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Discovery & Designation

The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was designated under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA). Congress established the sanctuary to preserve an underwater cultural resource and national treasure, the Civil War ironclad, USS Monitor.

photomosaic of the monitor
USS Monitor lying upside down on the ocean floor with turret protruding (Monitor Collection, NOAA)

map of where the monitor lies
Twenty-one sites are identified as vessels other than Monitor. On August 27, 1973, the last day of the expedition, side-scan sonar records a "long amorphous echo." Click here for original map image. Photo: NOAA, Monitor Collection

During August 17-31, 1973, a scientific team on board the Duke University Marine Laboratory research vessel Eastward conducted an oceanographic cruise off North Carolina with two objectives: first, a geological study of the Continental Shelf off Cape Hatteras and second, a search for Monitor.

Initially, 21 targets were located, and finally on August 27, a target that was thought to be Monitor was discovered. After laboriously imaging the site, the scientists observed what they believed to be Monitor's uniquely shaped hull lying approximately 16 miles south-southeast of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in about 220 feet of water. On March 7, 1974, after months of reviewing the video and photos, it was finally announced that USS Monitor's wreck site had been found.

In April 1974, the U.S. Navy's Seaprobe team agreed to assist in confirming the site was Monitor. During the expedition, scientists conducted extensive photography of the wreck from which the Naval Intelligence Division created the first photomosaic of the shipwreck. With the photomosaic, there was no doubt Monitor had indeed been located.

photomosaic of the monitor
The final photomosaic of USS Monitor's wreck prepared from 1974 Seaprobe data by the Naval Intelligence Support Center. Click here for a larger image. Photo: NOAA, Monitor Collection


After the historic shipwreck's discovery, government officials faced the challenge of finding an applicable law to protect the resource before further irreparable damage could occur. The U.S. Navy had presumably abandoned title to the wreck twenty years earlier (a decision later clarified as one to surplus the ship), and the Monitor was thought to be outside the scope of other federal preservation laws. While some proposed creating a new law specific to the Monitor, Congressman Jones, Sr., of North Carolina's Outer Banks, recommended the use of the recently passed NMSA to protect the wreck lying off the coast of his home state.

Designation document authorizing the first national marine sanctuary on January 30, 1975, as the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary
Designation document authorizing the first national marine sanctuary on January 30, 1975, as the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. Click here for larger image. (Monitor Collection, NOAA)
The NMSA (enacted as Title III of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972) authorized the Secretary of Commerce to identify, designate and manage, as national marine sanctuaries, certain areas of the U.S. marine environment that possess qualities which give them special national, and in some cases, international significance. At the time of its passage, the NMSA did not expressly refer to the historical, archeological or cultural qualities of resources; however, these qualities were included in a NMSA amendment in 1992, on the 20th anniversary of Title III.

In September 1974, the North Carolina Division of Archives and History formally nominated the Monitor for sanctuary designation. The Sanctuary was designated on January 30, 1975, after approval by President Ford, despite the novelty of the designation - being the first sanctuary created under the NMSA and to protect cultural rather than natural resources. In many ways, the designation set the tone for the future of the NMSA, both in its recognition of the importance of our maritime heritage, and in its emergence as a way to protect the nation's underwater treasures when all other options fail.

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