The wreck of a sailing vessel that has sat silently in the Gulf of Mexico for perhaps 200 years is now beginning to tell tales from its own turbulent times, thanks to a chance discovery and some advanced technology.  

The wreck is approximately 200 miles off the Louisiana coast, lying some 4,000 feet deep. It was first reported as an unknown object during an oil and gas survey by Shell Oil Co., and federal scientists have dubbed it the “Monterey Shipwreck,” after the name of the project Shell was working on at the time. To investigate, they dispatched unmanned submarines, which beamed back video of the site to researchers working back on dry land.

“We didn’t know what to expect. It was just a sonar blip that Shell had detected in one of its surveys,” says Jack Irion, a New Orleans-based maritime archaeologist with the federal government’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

But as images began materializing, he says, “we immediately knew we had something historic. And when it scanned over all the bottles and canons and a cast iron stove and navigational equipment, we knew we had something awesome.”

Irion and his fellow researchers believe the ship sank sometime between 1790 and 1830, a time span that coincides with the Louisiana Purchase and the era of the New Orleans-based pirate Jean Lafitte. Its name, nationality and how it ended up on the bottom of the Gulf are all still unknown, but Irion says evidence like its armament and particular types of pottery and bottles found around it suggest the vessel was either British or American.

While much of the vessel itself has deteriorated over the centuries, the depth of the wreck site has protected its historic contents from the impact of hurricanes or fishing activities.

“It’s virtually untouched,” says Irion. “One of the most amazing parts is that there are some really fragile artifacts down there preserved like they day they were made. We’ve even found apothecary bottles that appear to have their contents intact.”

BOEM will continue its research of the site, which is now off-limits to oil and gas work.