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Results of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Survey of Largest British Merchant Ship Ever Lost Released In Great Britain

March 12, 1998

Results of a 1997 deep-sea survey of the wreck of the M/V Derbyshire, the largest British merchant ship in terms of tonnage ever lost at sea, were released today in Great Britain by the British Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The survey was conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) at the request of the British Government and the European Commission to determine the cause of the ship’s sinking in 1980 near Okinawa in the western Pacific Ocean. Members of WHOI’s Deep Submergence Laboratory (DSL), which also found the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1985 and the World War II German battleship Bismarck in 1989, conducted the survey in March and April 1997 using a variety of towed imaging vehicles that are part of the U.S. National Deep Submergence Facility operated by WHOI.

The 964-foot Derbyshire, a British bulk ore carrier built in 1976, sank in Typhoon Orchid near Okinawa in September 1980 while carrying some 157,000 tons of iron ore from Canada to Japan. All 44 people on board were lost. Several inquiries and searches have been conducted, but the cause of the sinking has never been established. A formal investigation in 1989 concluded that “the Derbyshire was probably overwhelmed by the forces of nature in Typhoon Orchid…The evidence available does not support any firmer conclusion.” The families of those lost, trade unions and shipping experts have argued that structural or design defects, not weather, caused the disaster. A sister ship of the Derbyshire, the Kowloon Bridge, went aground and subsequently broke up off the coast of Ireland in November 1986. Following this accident, a formal investigation was ordered into the earlier loss of the Derbyshire. According to a British Government report, in the period between 1980 and 1994 worldwide, 149 bulk or combination carriers were lost at sea with a total loss of life of 1,144.

Some wreckage of the Derbyshire, was found fragmented on the seafloor in nearly 4,300 meters (about 14,000 feet) of water in 1994 by an expedition funded by the International Transport Worker’s Federation (ITF). Following the ITF expedition Britain’s Lord Donaldson was appointed to assess whether further work should be undertaken to establish the cause of the ship’s loss. Lord Donaldson recommended that a further survey should be undertaken, and the European Commission agreed to contribute towards the cost. An initial survey of part of the wreckage site was conducted in July 1996 under the supervision of three independent Assessors, two appointed by Britain’s Department of Transport and one by the European Commission. That survey concluded that conditions were suitable for a comprehensive photographic forensic survey of the wreckage.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which has a long history of deep-sea exploration and considerable success in search and survey missions as well as in the development of high quality underwater photography, was then approached by the British Government through the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and asked to conduct the survey. Through a memorandum of understanding between Great Britain’s Department of Transport and the European Commmission working together with NSF, the second and final survey was undertaken by WHOI using the Research Vessel Thomas G. Thompson, operated by the University of Washington. A 13-member WHOI team worked aboard the Thompson, along with 15 people from the British Goverment’s Assessor’s Team. The ship left Guam March 9, 1997 to travel to the wreck site some 400 miles off Okinawa and spent 52 days at sea conducting a thorough survey of the site. The ship arrived in Yokohama, Japan, April 29, completing the mission.

Since that time the Assessor’s Team has been analyzing the more than 137,000 digital still images of the wreckage and debris field and more than 500 hours of black and white, color and high definition video imagery collected by WHOI vehicles. The Assessors’s Team analyzed the imagery in Great Britain using facilities provided by WHOI. The DSL team surveyed an area 20 kilometers by 10 kilometers, or 200 square kilometers (about 125 square miles) using both sonar and visual imagery.

“The loss of Derbyshire was a tragic event. The survey itself is an excellent example of government-to-government cooperation and of the application of new technology developed with the financial assistance and encouragement of the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation to solve a real-world problem,” said WHOI’s Associate Director for Marine Operations Richard Pittenger. “In the process, we have advanced the ability to conduct this type of work as well as scientific studies in the deep ocean. We hope that someday the fruits of this effort will be improved safety at sea.”

The Institution’s DSL team used Argo II, a high altitude towed imaging system and successor to the orginal Argo vehicle that found and imaged Titanic in 1985 and the Bismarck in 1989. They also used DSL 120, a high resolution sidescan sonar system, as well as the remotely operated Medea/Jason system to locate the wreck and debris field, conduct a detailed photographic survey of the site, and examine individual pieces of wreckage.

Research Engineer Andrew Bowen, who led the WHOI team at sea, said the project was a challenge. “This work was one of our most challenging expeditions to date. The detailed survey of the wreckage represents a technological milestone, and its success is a testament to the skill and dedication of all those involved,” Bowen said. “This project has been a good example of the benefits that can and do result when scientific research and engineering knowledge is applied in different ways. We are most pleased that our work may have a positive impact on future ship safety, and that we have made a contribution to the field of deep-sea accident investigation.”

There have been significant changes in information technology and deep-sea imaging capabilities since the WHOI team found Titanic in 1985. “Back then there were no digital cameras, no fiber optics in use in the deep sea, and camera systems were far less sophisticated. We now have a much greater ability to both collect and analyze information at sea,” said WHOI Research Engineer Jonathan Howland. “We didn’t have the DSL 120 or Jason vehicles back then, and the first Argo was much less sophisticated than the current Argo II. We have continued to develop our technology and our imaging capabilities for science since the Titanic and Bismarck discovery cruises. On the Derbyshire project we were able to keep up with the huge volume of data being collected, and the Assessor’s team was able to analyze the data on board ship. That is a quantum leap forward.”

“This truly international survey sets new standards in maritime accident investigation. It clearly demonstrates that it is now possible to find and examine any sunken vessel to seek to establish the cause of loss,” noted Robin Williams, leader of the European Team. “No longer need ships vanish without trace or explanation. It is the most comprehensive photographic survey of a sunken vessel ever undertaken, and our analysis of the results provided by the Woods Hole team has allowed us to establish the most likely cause of loss and also to consider and dismiss other arguments advanced to explain the ship’s disappearance. It has also allowed us to make recommendations to enhance the future safety of bulk carriers.”

Visual images available to news media upon request from the WHOI News Office at 508-289-3340

For additional information, contact:

British Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
Phone: 44-171-890-3387 (after hours 44-171-873-1985)

Shelley Lauzon, Senior News Officer
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, 02543
FAX: 508-457-2180