SCIENCE: What is Marine Forensics?

Wikipedia provides: The word forensic comes from the Latin adjective forensis, meaning “of or before the forum.” It roughly means to provide evidence upon which judgement can be made.

Marine Forensics applies this very broad definition to gathering evidence related to causation of incidents and accidents that have occurred on the greater than 70% of the earths surface that is covered with water.

It includes fresh water brooks, rivers and streams, Lakes great and small as well as the oceans.

  • A recent archaeology study on the Island of Crete in the Mediterranean sea proved that humans lived or visited there as far back as 130,000 years ago. Crete is many miles from the mainland and has been separated from it for over 5 million years. This implies that humans had some sort of water craft at least that far back into History. The earliest shipwreck remains ever found go back to several thousand BC.
  • A commercial fishing boat went down with 5 souls off New Jersey in 2009. An ongoing investigation seeks to determine the cause of this sinking. The possibilities range from a broken pipe in the engine room to being run down by a huge containership that passed through the area at that general time.
  • A rented power boat sank in Lake Tahoe a few years ago taking 4 souls to eternal rest. The investigation suggests that the boat was overcome by waves.
  • A 729 foot long iron ore carrier was down bound in Lake Superior on November 10th 1975, when a severe storm arose with hurricane force winds and a significant wave height of 7.9m. The Edmund Fitzgerald broke up and sank taking 29 lives and rests on the bottom in 520 feet of fresh water. The bow is upright, the middle exists as a collection of scattered metal shards, while the stern sits upside down.
  • The largest steamship ever built to that point left Southampton, England, on her maiden voyage on the well traveled route to New York. Of the 53 large steel ships that had struck icebergs in the previous 20 years, all but two had survived to reach port, and those two had time to discharge all their passengers onto other vessels before they went under. The Titanic was not especially concerned with icebergs until she struck one a glancing blow that sliced into or sprung riveted plates in 6 forward compartments. April 15th, 1912 gave us the most famous and enduring shipwreck legend of all time.
  • A ship laden with gold left one country to prop up the government of a friendly country but was lost in a storm at sea. The fall of the receiving government changed the course of history.
  • An earthquake and tsunami struck the largest and most important town in the Americas and destroyed most of it in a single afternoon. Port Royal on the Island of Jamaica went from the most important port in the Americas to a foot note in history in a single afternoon as it sank beneath the seas.
  • An invasion fleet from Kubla Khan reached the coast of Japan not once but twice when a typhoon came up and sank most of the vessels with a death toll that may have exceeded 100,000. In Japan this was seen as the divine wind, known forever after as the Kamikaze. It is no coincidence that the Imperial Japanese Empire chose to name their last ditch suicide mission against the US Navy at the end of World War II, the Kamikaze as it once again represented their last hope.

The list of marine casualties from ancient times to yesterday have shaped the history of individuals, countries and continents is long and varied. It is only since the end of World War II that humans have developed the technology that everyday makes the worlds waters more transparent. This is a new and exciting frontier to be explored by generations of clever and inquisitive minds.

Some Marine Forensic Investigations start with scuba gear, while others start with a newspaper clipping and a fist, head and computer full of equations. There are questions that can only be asked by each method. No amount to diving will ever explain the wave induced forces that caused the Edmund Fitzgerald to break into pieces, but modern computer tools are beginning to have that capability. No amount of computer modeling will ever tell an investigator about the damage to the hull of a sunken ship, but diving by one method or another can survey the damage and report back with evidence that can support the investigation by other means.

When a vessel sinks, there are physical circumstances that caused the sinking that may or may not leave traces. There are forces that can cause extensive damage as the wreck descends through the water column in deep water. The German Battleship DKM Bismarck, left the surface upside down and bow last, but hit the seabed right side up and bow first so complicated things happened in the water column.

There are bottom impact forces and associated damage. How does an investigator separate out which damage happened when? What damage caused the sinking and what happened before or after? These are not easy questions to answer but they are critical to understanding or discovering the truth of the matter.

The study of land based crime forensics has captured the popular imagination in recent years. Many of the techniques that the real experts use in a terrestrial setting will not work at all underwater. How does one take crime scene photos when the optical visibility is 6 inches or done at all? How does one measure off distances and angles when there is no fixed location to orient to?

The analyses desired can still be carried out but the means are forced to be quite different in the marine environment. There are acoustic “cameras” that can take quite good “pictures” using sound waves instead of light. You can’t buy these at any photo shop but there are commercial firms that can do this sort of work for a sizable fee, if you can wait up to several months for them to get under contract and come available.
When a vehicle, train or aircraft wrecks, all of the victims remains are recovered for burial by whatever traditions, beliefs and practices that the victims family, religion and country believe are necessary.

When a ship goes down, it is a very rare occurrence that anyone even tries to recover the bodies for burial on land. This is largely based upon tradition and also the cost and difficulty of doing so. In some cased like the Israeli submarine Dakar, or the Japanese fishing / research vessel Ehime Maru, great expense in what can take many years are expended to return the victims home for burial according to the customs of the group they came from.

The International Marine Forensics Symposium will discuss these and many other issues. We invite you to come listen, learn and help the next generation enter this new and exciting field.


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