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High-tech imaging lets anyone dive into a Bermuda shipwreck

The island of Bermuda has a rich history of shipwrecks dating back centuries. But instead of diving underwater to explore the cultural treasure, there's a non-invasive yet still immersive solution for observing the past: 3D models and videos that allow researchers and amateurs to visit the sites from anywhere. Jeffrey Brown reports from San Diego in the second of our two-part series.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, the second in our two-part look at how cutting-edge imagery is helping scientists to preserve centuries-old shipwrecks.

    Last night, we took you to Bermuda, where more than 300 ships have wrecked over the ears.

    Tonight, Jeffrey Brown travels to San Diego, as part of his ongoing series, Culture at Risk.

  • Falko Kuester:

    So, welcome to one of our walk-in virtual reality environments.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's meant to transport you across space and time.

  • Falko Kuester:

    It's the world's highest-resolution virtual reality environment. It's running at 500 megapixels, half-a-gigapixel's worth of resolution.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Called the Sun Cave, it's an immersive, sci-fi-like wonder, hard to fully convey on television, driven by the latest advances in computer visualization and 3-D imaging.

  • Falko Kuester:

    So, it really gives us a mechanism to deliver visually very compelling representations of that environment.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's all part of a project overseen by Falko Kuester, a German-born professor of structural engineering at the University of California, San Diego, one that puts high-tech to work on behalf of cultural preservation.

  • Falko Kuester:

    Virtual reality is a very powerful mechanism that allows us to explore spaces, environments and scale, but on our own terms.

    And then it became somewhat natural to think about, how we can actually create a future for the past?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A future for the past.

  • Falko Kuester:

    Yes, can we make sure that world heritage gets preserved?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All around the lab, the tools of the trade, specially designed drones and cameras, computer visualization programs, 3-D printers, and the recreations made from them.

    It's an effort that involves scientists, engineers, archaeologists, and art historians documenting and analyzing historic sites, artifacts and art around the globe.

  • Falko Kuester:

    So, what we have here is a quarter-scale replica of Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi.

    And our research team had the opportunity to actually work very closely, intimately, with this painting.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    After scanning the original, Kuester's team created a digital da Vinci, allowing a whole new way to interact with the painting.

  • Falko Kuester:

    We can actually digitally rejuvenate this painting and come up with a version that is possibly and quite likely a very good approximation of what it originally looked like.

    And there are these amazing stories which suddenly unfold which make it exciting. Now you can become the explorer. Tell me what's really happening on that staircase, right? Can we peel away the pigment, which, particularly if you're thinking about restoring a painting, right? So, what was it meant to be?

    What do we see today, because it clearly has aged, right?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The San Diego team has also visited and begun to digitally document sites as diverse as Mayan caves in Guatemala, and the Baptistery of San Giovanni and adjacent Duomo Cathedral in Florence, highlighting areas of aging and deterioration.

    But, last March, they decided to go deeper, much deeper, and launched an ambitious project to virtually catalogue 100 underwater shipwrecks in Bermuda, an island that has a history of wrecks dating back more than four centuries.

  • Falko Kuester:

    What Bermuda has given us is the ability to become explorers under the water.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Because everyone is interested in a shipwreck, right?

  • Falko Kuester:

    Right. And the shipwrecks that we see today, well, many of them have their own connection to adventure, right, exploration. That area is truly a treasure trove of wrecks.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Kuester teamed up with Marine scientist Philippe Rouja, Bermuda's custodian of historic shipwrecks, who's been diving and documenting these underwater sites for years.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    It's not just the tragedy. I think it's the investment, you know, what a ship is and what it actually represents, and the loss of that, and then the sort of romance of it sort of sitting on the bottom and being this time capsule.

    The other romantic part of it is, you imagine that they have all been found. And then, oh, wait, there is another one.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The project, called the Bermuda 100, is currently re-examining a pair of the island's most famous shipwrecks, the Montana and Mary-Celestia, two Confederate blockade runners sunk in 1863 and '64.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    Blockade runners have this sort of mystique about them, because they are this tool that was essentially used to run goods into the Confederate South during the Civil War, during the U.S. Civil War.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Over the last year, Rouja has sent Kuester hundreds of thousands of still images and videos shot underwater, capturing these wrecks from every conceivable angle.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    Suddenly, we're diving on wrecks we have dove on for 30 years, and it's like you're diving it for the first time. Oh, wow, I really want to capture that. Oh, did you see the door? Yes, let's get a closeup of that part.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Back in San Diego, the team uses the data to digitally recreate the ships.

  • Falko Kuester:

    What is left? What is its state of health? How is it decaying? What other artifacts are there? And now we can tell the story about a shipwreck.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Kuester is also keeping track of every artifact Rouja finds.

  • Falko Kuester:

    So, here we see actually a Masonic jar that was found on one of the shipwrecks. And, interestingly enough, these were truly priceless artifacts.

    They were as valuable filled as they were empty, and they were actually being shipped back and forth to be refilled.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The group built three-dimensional models and videos that allow researchers and amateurs alike to visit the sites from their own computers and mobile devices, no wet suit required.

  • Falko Kuester:

    You take all these tiny little views into the big world surrounding us and build a big picture, a big model. So, we actually have seen many of the sites in ways nobody else ever has.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The model shows the Mary-Celestia at rest on a flat, sandy seabed just 600 yards off Bermuda's South Coast.

    At the Montana, it becomes clear how wrecks become part of the marine habitat, allowing scientists more comprehensive data on the current health of Bermuda's coral reefs and fish populations.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    So, you're actually capturing data that people didn't even know they were collecting. And so you kind of start to learn things about sea level rise, about coastal change. All these things suddenly come into play in ways that I never imagined.

  • Falko Kuester:

    So, we literally just teleported ourselves to Bermuda.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That's the hope with the Bermuda project, to explore and preserve in new ways going forward.

    And Kuester and his team are thinking far beyond these waters, hoping to replicate this work in ever greater scale.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown from Bermuda and San Diego.

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