…When we see a wreck underwater, the vessel doesn’t look the way it would look at the surface. Normally we spend a lot of time making sure that barnacles and marine life don’t grow on a floating ship. But once it sinks, that is a whole other story. It becomes covered by plants and invertebrates like algae, corals, and sponges. These then attract other bigger creatures, creating a whole ecosystem and possibly even encouraging human activities too, like fishing and scuba diving!
I am currently writing my master’s thesis on the overlap between Maritime Archaeology and Marine Biology. I try to use marine biology to help us understand the archaeology and vice versa! Part of my research is looking at a particular site from WWII that is over 100m deep. I am not trained to use a rebreather (yet) so I’m not capable of diving that deep. I rely on the footage collected by technical divers and by using that video footage I can create a blueprint of the ecology that has grown on the site.
Once I am done, the goal is that other researchers or even the local dive community can continue the work. They will update the model and see how the site changes at different times of the year, and overtime in general. This will give other marine biologists and archaeologists important information to help them know how to best preserve the site in the future.
How often do you get into the water for your research?
Ha! That changes depending on where I am! When I was in Malta it seemed like I was in the water or on a boat every day! However, I am currently in Canada so I am not able to get in the water until the summer. Ideally, I try to get in the water every few months. Even if it is just a pool training session to keep my air consumption and buoyancy control in good condition. I rely on the schedule of the local dive community. With one group, we actually tried to do “Pool Session Yoga” or set up obstacle courses to complete. We have fun with it!
Tell us about your scuba diving experiences.
I have about 200 dives, most of which were recreational. I have started technical training and am a certified rescue diver. I am also a Nitrox (EANx) user, but I mostly use air. The deepest dive was just shy of 50m. I have seen everything from quarries with no current and great visibility, to strong ocean currents with practically no visibility and icebergs at the surface!
I first started diving in Crete, Greece 14 years ago, so my 200 dives aren’t nearly as many as I’d like it to be. I was 11 when I started diving so I was mostly only able to dive for a week or two a year when my family was visiting the shore. Regardless, I am pretty pleased with the sites I have managed to dive on! Since then, I have dived off the coast of a lot of Greek islands, and all along the East Coast of North America. One cool thing is that I can actually say I have dived as far East and as far South as you can go while still being in North America! (Newfoundland, Canada and Key West, in the United States!)
What are the limitations of your work underwater?
The limitations depend on the site and what region we are in. The province I am currently in requires all non-recreational diving to be done with surface supply air, rather than tanks. So that might be the next certification I need to get when training starts up again! Due to living in Newfoundland for a few years, I was trained using a dry suit. So I am not too bothered by the cold. For reference, Newfoundland is close to where the Titanic sank, so yes, there are icebergs in the water many months of the year!
So depending on local safety regulations and conditions, our limitations can change. Using a drysuit in cold water helps us conserve air which can give us a longer bottom time. Being in better shape and in better control of our air can do the same.
Generally, in my experience, we want to minimize decompression stops. But for those trained to work on very deep sites, it is unavoidable! A big thing that people forget is the difference between ‘working’ underwater and going for a tour of the site. It is very easy to forget about your air consumption when focusing on the measurements you are taking or the task you are completing. This means the buddy system and a good computer/air gauge are necessities for safety!
Where have you traveled to for your research?
I have traveled to Washington D.C., New Orleans, and Boston for conferences and studied in Newfoundland, Canada, and at the University of Malta. I am hoping that someday I will be able to return to the Mediterranean to work or volunteer on projects. Someday, hopefully, the procedure I am using on one WWII wreck can start being used on other war wrecks. If I end up in the UK again, I would like to be able to talk to some of the regions that were most affected by those disasters.
What is the coolest thing or experience you have had underwater.
Oh, this is a hard one. I really love invertebrates, so for the longest time, one of the most amazing sights I had seen was a large seastar trying to eat a very large conch. Of course, mealtime for seastars is not exactly fast food, so I was lucky that this was happening right at eye level during my safety stop! I got to watch them, guilt-free, for 3 minutes!
Another really amazing sight was seeing a shark in a passageway on a scuttled US Coast Guard Cutter off the coast of Florida. I am a shark conservation diver and am passionate about encouraging people to understand the creatures that might scare them or seem elusive to them. Yet, when I do come across a shark on a dive, I know to give it its distance. We weren’t expecting to see a shark just chilling in that passageway during our penetration dive. It was pretty cool to see it in such small quarters, even if it was just for a moment before we turned around and made our way to our back up route!
One thing that is always pretty cool but creepy to see underwater is modern human items. It also reminds me of why I am in the field that I am. Our perception of shipwrecks is often very skewed. I will talk to divers or general people who forget that people died on most of the wrecks we will find.
When we are looking at ancient wrecks, and all we see is a nature covered hull or piles of cargo, it is sometimes hard to imagine the people. But every now and then I get to dive on a modern wreck and some of what you can see is very odd for your brain to process.
