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Released December 12, 2003


STENNIS SPACE CENTER - A group of scientists, historians and divers recently confirmed an important historical discovery made by hydrographic science students from The University of Southern Mississippi.

As a field project in the summer of 2002, the Southern Miss hydrographic science class based at Stennis Space Center used multibeam and side-scan sonar equipment to map the underwater landscape of the meandering east Pearl River between the I-10 and Highway 90 bridges in Hancock County.

What they found hidden for decades under the murky water turned a dream into reality for David Andre', executive director of the Mississippi Sound Maritime Historical Foundation.

In the river, students found deposits of old rough-cut logs believed to be remnants from the days of large-scale logging at Logtown, Miss., where original growth pine and cypress trees were cut and processed from 1848 until major logging ceased in 1928.

Andre's foundation plans to build a reproduction Mississippi Sound Lugger, a 36-foot sailing boat, in the same style and with old-growth yellow long-leaf pine as would have been used over 100 years ago. Using line drawings employed to build an 1894 sailing lugger originally constructed in Pascagoula, the foundation will bring an important piece of the Mississippi Gulf Coast's maritime history to life.

Through an arrangement with the Mississippi Secretary of State's Office, Andre' has been granted a special permit from Mississippi's Department of Marine Resources to harvest 65 old-growth pine logs from the lower Pearl River to build the reproduction vessel.

"We developed the permit in a very restricted manner to be environmentally sound," said Sharon Hatch Hodge, special assistant attorney general to the Department of Marine Resources. "When you have an area like the Pearl River that is tidally influenced, it falls under the public trust doctrine, with the Secretary of State as the trustee."

Andre's project, Hodge said, is historically important and therefore warranted special consideration. Interpretation of the side-scan sonar readings from the Southern Miss hydrographic survey of the Pearl River first revealed log formations. The sonar, mounted inside a small torpedo-shaped "towfish," is towed underwater behind the boat. The sonar emits sound pulses that penetrate the murky water, reflect off underwater features along both sides and return to the sonar's receiver. The intensity of this return to the sonar produces an image of marine features on either side of the towfish.

"The data collected in the 2002 survey was used by our Hydrographic Science Research Center to produce an inland electronic nautical chart," said David Dodd, coordinator of the Hydrographic Science Program at Southern Miss. "This electronic chart was then brought back into an integrated navigation system to assist in directing us to the target locations."

Dodd reviewed sonar data from students' 2002 field project and marked several target areas on the electronic chart of the river, indicating likely locations for logs.

On Nov. 15, Dodd and Andre' joined volunteer divers from the Gulfport Fire Department on the Pearl River to see if the stick-like images glimpsed on side-scan sonar really were old-growth logs. Outfitted with global positioning and computer equipment aboard the boat, Dodd was able to literally watch on his laptop computer as their boat closed in on targets identified in the electronic chart.

"The volunteer divers went into the water at the targets indicated on the chart," Dodd said. "The targeting was incredibly accurate. Weights tethered to buoys were dropped into the river to mark the targets from the electronic chart, and the weights nearly hit the logs."

While the first location was identified as a shipwreck (which was marked for future reference), the next several locations investigated by divers proved to be exactly what Andre' was hoping to find.

Not only did divers find logs, they found good-sized logs between 12 and 36 inches in diameter. "We were amazed at the number of logs," Andre' said. Now with confirmed locations of the old logs, Andre' has information he can use to pursue his historic project.

"Having Southern Miss equipped with the technology, the willing spirit, and instruments like GPS, side-scan sonar, and eventually multibeam sonar, is a most valuable resource as our foundation seeks to preserve the heritage of the Mississippi Sound, its lands, and tributaries," Andre' said.

Andre' expects to begin harvesting 65 of the old logs within 30 days, with construction of the reproduction vessel planned for February 2004. While under construction on the west side of the Gulfport Small Craft Harbor, the public may view the vessel as it takes shape under the hands of volunteers and expert shipwrights. The finished lugger will be berthed near the construction site as a permanent exhibit to help illustrate not only the timber industry of Mississippi, but also the history of working watercraft in the Mississippi Sound.

"It will be the first of a series of historic boats we hope to keep on exhibit there," Andre' said.

As for Dodd's part in this adventure, he said the boating excursion with Andre' has been beneficial for his program as well. "It basically validated all the processes we used in the 2002 survey," Dodd said. "To be able to go back to those points using the positioning and processes from 2002 proves that our processes are sound."

The future promises more discoveries for Dodd and his hydrographic science students. "Next year's student project area has been selected and we're going to chart the Pearl River from the I-10 bridge northward to Stennis Space Center," Dodd said. "Who knows what we'll find?"

The Southern Miss Department of Marine Science is strategically located at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, home to the world's largest population of oceanographers and hydrographers. The department offers both masters and doctoral degrees in marine science and a master's degree in hydrographic science.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM