Dispatch 3: The Search Begins

September 2, 2000

Like shells one finds among shore rocks,
Only the slightest evidence
Of life survive.

—Gilgamesh

[Note: Nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit field dispatches.]

“We’re picking up lineations again,” Bob Ballard calls out, watching a grayscale sonar image of the sea floor scroll down a monitor screen. Sitting at Ballard’s site is Gary Austin, a gentle bear of a man who grips a joystick with a big paw to adjust the DSL-120’s running depth.

Photo of Ballard and AustinTen minutes later Ballard calls out again. “Oooh. Upper right. Upper right. There’s a bell-ringer.” Candace Major, the watch data-logger, notes the target’s vital stats.

A watch team of six fills the control room, manning navigation, sonar displays, winch controls, and data-logging stations. The air is stuffy—overly warm from the banks of video monitors, electronic equipment, and human bodies crammed into the small space. But the mood is relaxed, punctuated by steady banter and the rolling deck as the Northern Horizon sways in easy swells.

It’s 2 p.m., two hours since the team began their first sonar run in the prime search area.

Photo of Craig ElderEarlier this morning, the crew lowered and adjusted the DSL-120, the bottom-scanning sonar “fish.” It now skims 50 to 60 meters [55 to 66 yards] above the sea floor, dragged by the Northern Horizon via an armored cable wired with fiber optics and electrical power. The Horizon is following the first of five 30-mile [48-kilometer] track lines that run in parallel, east to west across a search area 10 to 15 miles [16 to 24 kilometers] off the coast. Creeping along at a steady 2.5 knots, the team’s sonar fish is scanning about one square mile per hour. It will take 13 hours more to complete the initial track. The Horizon will pace back and forth along these track lines, “mowing the lawn,” until the bottom scan is completed—or something piques the team’s interest.

Photo of Ballard looking at a mapBallard calls out again, this time to Craig Elder, a sonar specialist who’s manning the bottom scan sonar computer display. “See that little grape pile above the last one? That’s interesting. Can you blow that up?”

[Later, I will ask Candace Major, the watch data-logger and a geologist from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the significance of the “linear” target spotted earlier. “Lines generally don’t occur in nature,” she tells me. Barring obvious trawl marks or sand dune crests from the pre-flood landscape, “linear features suggest walls,” she says.]

Photo of the control roomBack in the control room, Ballard offers a synopsis of the two-hour-old effort: “We’ve seen a number of interesting targets. Two appear to be amphorae-carrying ships. They looked like grape clusters. So we’re just settling in.”

Then with mischievous glee, “More to come.”

—Sean Markey

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