Haul: Dr Phillipe Max Rouja and Joe Lapore ascend to the surface with the crate carrying bottles of wine  discovered in the bow of the Mary-Celestia last week. *Photo by LookBermuda
Haul: Dr Phillipe Max Rouja and Joe Lapore ascend to the surface with the crate carrying bottles of wine discovered in the bow of the Mary-Celestia last week. *Photo by LookBermuda

FRIDAY, JUNE 24: Heading along South Shore to dive the wreck of the Mary-Celestia, I felt a heightened sense of excitement I’d not experienced on previous visits.

Its picturesque hull was about to have the sand sucked out of it in the hope that some of the ship’s long-held secrets may be uncovered. I’ve swum around this seemingly barren hull on a few previous occasions unaware it was a sunken time capsule.

On the boat ride over I sat with LookBermuda’s J-P Rouja, who along with his director Ben Watson, is producing a film about the vessel which delivered its final cargo to the bottom of the ocean in 1864. We discussed some of the theories surrounding the mysterious sinking of the Civil War blockade-runner.

Perhaps she sank by accident or maybe it was the work of the federal government trying to sabotage the effort to run guns to the confederate south. Maybe a Bermudian had a hand in the wrecking, hoping to make off with the valuable cargo.

Everything about this short journey flooded the imagination.

When we arrived at the mooring, there were several boats preparing for the first of many dives that day. I took the plunge with the cameramen who needed to get some situational shots of the site before the dredge began gulping up masses of sand from the partially buried bow. Once they started that up, sand and debris spewed out everywhere, destroying the visibility and making it difficult to get any clear stills or  footage.

After some time, Dr James Delgado (Jim) from NOAA who led the excavation turned to his colleague Tane Casserley and motioned him towards where he was digging.

After a short while, Tane turned to me and made a drinking motion with his hand — the kind of gesture you make in bar when asking someone if they want a drink. I thought it rather an inappropriate time to ask until I realized what he meant — seconds later, Jim displayed four dark bottles — wine bottles it turns out — that were being touched by human hands for the first time since the American Civil War.

Everything seems slower when you are diving but a sense of euphoria instantly swept across the group.

These first bottles were placed in a crate and covered in sand bags and the crate was attached to a rope.

High fives

Curator of Historic Wrecks, Dr Phillipe Max Rouja and Jim gave each other a few underwater high fives and everyone gathered around in a circle to take in the moment.

The sight of the mini haul being lifted to the surface was nothing short of cinematic, a scene from The Deep perhaps. Sitting on the seabed looking up I saw two very happy divers ascend, cradling the crate and silhouetted against a backdrop of rippling sunshine.

At the surface there was much jubilation — Phillipe had had sleepless nights before the excavation fearing whether he had orchestrated this project, garnered this team of experts and turned the glare of the public eye upon him, only to find an empty bow.

Jim said this experience was unlike his recent work 3D mapping the legendary Titanic. He seemed aghast that he had just held in his hands these bottles that had remained untouched for so long.

“We’ve got this nice little frozen moment in time,” he said. “We have a real sense of a flooding of the foc’sle and a bosun’s locker — things just mixing in the water, going into a jumble and then the final moments as Mary-Celestia goes to the bottom and ours are the first hands on these since the summer of 1864.”

A good archaeologist, he said, will know that the more discoveries made on a wreck, the more questions are thrown up. With this little haul though, there will be plenty of food, or maybe should I say wine, for thought.