NEW ORLEANS - An oil company exploration crew's chance discovery of a 200-year-old shipwreck in a little-charted stretch of the Gulf of Mexico is yielding a trove of new information to scientists who say it's one of the most well-preserved old wrecks ever found in the Gulf.
"When we saw it we were all just astonished because it was beautifully preserved, and by that I mean for a 200-year-old shipwreck," said Jack Irion, maritime archaeologist with the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in New Orleans.
Video shows muskets and gin bottles littering the Gulf bottom, along with sea life mingling in the wreck.
Scientists say the ship is about 200 miles off the northern Gulf coast and about 4,000 feet deep. The depth has kept it largely undisturbed during two centuries of storms and hurricanes. And although most of the ship's wood dissolved long ago, the copper hull and its contents remain in place.
"The wood is deteriorated. It's largely been eaten away by marine organisms, but what is left is a copper shell which would have been the lower part of the hull which was sheathed in copper to protect it," Irion said.
Among the wreckage were "a rather astonishing number of bottles," particularly square gin bottles known as case bottles, as well as wine bottles, Irion said.
There were many ceramic cups, plates and bowls that didn't appear to be cargo. Some were green shell-edged pearl ware, a British import popular in the United States between 1800 and 1830.
The ship's kitchen stove was found intact.
"Very few shipwrecks have been found that still have the stove intact," Irion said. "You can very clearly see the features of the stove. It's in rather good shape."
Also discovered were an anchor, cannons and muskets. Irion said researchers have not yet determined whether it was a merchant, military or pirate ship.
There was plenty of pirate and military activity in the Gulf at the time, surrounding the War of 1812, the Texas revolution and the Mexican-American War. The buccaneer Jean Lafitte and other pirates sailed the Gulf to smuggle goods into New Orleans, Galveston, Texas, and elsewhere.
"It was actually a fairly hazardous place to be if you were a merchant ship, so it was not unlikely that you would be carrying a cannon on board to protect yourself," Irion said
Researchers believe the ship likely sank during a storm.
"We haven't seen any evidence of burning, or explosions or cannon shot. That's obvious, so we strongly suspect that it was likely a hurricane or another strong storm and it simply foundered at sea and vanished without a trace and was never reported missing," Irion said.
The shipwreck site was noticed as an "unknown sonar contact" during an oil and gas survey last year by Shell Oil Co. Shell reported it to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which teamed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to survey the site.
The federal agencies used robots and high-definition cameras during a 56-day expedition by the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer that ended April 29.
The underwater video was transmitted live via satellite to maritime archaeologists, scientists and resource managers from Texas to Rhode Island.
BOEM is protecting and preserving the site until it's determined what country the vessel is from.
So far, none of the wreckage or cargo has been brought up - and it might never be. The authorities want to explore as much as they can before making that decision.
Frank Cantelas, a maritime archaeologist for NOAA, said the site was one of four explored in the Gulf last month. He said the agency also intends to study the sea life at the site, because deep sea shipwrecks often serve as habitats for marine life.
Researchers wouldn't disclose the precise location of the wreck, citing concerns over possible plundering or disturbing the site.
"One thing that we want to stress is ships have a monetary value, but they also have to us a historical value that goes way beyond that," Irion said. "What this can tell us is a very interesting story about our past, about the history of the Gulf of Mexico, about how important the Gulf of Mexico was to the beginnings of the United States."
The wreckage can also give insight to the lives of the crew, where they had been, where they were going and their role in the economy and world history.
"It's as if we get a glimpse into what their lives were like, like a time capsule," Irion said.