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Scientists go in search of sunken German U-boat off U.S. coast

Scientists used submersibles to explore a German U-boat sunk 7 miles off the Rhode Island coast the day before Nazi Germany surrendered in World War II in an effort to learn more about shipwrecks and how they affect the environment.

The submarine, U-853, was sunk in the Battle of Point Judith by Coast Guard and Navy ships on May 6, 1945, the day after it took down the SS Black Point, the last U.S. merchant ship sunk in the Atlantic during the war.

The scientists from the University of Rhode Island's Inner Space Center, Connecticut's Ocean Exploration Trust and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy hoped to explore both wrecks during the five-day trip that lasts through Sunday.

"It's really a big experiment," Dwight Coleman, director of the Inner Space Center, said from the boat Thursday. "We're trying out a lot of things. There's some technical challenges, which is expected when you're doing ocean research."

Scientists in the control room of the research vessel Endeavor pilot the underwater submersible and distribute the feeds over a satellite to the Internet. University of Rhode Island's Inner Space Center

But the missions proved more complicated than expected, with high winds, poor visibility and technical challenges forcing them to scale back their efforts. In the end, scientists were able to make one good dive at U-853, Coleman said.

Once the submersible got there, though, visibility was close to zero so it couldn't see much.

However, a new satellite tracking antenna and video broadcast equipment worked well, Coleman said, and allowed the public to follow along online, on broadcasts on the local PBS station and on social media. URI said 328,000 minutes of the expedition was watched live on YouTube.

"It's very encouraging to know that the shipwrecks are all still there and they're still intact. They all tell a story," Coleman said. "We learned a lot about the limitations of the technology. We tried our best, and it's part of doing ocean research."

They were using the National Science Foundation's research vessel Endeavor as a base and worked 24 hours a day to get access. In addition to streaming online, the scientists broadcast three times a day on the local PBS station.

The scientists first tried to get to Black Point, which is closer to shore and in shallower water than U-853, which sits 130 feet below the surface.

"It was very challenging. We thought it was going to be an easier dive," Coleman said. "It wasn't."

He said they were constantly fighting winds and currents to stay in the same place because the ship doesn't have dynamic positioning. At U-853, they had technical problems with the submersible, then a change in the wind speed and direction made exploring the site unworkable Friday.

Instead, they decided to dive to a different wreck: the schooner barge Montana, which was carrying coal when it sank just off Block Island in 1907.

Coleman said while most ocean research cruises last several weeks, this one is only five days as part of a state-funded effort to provide local researchers and teachers access to Endeavor.

Stephen Licht, an engineering professor in the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography, works on the underwater submersible. ALEX DECICCIO

Scuba divers have been visiting the U-Boat and Black Point for decades. The U-boat is considered a war grave and is the property of Germany.

The team notified the German embassy of the expedition and assured it it wouldn't actually touch the boat, according to Michael Brennan, an archaeological oceanographer at the Ocean Exploration Trust.

There are also hazards nearby, an unexploded depth charge among them.

Coleman said they were inspired by undersea explorer Bob Ballard, a URI scientist who founded the Ocean Exploration Trust and who recently investigated a U-166 off the coast of Mexico with National Geographic and the PBS program NOVA.

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