Inside the Hunley - Coastal Carolina University
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Inside the Hunley

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ABOVE: The spread of "Inside the Hunley" from the Fall 2001 issue of Coastal Magazine

Inside the Hunley

By Jerry Rashid

For two Coastal Carolina University students, the ongoing conservation of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley has been much more than an international attention grabber. It’s been the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Everyone keeps telling me that I’ll get over the excitement of working on the Hunley, but I haven’t yet,” said Beth Sharrer, a senior marine science major from Conway. “I look forward to the days when I go to Charleston. I’m still in awe every time I step into the lab.”

Sharrer and Suzy Darrah, a junior marine science student from Myrtle Beach, have been working as volunteer research assistants to Scott Harris, assistant professor of marine science at Coastal and lead geologist on the Hunley project. Since the 2001 spring semester, the two students have made many trips to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, where the historic submarine was placed after it was raised from the ocean floor near Sullivans Island, to help Harris in his analysis of the sediments which filled the cavity of the vessel.

“We are trying to extract information from the sedimentary record to help establish the history of what happened in the interior of the submarine,” said Harris. “The sediment ranges from the very fine muds to coarser sands where we’ve found a lot of shells and other material. Trying to determine which shells were washed in and which ones were formed in place is critical to understanding the history of the sub after it went down. The Hunley’s interior was really a short-lived undersea aquarium containing a wide variety of living organisms.”

Sharrer and Darrah are working on identifying the macrofauna (shells and other coarse material) found inside the Hunley. Much of what has been found is shells in the form of oysters, clams and sand dollars. Harris says shells with smooth edges indicate they had been washed around the sea floor prior to entering the Hunley, while sharp-edged shells indicate the organism may have been living inside the submarine.

“We have found more shell material near the top of the cavity,” said Harris, who has also studied the sediment surrounding the Hunley’s exterior. “More shell material suggests that the interior of the submarine had contact with the outside ocean. This is an indication that a large opening of some type allowed these shells to enter.”

The evacuation project, which has uncovered the remains of all of the Hunley’s crew and numerous artifacts, has involved some of the world’s leading geologists, biologists, medical pathologists and forensic scientists — not to mention media attention from all over the world. Sharrer and Darrah are among a select group of undergraduate students involved with the research.

“At first I was a little apprehensive because everyone working on the project has a Ph.D. in their field or are experts with years of experience,” says Sharrer. “But after talking and interacting with them, I realized that my classes at Coastal really prepared me well and gave me a good understanding on a variety of subject matter.”

Sharrer has found a piece of glass as well as another interesting item. “I noticed something between two razor clams. Being curious, I started to remove it and it began to stretch. At first I thought it was part of the clam. I asked the head conservationist, ‘Is this anything important?’ He looked at it and said ‘Oh, that’s a piece of wool from one of the crewmen’s uniforms.’ Needless to say I quickly handed it over to him.”

Darrah said many of the classes she took at Coastal — hydrographic techniques, marine geology and even Latin — have been extremely useful to her Hunley research experience.

“We had the opportunity to work with Doug Owsley (curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institute) on tagging and labeling some of the crew members’ remains,” said Darrah. “Many of the bone names are Latin, so I was able to understand a lot of what he was describing.”

Along with sorting and counting the multitude of shells, Sharrer and Darrah are also involved in tracking how old each organism is as well as determining what it eats and what environment it lives in. Darrah said her experience with the Hunley project has opened up new ideas for future plans.

“I love to go diving and look at what’s on the ocean floor,” said Darrah. “I always thought I’d someday get into underwater archaeology. But after working on the Hunley, I see there are so many more opportunities related to geology and archaeology. For now I’m just happy to have a small part in helping the geologists put together the big picture of the Hunley”

The cover from the 2001 Coastal Magazine issue.

The cover of the Fall 2001 Coastal Magazine