcended from seafloor mappers to seafloor archaeologists when we found a structure that “sounded” and looked like a shipwreck. As we were conducting a detailed, line-by-line survey of the coast of St. Lawrence using our Kongsberg multibeam sonar system, we were able to map this wreck site in high resolution.
This region is famous for two US navy ships that had perished here during World War II - USS Truxtun and USS Pollux - their remains are left scattered along the rocky bottom. Driven by curiosity about the history of this wreck and eager for more information, we immediately got in contact with Neil Burgess, president of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland & Labrador Inc., who could provide some information about this ship. They suggested that we may have found the SS Champlain (1904-1942), which was known to have run aground off the coast of Newfoundland, yet no one knew its exact whereabouts! We returned to the site a few days later with our underwater camera to document the condition of the wreck. To our surprise, we found the skeleton of the wreck teeming with life, and many structures still fully intact including the railing, beams, a ladder, and the old binnacle compass!
Check out this video footage of the wreck captured with our DeepTrekker camera!
Wreck sites are known to act as artificial reefs and support biodiversity and habitat for various species, specifically organisms that attach to substratum and filter feed like anemones. They also provide shelter for various fish as seen in the video (check out the size of those sculpins!) To support the long-term preservation of this site we will not be releasing its location, but we have the information catalogued with the provincial government.
Mapping the oceans remains a crucial effort, with so many natural and human-engineered phenomena waiting to be discovered. Think about how long this wreck might have remained hidden had we not stumbled upon it! Here at 4D Oceans lab, we are excited to continue our efforts in ocean exploration and share our adventures with you – stay tuned!