Scientists aboard an ocean research ship moored at the Embarcadero are preparing to probe the sunken remains of an American aircraft carrier that was blasted by atom bombs at Bikini during the first postwar tests of the nation's nuclear firepower.
Marine archaeologists and biologists aboard the E/V Nautilus -- its initials stand for Exploration Vessel -- said Thursday that they will use a remotely operated underwater vehicle to take the first new photographs of the Independence, the famed World War II aircraft carrier that survived the first Bikini atom bomb tests in the Pacific in 1946 and was later used to train sailors for radiation readiness at Hunters Point.
The ship was finally sunk by the Navy in 1951 and now lies in 2,600 feet of water near the borders of the Monterey Bay and Greater Farallones national marine sanctuaries.
James Delgado, a deep-sea archaeologist leading the effort to photograph the Independence, said biologists will also bring up samples of any marine organisms they collect.
"It is highly unlikely that any trace of radiation remains after all these years, but whatever we bring up will be scrupulously tested scientifically."
Radiation specialists at UC Berkeley will be involved in the testing, and a Berkeley physicist will be on board the Nautilus on Monday to test samples of sponges and corals growing on the wreck as well as other organisms and sediments on the sea bottom, said Kai Vetter, a noted UC specialist in radiation detection. Vetter will also analyze the samples in greater detail in his campus laboratory, he said.
The Nautilus carries two remotely operated undersea vehicles named Argus and Hercules that carry high-resolution cameras to photograph the sunken ship. They are also equipped with specialized tools to gather the samples of organisms that have been growing on the ship's hull for more than six decades.
The research is being undertaken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known as NOAA, which operates the marine sanctuaries. Delgado, a veteran diver, heads the agency's maritime history program.
Delgado said Thursday that the ship will also be surveying other sunken wrecks across both sanctuaries and is heading north Friday to locate some of them.
"The records tell us that more than 400 wrecks are scattered all over the ocean here," he said. "We'll be looking first at the Dorothy Wintermote. It's an old lumber carrier that ran aground off Point Arena in 1938 and sank four days later, and there are plenty of others we expect to take a look at."
The Nautilus is operated by the nonprofit Ocean Exploration Trust, headed by Robert Ballard, the famed Navy veteran and marine engineer who discovered and explored the sunken remains of the Titanic, and later the German battleship Bismarck.
Observations from the ship are being streamed live.
"When we're cruising over the bottom, everyone on shore can see everything our ROV cameras are seeing, and scientists all over the world can help us identify every new organism we find," Ballard said. "Everybody will be able to see what we're seeing when we're examining the Independence, and while we're looking at any wrecks we find.
"I've always loved shipwrecks, so I'll be looking, too."
Another scientific research vessel, the R/V Sally Ride, from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UC San Diego, is arriving Friday at Piers 15 and 17 and will be open for free public tours on Saturday from 1to 4 p.m.
The ship, named for the first female U.S. astronaut, will take teams of oceanographers, marine geologists, biologists and fisheries specialists around the world on research expeditions.
The 30-minute tours of the ship's science laboratories and high-tech equipment will require tickets; they will be available free at the east end of Pier 15 starting at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.