Mystery 200-year-old Shipwreck Discovered in Gulf of Mexico Missing Clues About Crew and Vessel, Just the Number 2109

Shipwreck, Florida
A close-up view of the bow of a ship found in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Marine life is prevalent on the wreck, except on the copper sheathing which still retains its antifouling ability to keep the hull free of marine organism like Teredo navalis (shipworm) that would otherwise burrow into the wood and consume the hull or barnacles that would reduce the vessel’s speed. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

Researchers testing equipment in the Gulf of Mexico inadvertently discovered the 200-year-old wreckage of a ship earlier this month. Evidence from the wreck suggests it's sailors may have come to a fiery end.

The team aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Okeanos Explorer found the impressive wreck when they were testing a remotely operated vehicle about 160 miles off the shore, The Charlottesville Observer reported.

"[The find] was completely unexpected, like finding a needle in a haystack—but one you're not looking for," Frank Cantelas, from the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, told Newsweek via email. Although he wasn't on the boat himself, he said he knew the team felt very fortunate to be involved in such a "surprising" discovery.

The long-lost vessel lies about 1,460 feet below the surface of the water, along a long, underwater cliff known as the Florida Escarpment. The team made the discovery on May 16 during an expedition, before sharing news of the wreck online this week.

Shipwreck, Gulf of Mexico
ROV 'Deep Discoverer' approaching the bow of a shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico, Thursday May 16, 2019. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

An unusual sonar signal tipped the team off to the wreck, and they scrambled to contact expert marine archaeologists once they realized what they had found. The archeologists joined a live video stream of the seafloor to observe the dive remotely.

"Archaeologists who would not have otherwise been able to participate in the dive were able to share in the excitement from shore," Cantelas said. "Some of them received calls to participate while driving home from work or meeting with friends after work."

High resolution images revealed a ship likely built around the mid-1800s, according to the NOAA. But archaeologists couldn't immediately tell how long ago the ship sank. Made of wood with copper sheathing, the vessel is thought to have stretched about 124 feet long.

So far, many mysteries about the boat remain. "The remotely operated vehicle dive... provided basic information about the shipwreck and its current condition, but left archaeologists with many questions, including what type of sailing vessel the wreck is, why it is there, where it is from, how old it is, who was on it and where they were from," Cantelas said.

Researchers haven't been able to confirm details about the boat's nationality, crew, rig or trade, the NOAA reported. However, the numbers "2109" were nailed to the edge of the ship's rudder, and some iron and copper artifacts were spotted near the vessel.

Specialists are combining multiple pictures of the wreck to create a mosaic image of the vessel for further investigation. Cantelas said this will be "key" to understanding how artifacts and other features of the site are related.

"These relationships might reveal how different areas of the ship were used and how the wreck decayed after sinking. It provides us with a fairly accurate representation of the entire shipwreck at the time it was found, including its size and shape, which is much more difficult to discern from the limited viewpoint of the video," he said. "The photomosaic also provides a record of the site at the time it was discovered, so that we can determine how the site is changing as it slowly deteriorates."

Ghost Ship, Shipwreck
The numbers “2109” are visible along the trailing edge of the rudder of a shipwreck discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, Thursday May 16, 2019. The pattern of nails securing the copper sheathing is plainly visible. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

Much of the ship's hull is relatively well-preserved, although parts of the protective copper sheathing have deteriorated. Unusually, no structure remains above the ship's water line, and the team found little evidence of standing rigging.

Charred pieces of timber and bent fasteners suggests the boat may have caught alight at sea. Researchers think fire may have engulfed the boat and destroyed almost everything above the surface of the water.

NOAA spokesperson Emily Crum described the "surprising" find to the Observer. "Typically when we find/explore shipwrecks, we have some basic information that allows us to search for a target," she told the newspaper. "In this instance, there was no information to suggest the wreck was there. The team just 'stumbled' upon it."

Cantelas said his NOAA office has not yet planned any more investigations of the wreck. "As exploration of deep waters is difficult and expensive, we don't know when there will be another expedition," he said. But the data and images they have so far will be made public. He hopes his will spur other groups to explore and research the site.

"The deep waters of the ocean hold many shipwrecks and are an underwater museum we have only started to explore. This chance discovery is a window into the past and allows us to learn more about the maritime archaeology of the Gulf of Mexico," he added. "While it is one thing to study historical records, we can learn things from shipwrecks and studying artifacts that were never captured in the written record."

This article has been updated with comment from Frank Cantelas.