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From Scuba To Shipwrecks To Saving The Seas

Two people in scuba gear, underwater, maneuvering a large item onto the ocean floor.
IU researcher Matt Maus and Diving Safety Officer Sam Haskell position museum-quality replica cannons on the site of the IU Center for Underwater Science’s “living museum in the sea” along the southern coast of the Dominican Republic. Photo courtesy of the IU Center for Underwater Science.

From a pool in Bloomington to bodies of water around the world, Indiana University’s Center for Underwater Science has made a name for itself as an international leader in underwater exploration and conservation.
It started in 1963, when IU first offered scuba diving training.

“In an academic setting, training IU students in the use of scuba is not just recreational; rather, it provides students with scientific diving skills, which enables them to become involved in meaningful underwater research projects,” says Charles Beeker, a clinical professor in the School of Public Health at IU Bloomington.

It just so happens 1963 was also the year Beeker took his first dive, at the age of 10. An IU alumnus, Beeker, BA’75, MA’03, has directed the Center for Underwater Science since 1991.

A man with gray hair and a beard wearing scuba gear and a red "Indiana" shirt and examining underwater life.
Charlie Beeker, director of IU’s Center for Underwater Science, in the Dominican Republic on the Captain Kidd Underwater Archaeology Preserve. Photo courtesy of the IU Center for Underwater Science.

Living Museums in the Sea

During his 30-year tenure, Beeker has overseen too many dives to count; he estimates around 1,000. Undergraduate and graduate students have been along for many of the dives, contributing to the center’s significant accomplishments in underwater archaeology.

One of the latest projects is the Muskegon, Indiana’s first shipwreck listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In summer 2021, the center received a grant to continue research on the ship, which sunk in Michigan City, Indiana, in 1910 following a fire in its hull.

The Muskegon team will explore ways to preserve the shipwreck and make it accessible to the public. Indeed, the center is known for establishing underwater parks at a number of shipwreck sites.

“We’re not just finding shipwreck sites; we’re proving their identity and creating living museums as a viable alternative to treasure hunting,” says Beeker.

The sites help celebrate a locale’s cultural heritage while conserving biological ecosystems, like the coral and other marine life that make shipwrecks home. Beeker and his team have established living museums in California, Florida, and the Caribbean.

A person in scuba gear, surrounded by blue-green water, floats above the remains of a shipwreck on the sea floor.
IU researcher Kirsten Hawley conducts photogrammetric documentation of the “City of Washington” with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration divers in Key Largo, Florida. Photo courtesy of the IU Center for Underwater Science.

Searching for Columbus

The Dominican Republic is the site of Beeker’s decades-long work related to Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and the impact of his arrival on the New World, particularly the Taíno, the first indigenous people Columbus encountered.

In 1997, a team led by Beeker made headlines for discovering a previously unknown Taíno settlement featuring four plazas and a sinkhole containing a ceremonial freshwater well. To explore the well, Beeker rappelled 50 feet down the inside of the sinkhole to a waiting inflatable boat. Once in the water, he executed another 140-foot dive to the bottom. There he found ceramics, a 15th century war club, and even a canoe—artifacts spanning more than 1,000 years.

It’s just a matter of time before IU makes one of the most significant discoveries ever made in the Caribbean.

Beeker and the center’s work in the Dominican Republic continues to this day. For years they’ve been working in the bay at La Isabela, where two hurricanes hit in 1495, sinking as many as 11 of Columbus’s ships. Magnetometer (think: fancy metal detector) readings indicate that up to six ships could still be in the bay, buried under centuries of mud, silt, and marine activity.

Still, Beeker’s not giving up. He’s confident that he and his colleagues, including IU undergraduate and graduate students, can find the ships. It’s just a matter of time (and sufficient funding) before IU makes one of the most significant discoveries ever made in the Caribbean.

The Indiana University Center for Underwater Science is a multidisciplinary research center in the School of Public Health, dedicated to the understanding and interpretation of submerged cultural and biological resources, with an emphasis on park development and sustainable use. To support the center’s work, we invite you to make a gift to the Underwater Science and Education Fund.

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This article was originally published in the 2021 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By

Andrea Alumbaugh

A native Hoosier, Andrea Alumbaugh is a graduate of IU (BAJ’08) and a senior writer at the IU Foundation.

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