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How to explore a World War II shipwreck without getting wet

Exploration Vessel Nautilus is broadcasting live from the USS Independence, an aircraft carrier that was scuttled off the coast of San Francisco 65 years ago.

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Deep sea explorer and archaeological oceanographer Dr. Robert 'Bob' Ballard chats from command central at the Mystic Aquarium in 2007. In his latest venture, Ballard and his crew are exploring the wreckage of the USS Independence, a World War II-era aircraft carrier sunk off the coast of San Francisco.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor / File

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You don’t have to be a marine scientist, or even a certified scuba diver, to explore this deep-sea wreckage.

On Monday night, Bob Ballard's Exploration Vessel Nautilus (E/V Nautilus) dove to the wreckage of the USS Independence, a World War II-era aircraft carrier that had participated in nuclear weapons testing. The ship, which was intentionally sunk off the coast of San Francisco in 1951, may help scientists better understand into how ocean ecosystems respond to the effects of radiation.

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And you can be there, too: E/V Nautilus is broadcasting live from its remotely operated Hercules submarine through Tuesday.

The USS Independence was a target during the US military’s atomic bomb trials at Bikini Atoll in 1946. Remarkably, the ship survived multiple nuclear blasts and returned to port in San Francisco. After a series of decontamination studies, the Navy scuttled the vessel.

The Nautilus crew has begun the first visual survey of the Independence since it was decommissioned. Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted a remote study of the wreckage using acoustic mapping technology. Not only was the ship still intact, but it looked like a single plane had remained in the hangar bay.

"When we do these missions we are obtaining hard scientific results, but also these shipwrecks speak to you in a powerful way when you encounter them," James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA, told the San Jose Mercury News. "They cease to be images in books or in newsreels."

But even sunken ships get a second chance. Over time, these wreckages can become specialized ocean ecosystems, providing cover for a host of diverse organisms. Nautilus researchers have already found giant sea sponges thriving alongside old military gear on the Independence. But could the ship’s radioactivity affect ocean life?

Probably not much, say nuclear experts. The radioactive material the ship was exposed to has a half-life of seven years. In other words, the radioactivity of the ship has decreased by half every seven years. After 65 years, the Independence has lost more than 99 percent of its original radioactivity.

In addition, "the water is a very effective buffer, an outstanding shield for the radioactive material," Kai Vetter, a nuclear engineer at the University of California Berkeley, told the San Jose Mercury News. "Any radioactivity will not penetrate water more than an inch or two inches."

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Even so, the Nautilus will take sediment samples from the ship for future tests. Smaller organisms, such as sponges, will also be collected.

This isn't the first time the Nautilus crew has broadcast a dive – both for hobbyists and for researchers back on shore. In July, a mysterious purple orb was found during a live broadcast. Less than two weeks later, viewers watched from home as scientists discovered a natural whale fall (the carcass of a whale) off the Southern California coast.

Earlier this month, viewers saw Nautilus researchers spot a cartoonish bug-eyed purple squid far below its usual depth range.


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