Submersible to hunt for shipwrecks along coast

The Astoria-based Maritime Archaeological Society wants to discover more about shipwrecks along the North Coast, including the Beeswax Wreck, believed to be along the Manzanita beach.

So they built a robot.
By Jordan Wolfe
Specifically, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from OpenROV, a company that manufactures open-source robotic submersibles. Essentially, it is an underwater drone equipped with a GoPro camera.

Chris Dewey, president of MAS, said he typically can send divers to four target-areas in a day to analyze places of interest underwater. With the ROV, he can do 10 a day.


“We can quickly move from target to target to target [with the ROV] and let divers check out what we find.”

The ROV was funded through a grant from the Clatsop County Cultural Coalition, Dewey said, with matching funds provided by Tom Mock, President of the Nehalem Valley Historical Society. The whole unit cost $900, plus extra funds for additional peripheral equipment.

To fulfill the requirements of their grant, Dewey said MAS needs to complete a project in Clatsop County, then the ROV can be used anywhere.

Dewey and Mock
Chris Dewey (left) and Tom Mock (right) during an initial test run of the ROV submersible held at the NCRD pool. Mock and the Clatsop County Cultural Coalition jointly funded the $900 robot.

On July 15, following two previous successful test-runs in pools, he said MAS will send the submersible into the Columbia River to study the well-documented Silvia de Grasse wreckage off Pier 39 in Astoria.

Dewey said the increased efficiency of the ROV, along with the submersible’s ability to navigate areas nearly impossible for divers or small boats to access may lead to discoveries, such as the long sought-after Beeswax Wreck.

However, the North Oregon coast has claimed many ships that have never been documented, according to Dewey. For he and his all-volunteer team, their scope will be from the mouth of the Columbia River to about Clatskanie and down to Tillamook Bay, along the coast.

“It’s a ridiculous number of wrecks.”

Dewey said a factor for the many wrecks on the North Coast was the weather.

“We get days with beautiful sunshine and that’s when they take the pictures for the postcards, but there are a lot of days with fog and we can get storms out of nowhere.”

The ROV submersible (center) during the initial test-run held at the NCRD pool in Nehalem.
The ROV submersible (center) during the initial test-run held at the NCRD pool in Nehalem.

He added older ships from the 1750s to 1800s lacked chronometers that would determine longitude, so mariners had to guess where they were.

“If they guessed and were wrong, the shore would pop out of the fog and they would be stuck literally and figuratively.”

Beeswax Wreck

“We are 100 percent certain there was a Spanish galleon that wrecked on the Oregon coast,” he said of the Beeswax Wreck, believed to have wrecked between 1698 and 1700. “It is the one and only Spanish galleon that has wrecked in Oregon, or the Pacific Northwest for that matter.” Unfortunately for treasure hunters, Dewey said there was probably no chests full of gold and jewelry. However, this particular galleon carried many trade goods.

“We don’t know where the wreck is. We’re starting to believe there is no wreck to find. There is a possibility that it disintegrated after the last Cascadia tsunami in 1700.”

On January 26, 1700, Dewey said the Cascadia Subduction Zone experienced a massive earthquake that caused, what is known as, the Orphan Tsunami in Japan.

“We suspect the wreck of this Spanish Galleon was on the shore when this happened. There might not be a wreck or a hull. The whole thing could have been shattered.”

Other wreckages Dewey and his volunteer team hope to study is the German ship “Mimi,” which was a steel-hulled ship that capsized in the early 1900s and is unlisted in Oregon’s archaeological archives. Another, the Glenesslin is more difficult to study due to its location.

“The Glenesslin sailed straight into the base of Neahkahnie mountain. We can see it with sonar really well, but it’s a challenge because it is right in the surf.”

Ultimately, Dewey said he wants to utilize the submersible to not only update the information Oregon has on wreckages, but make discoveries of their own.

For more information about the Maritime Archaeological Society, contact or visit