Dispatch 5: Change of Course

July 15, 1999

(Note: Nationalgeographic.com does not research or edit dispatches.)

Ballard was frustrated. Two days out at sea, and the cameras on the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) had recorded close to zero footage of the sea floor.

Once his boat—the “Z” boat—left the protective embrace of the port, choppy waves and strong currents pulled the tethered ROV off course. The team spent most of its time hauling it in and dropping it back.

Photo of crew loading the Sea Rover ROV on deck

He had contemplated taking the Z boat and ROV out at night—when the waters are calmer. But on the third day, the sun shined on a flat sea and Ballard planned to make the most of a promising day—with a slight change of course.

First, a fourth boat, the Saros, from the Turkish Institute of Nautical Archaeology, would join the expedition to survey a canyon that was found a few days earlier by the sonar ship, Guven.

Next, both ROVs were to be deployed. The larger of the two, the Sea Rover, would do double duty as a sonar surveyor and “big picture” video camera. The smaller ROV, the Benthos Mini-Rover Mark II or “Geek,” would be deployed to do high-resolution, close-up camera work.

Finally, David Mindell was enlisted to act as navigator, sonar operator, and science team coordinator under Ballard. Mindell had been leading the sonar survey on the Guven.

Photo of 'Z' boat leaving Sinop

The plan went like this: The Z boat would head out to about 27 Kilometers [17 miles], where the ancient shoreline was found. The Sea Rover, equipped with sonar, would then be lowered into the water and guided to a depth of about 155 meters [510 feet]. It would then “transect,” or cross through, the beach of that shoreline at several different points to give the team a better idea of the lay of the land. Interesting features would immediately be plotted and videotaped.

(Thus far, several pieces of evidence indicate that a river could have met the ancient lake at the shoreline. On land near Sinop, a valley leads to the current shoreline of the Black Sea. Before about 5600 B.C., a river could have run through that valley, meandered along a bluff that is now flat sea floor, rushed down a steep trench into what is now an underwater canyon, and finally met the lake, depositing sediments that may now lie on the sea floor.)

According to Mindell, “the theory is that people settled on the bluffs where the river met the sea.” This theory is consistent with observations made by the land archaeologists that all human settlements in the Sinop peninsula were made on ridges, bluffs, and other high points.

What signs of settlement is the underwater team hoping to find? Clam shells, for one. Ancient hunters and gatherers living near fresh-water lakes might have left mounds of shells behind. And mussels and clams both inhabit coasts—their remains would be good delineators of shorelines.

The “change of course” and the calm sea both made for a good day.

Both ROVs were successfully lowered to the bottom of the sea several times at different places and depths. The “Geek” taped several minutes of very clear underwater footage that the team will study carefully. Although nothing conclusive was found, some interesting evidence turned up.

A teammate found a small black pebble on the skid of one of the ROVs. Ballard was delighted. The pebble was basalt—a sign of volcanic activity that could become an important clue.

The find inspired Fred Hiebert to scoop mud off the bottom of the ROVs when they were pulled up again. The mud will be analyzed for the presence of fresh-water shell fragments—another possible clue.

Satisfied that a good day’s work was done, Ballard told the captain to head for home.





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