For example, seeing cars upside down, or all pressed against a wall in a ferry that sank. We are used to seeing boats in the water, but cars seem totally alien surrounded by green light! On one site like this, tossed between two cars, I actually saw a doll. The wreck was only 20 years old, so it was something I recognized from my own childhood. Fortunately, I know that most people on this boat survived, but seeing something like that, was so out of context. It is hard to describe but it is definitely an experience. And it makes you wonder about the people who were there before. Working at these places helps you appreciate the site and the circumstances that brought you to it.
How much do Maritime Archaeologists make?
The salary of a maritime archaeologist will depend on where a person is working and the circumstances. It will differ whether you are working for a government or public organization, or a commercial firm. You could make more in a commercial firm but it might not be a consistent salary. Additionally, working in the north or in hazardous conditions will also impact your salary. A starting base for Maritime Archaeologist jobs will be around $50,000 Canadian Dollars a year.
Is Maritime Archaeology a competitive industry?
Maritime archaeology is competitive because it is still so niche. It is not something that every government or every industry is thinking of, even if the researchers think they should. Thankfully, there is a good division of labor. People who work with war graves do not always fall under the same category as the people who work on traditional heritage projects. The way that people are able to specialize gives more options in the field.
Are there many female Maritime Archaeologists?
I am very glad to say that there are both men and women working in the field. I have worked with a handful of really amazing women who are incredible at their jobs. However, I think the distribution of men and women in the field varies depending on geography and the type of work. In some parts of the world, I see more women professors than men. Or fewer women in commercial (not with a university) roles and vice versa in other places!
In my program, we only had three women instructors, out of more than 15! None of them were in the field with us. Women in all archaeological (and similar) fields do have to work harder. There are added difficulties that come with our bodies that men don’t have.
There are groups of researchers and managers who are working to make sure that there is equal access to basic hygiene facilities across archaeology sites with a program called Seeing Red. But this hasn’t quite made it to maritime archaeology yet.
Someday, I would love to have a panel of women together to share our experiences coping with those problems. We would come up with some strategies; everything from questions to ask doctors, to products that are safe and work best, to help the young women who are coming up in the field and may not be comfortable asking their professors.
What is the most enjoyable thing about being a Maritime Archaeologist?
One of the most enjoyable parts of being a maritime archaeologist is getting to engage with the public. It is an absolute privilege to be able to see a part of our history that not everyone can experience.
I have worked on land sites where we often had hikers and campers come to visit and take a tour of the site and ask questions. You do not experience this with an underwater site. Any occasion to talk to the public, show them pictures, and explain what we have learned is just fantastic!
Sometimes I get to do this with kids over skype or in person, and sometimes it is adults. No matter the group, I always feel so fortunate to have been able to be part of teaching them something that they might never have known existed.
The city I was living in during my masters had a “Science Festival” while I was there. Some university departments had stalls and booths where people could come and ask us questions, or see our visual aids. Our department had recently converted pictures and videos of one of our deepest sites (110m) to a Virtual Reality program with headsets. Keeping in mind that even recreational divers will never be able to see that site in person, getting to help people navigate it for themselves, and talking to them about what they were seeing while they were seeing it (rather than just describing it) was incredible. I can’t even begin to explain how thrilled I was to be a part of that.
What is the worst thing about being a Maritime Archaeologist?
Oh jeez, there is so much I love about this field, it is hard to find a downside! I know a lot of people are drawn to this field because of the diving, and they might say that their least favorite part is all the research we have to do before and everything that comes after the diving.
This will sound very ‘prissy’ but probably my least favorite thing as a maritime archaeologist is the lack of ‘creature comforts!‘ I love the fact that I am not in an office every day, but the drawbacks of not being in a building are the ‘worst’ parts.
Sometimes we can spend a 12 hour day on a boat or on some remote region of the coast in the sun all day doing very physical work. This means we are all a bit ripe at the end of the day! We don’t mind it, because we know everyone with us smells just as bad. But I feel bad for anyone I have to sit beside on the bus ride home! I used to joke that athletic deodorant brands should use us as test subjects!
Also, for someone who gets sunburnt really easily, constantly having to apply sunscreen or try to follow the little bits of shade as the boat and sun move, can be frustrating! I have given up all hope of having a nice or even tan. Every day I end up getting different and weirder tan lines which get me very funny looks if I am ever out in a bathing suit for fun. I don’t mind it too much as it is something to laugh about more than anything! It’s not quite as glamorous as it sounds, is it?
What’s next for you as a Maritime Archaeologist?
I wish I knew at this point! It is all very up in the air. I might continue to try to study, and figure out how to make the theory I have been working on more useful.
But I would also love to get some work with the local government sector that works on underwater archaeological sites. For the most part, I love how many possibilities there are with this field and how many different directions I could go. But right now, especially due to the COVID-19 situation, a lot of the work experiences and further dive training I was supposed to be having this summer have been canceled. So I am mostly keeping mu options open and seeing what the situation will be in a month or two before I make any big decisions!
Follow Chanelle’s journey as a maritime archaeologist and learn more about her work on her Instagram.
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