ALPENA - An open seat was hard to spot in the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center theater Wednesday night, where a packed house awaited the first local public screening of Project Shiphunt. Crumpling popcorn bags and quiet conversation settled as lights dimmed on Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Jeff Gray.
"This has been one of the most exciting projects in the last 10 years (at the sanctuary)," Gray said in regards to the filmmaking process and its stars, a group of five high school students from Saginaw Arthur Hill High School selected to participate with a team of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers to map out, identify and ultimately film a ship hunt in Thunder Bay.
Sony and Intel corporations put together an essay contest and underwent Skype interviews to choose the three girls and two boys for the mission.
In May, the students and roughly 80 different researchers and scientists brought in from as far away as California and even England collaborated in a hunt to better understand, protect and preserve the history of the Great Lakes, Gray said.
"It was an incredible project from the research end. This film is the culmination of the project. (We wanted to) give kids an opportunity to explore ... excite them about math and science," Gray said.
Mayor Carol Shafto said there are over 500 media outlets that mentioned Project Shiphunt, which brought a lot of attention to the sanctuary. However, she said there are still an amazing amount of people in Alpena who aren't familiar with the building and what it does. Shafto said Alpena was picked from all sites across the world to embark on this effort.
The 40-minute film documented the task students had of tracking a sunken steamer called the Choctaw. After conducting research and boxing a section of water on the map to focus on, the students and crew were ready to hit the water. Using advanced technology and sonar mapping from the boat, the students were able to watch monitors of the action taking place 300 feet under water as divers from Cape Cod, Mass., went in search of the object they had pinpointed. Though the Choctaw was not found, students instead came across two other unsolved wrecks: the schooner, M.F. Merrick and a steel freighter, Etruria.
Thrilled by the unveiling of two "virgin ships," the project moreover inspired students with the notion that mysteries beneath the surface still exist.
Russ Green, sanctuary program operations coordinator, oversaw the organization of the project and coordinated efforts on board with the students. He said through raw data, they achieved the next level of precision.
"It was only the beginning of the process, and the students were really sensitive to that," Green said. "There is a lot that's possible."
The film demonstrated transformations in all who participated. NOAA and sanctuary members as well as school representatives from Saginaw wanted the students to succeed, which they did above and beyond. Students were visibly proud of their work - one even teared up during a scene where he was told that their identification of the Merrick turned out to be correct - and were able to walk away with new skills and knowledge.
Green said the week was a "pleasant surprise," and the sanctuary would like to be available for future opportunities similar to this where kids get a chance to embark on real-life discoveries outside the classroom.
Project Shiphunt provided the sanctuary with tangible 3-D footage of the results, which has been put on display in an ongoing exhibit.
Jessica Nikolich can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 343.