Volume 26 Number 2
A diver unearths a Chinese ceramic trade bowl with distinctive markings from the maker on its base.
Photo by Charles Beeker
Frolic dive team members gather in the Underwater Science Program's equipment room. From left are Adam Gutwein (standing), Mike Esher, program director Charles Beeker, Jaime Brown, and Sean Bradley.
©2004 Tyagan Miller
The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, in Mendocino Calif., near where the Frolic wrecked, was built in 1906.
Jaime Brown struggles to hold a yardstick still against the force of rough water and tides. Beneath her, a fellow diver wields a tape measure. They've been underwater for nearly 50 minutes, taking measurements of a large anchor. Brown keeps her eye on the movements of some nearby kelp to predict when the water will surge, trying to brace herself accordingly.
It's not your typical summer school experience.
Brown, a senior at Indiana University Bloomington, was learning practical field techniques while conducting academic researchall underwater. Such experiences are at the heart of IU's new major in underwater archaeology. A few years ago, IU became the first university in the country to offer an undergraduate degree in underwater archaeology through its Individualized Major Program. Since then, the Underwater Science Program, offered through the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation and headed by Charles Beeker, has been expanding and gathering national attention.
Last summer, Brown, three other IU students, and Beeker participated in a research survey of the wreck of the Frolic, a 19th-century clipper ship that sank off the California coast. The focus of the Frolic project was to conduct an exhaustive assessment of the physical remains of the ship and the area around it. A film crew from the History Channel followed the group's work and released a documentary of the project on national television in November 2003.
Brown, then 19, was the youngest member of the dive team. Mike Esher, Adam Gutwein, and Sean Bradley were the other IU students involved.
Brown found her way into the Underwater Science Program by accident.
"Actually, I had never really thought about diving," she confesses. "In the spring of my sophomore year, a friend of mine was taking the beginning scuba classes and wanted a friend to be in it with her. I agreed, and I loved it. The funny thing is, I stuck with it, and she didn't."
After taking the basic scuba certification classes, Brown decided to pursue an underwater resource management certificate. The 24-credit-hour certificate is one of Beeker's recent creations. It is, he stresses, a serious academic pursuit.
"People hear about the program and say, 'Oh, they've made scuba diving a major,'" he says. "But there's a lot more to it. We are scientists first, divers second."
Brown agrees. "Most people don't realize what the program is about," she says. "When I tell them that I'm getting a certificate in underwater resource management and that it has to do with scuba diving, they think it sounds like a lot of fun and wish they could do something easy like that. They don't really realize the work involved."
One of the requirements of the program is participation in a field research project similar to the Frolic expedition. While a dive trip to an exotic location may seem more like a luxury than a course requirement, Beeker says there is no better way to learn than in the field.
"We aren't going to teach these students to dive, certify them in some local quarry, and hand them their degree," he says. "We're training them so they can put their skills to use in a way that benefits other divers and our underwater world, and the fieldwork is their chance to participate in that."
A look through the team's daily dive journals provides an idea of how the work was done. Brown quickly discovered that fieldwork could be as draining as it was captivating and fun, according to her journal.
I liked getting interviewed by the History Channel. Unfortunately, they caught me exhausted after two dives, and I had to struggle to make my mind work again. Overall, this experience has increased my desire to become a career diver, and I'd love to dive the Frolic again. Everybody was so wonderful, and I ate better here than during the school year. Living in historic houses was wonderful, and who knew what to expect with promises of "free room and board."
These IU field projects are paying big dividends. The Underwater Science Program is now involved with dozens of historic sites as an international leader in the creation of underwater parks. Beeker would love to see the Frolic designated as an underwater park, similar to several other projects the Underwater Science Program has worked on in California. "Establishing underwater parks is the best way to both preserve biological and cultural resources and to ensure the continued enjoyment of such areas for future generations of sport divers," he explains.
While Brown was the youngest member of the dive team, senior Mikel Esher was the oldest participating studenta 42-year-old who came back to school just for the underwater archaeology program.
"I'd been in sport-diving for a long time," he says, "but I ended up seeing a magazine article about the program at IU, and that's what got me going back to school."
The Frolic project was Esher's first dive with the program, and he spent much of his time observing and learning how underwater research is done. All of the diving, measuring, marking, and labeling involved is hard work, he admits, but the group enthusiasm was energizing.
