About a million people a year head out on Massachusetts Bay for whale-watching cruises, according to Deborah Marx of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The stretch of ocean from Cape Ann to the tip of Cape Cod is especially rich with marine life due in large part to Stellwagen Bank, an underwater plateau formed during the Ice Age, now designated a National Marine Sanctuary.
While on the water, whale-watch guides often introduce passengers to another intriguing feature of Stellwagen Bank: It is a burial ground for dozens of ships that have sunk there over the years.
On Feb. 18, Marx and Matthew Lawrence, a fellow NOAA maritime archeologist, will present “The Shipwrecks of Stellwagen Bank’’ at Maritime Gloucester. The presentation features “The Wreck of the Steamship Portland,’’ a 45-minute Science Channel documentary on the 1898 disaster, which Marx said is the sanctuary’s poster child for shipwrecks and the secrets they keep.
At last year’s Trails & Sails, the Essex National Heritage Commission’s annual fall event, the Stellwagen Bank presentation won a People’s Choice award.
It’s a popular event because of the close ties the North Shore communities, and particularly Gloucester, have to the ocean, Marx said. Many of the wrecks on Stellwagen were fishing vessels; others were schooners or, like the Portland, passenger ships using the busy ports of Boston, Gloucester, and Provincetown.
Archeological research on shipwrecks like the Portland are truly historic, Marx said, revealing details about our shared heritage, the lives and livelihoods of our great-grandparents’ generations, and much more. Marine sanctuaries like Stellwagen Bank, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversees - this year marks the 20th anniversary of the designation, are “the equivalent of an underwater park,’’ she said. “They’re everyone’s resources, protected by Congress. They’re important to the nation as special places.’’
The Portland, a paddle-wheel steamship that ferried cargo and passengers between Boston and Portland, Maine, operated for almost a decade before it went down in a savage storm in November 1898. All 192 passengers and crew were lost; the storm became known as the Portland Gale.
Jimmy Gately, a 51-year-old plumber, is a great-great-grandson of John K. Gately, one of the crew members who drowned with the ship. Gately lives with his mother in the same Lynn home where his widowed great-great-grandmother and her three children went to stay with family after the shipwreck. Hannah Gately was penniless when she moved into the house - minutes from the waterfront - to live with relatives.
“In one of the boxes here, we have condolence letters sent to my great-great grandmother,’’ said Gately. “It’s always been a piece of family history.’’
In 1998, on the centennial of the Portland Gale, the family enlarged a photo of John K. Gately and hung it in the den, said 82-year-old Theresa Gately.
His wife and children “were kept in good health here, from what we understand,’’ she said. “The children fared well.’’
The Portland’s whereabouts were the subject of a compelling mystery for decades until a team of researchers from the Historic Maritime Group of New England located the wreck in the late 1980s.
In 2002, the sanctuary administration, which is based in Scituate, collected images and data from the site using side-scan sonar and remotely operated vehicles. Many of the shipwrecks on Stellwagen Bank lie in water far deeper than the average recreational diver is capable of reaching. The Portland rests in 300 feet of water - deeper than Marx herself is certified for.
“Most of the diving we do is about 120 feet or shallower,’’ she said.
Maritime Gloucester, a hidden gem out on the city’s Harbor Loop, features a permanent Stellwagen Bank exhibit. (The nearest edge of the bank lies about 3 miles offshore.) Though the museum is closed in winter, it hosts about 3,500 schoolchildren each year for educational programs, and it opens for special events like the NOAA presentation.
“They’re hugely supportive of a lot of our educational programs,’’ said Maritime Gloucester’s Mary Kay Taylor.
The public is endlessly fascinated by shipwrecks, said Marx.
“People love stories of tragedy and struggle, and the Portland exemplifies that,’’ she said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is occasionally contacted by descendants of those who died in the Portland and other shipwrecks. The Gatelys attended a presentation last year.
“Part of what we’re doing is researching the genealogy,’’ Marx said.
Last year they heard from a graduate student in Indiana, who had just learned he had a relative on board the Portland, a crew member.
“The Internet is an amazing thing,’’ Marx said.
Another wreck of note is the collision of the 270-foot coal schooners Frank A. Palmer and Louise B. Crary, which sit on the ocean floor still conjoined at the bows.
“Somebody made a bad decision,’’ said Marx.
For maritime archeologists, such misfortunes are just the tip of the iceberg.