"At first I felt a little different, being older than the students but certainly not an instructor or professor, but I fit right in pretty quick," he says. "It ended up being the whole group working toward a common goal. Everyone pulled their weight and worked hard at it."
One IU student on the project was not a diver, or even an underwater science student. Sean Bradley, an informatics major and a computer specialist, arrived at the Frolic wreck site as a technical assistant.
"I work sometimes at the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, doing computer support," Bradley, a junior, explains. "I've done some work for Charles Beeker here and there, and we've talked about his projects. He offered me the chance to go along on one of his trips."
Bradley's role as a member of the Frolic team was to archive and edit the underwater photography, ensure that all computer equipment was in good working shape, and to upload the daily dive journals onto the Internet. What he saw during his interaction with the project impressed him, as he wrote in his journal.
What surprised me was the overall project complexity. It's remarkable how scientists can understand how the ship crashed based on where the keel rests, or how the ship was made, by inspecting small bits of things. Archaeologists understand the big picture by examining a limited amount of 150-year-old data. You'd be amazed what an expert can tell you by knowing precisely where artifacts were found.
Bradley might not have been a certified scuba diver, but that didn't mean he stayed dry for the whole project.
"I got to do some snorkeling, and I had to bum a wet suit that wasn't the largest," Bradley says. "I had to squeeze myself into it. They told me the water would be so cold I wouldn't be able to feel my feet after five minutes, but I gave it three. The water was really cold, but the sites underwater were so breathtaking you forgot about the cold.
"Not many people understand the underwater world," he adds. "On earth it is our final frontier. Divers are our astronauts; they understand what is under there, and they know how to research it and find out the facts. It was amazing to see how they could piece things together."
On Day Six of the Frolic expedition, senior Adam Gutwein recorded an exciting find in his journal.
For five days we've made excellent progress, but today was my milestone. My dive partner, Jamie Barlow, an experienced Northern California diver, and I were the last divers down, about to surface after an hour. Then Jamie bumped into something round, covered with coralline algae and underwater vegetation. I came over and knew immediately we had found the 5' wide crown of a Troutman anchor.
The find was significant because the Troutman-style anchor is a representative example of then-emerging anchor technology. "It actually was collapsible, so you could fold it up and store it easily," Gutwein explains. "This type of anchor wasn't developed until 1846, so it would have been considered high-tech when the Frolic wrecked in 1850. It told us that this was an elite ship with a good captain, which reinforced the previous research."
All of the dive team members were impressed with the support and enthusiasm of the Point Cabrillo community, where the project was based. Gutwein's journal offers a glimpse of the excellent relationship between the team and the locals.
You get to know fascinating people on a first-name basis, and they teach us as much as they learn. The sport divers are particularly enthusiastic about preserving what was once their "baby," as the Frolic site was once Mendocino's best-kept secret.
The food, apparently, was also deserving of Gutwein's praise.
Dinner tonight was unbelievable. This was our first barbecue, with great salads, and a peach crisp to die for. By far, this community is more engaged than any I've seen.
The Frolic dive is the sixth such project Gutwein has worked on, and he points to it as yet another example of the Underwater Science Program's impact.
"We're going to keep creating these underwater parks, and that helps history and the environment," he says. "The reef system is in danger, so anything we can do to get people off of them and diving somewhere else is good. To incorporate a little history to preserve and to educate are also important."
Like Brown, Gutwein says his choice of major is no joke:
"I tell people what my major is and they flip out, give me the underwater basket weaving lines," he says. "Science is the sound basis for everything we do, though. People don't understand that, but when they do, they are amazed."
Gutwein plans to graduate in May, but he isn't sure what his next step will be. He would like to remain in the field of scientific diving, but he is also considering graduate school. Regardless of what he does next, he is thankful for the opportunity to participate in what he views as a unique and exceptional program.
"I definitely want to stay in touch with Professor Beeker as much as possible and continue to work with him," he said. "I'd really like to continue working on the underwater parks. I think that's something important for the future."
For all its focus on the past, the Underwater Science Program is all about the future. "Some sites, like the Frolic, have had very little study done," says Jaime Brown. "Many of the other sites have become coral reefs and house a great deal of sea life. The program helps to educate people about how to treat the reefs and how to preserve them so that future generations can enjoy them."
Michael Koryta is a junior at IU Bloomington majoring in criminal justice. A reporter for the Bloomington Herald-Times, he is also the author of Tonight I Said Goodbye, a novel to be published by St. Martin's Press in September.