The SS Portland, a luxury steamship that carried passengers between Boston and Portland, sank off the coast of Massachusetts during a gale in 1898, killing everybody on board. Now, 121 years after New England’s worst maritime disaster, scientists are exploring the shipwreck to better understand the last moments aboard the ship and document the marine species that live in and around the wreck.

And the public will be able to watch a livestream as scientists explore the shipwreck with remotely operated vehicles in the waters of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

“It’s a unique experience. The public will be able to follow in real-time and will be experiencing the sense of discovery along with us,” said Kristen Meyer-Kaiser, the principal investigator and lead biologist for the project. “It will be very spontaneous and in-the-moment.”

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is working with NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries and Marine Imaging Technologies to explore the wreck of the SS Portland as part of a three-year project that will also include explorations of other nearby shipwrecks. The project is starting with the SS Portland because of its history, Meyer-Kaiser said.

“There’s a really incredible story behind it,” she said. “It’s been called New England’s Titanic.”

The Bath-built SS Portland was a 281-foot steamship regarded as one of the finest of its day, with a plush red-carpeted saloon and a gilded eagle perched atop the wheelhouse. It made the overnight journey between Portland and Boston faithfully for a decade, earning a reputation as a safe and dependable vessel.

On Nov. 27, 1898 – two days after Thanksgiving – the ship departed Boston, only to run into a monstrous blizzard that pounded and battered the vessel. All of the nearly 200 people on board died and it remains the largest loss of life in a single sea storm in New England history.

“There wasn’t a stratum of Maine society that didn’t take a blow,” historian Herb Adams said of the shipwreck during a lecture to mark the 120th anniversary. “The tragedy was so sweeping, there was hardly a church in Portland that didn’t have empty pews the Sunday after the sinking. A century-and-a-quarter has reduced none of the emotional impact of the story.”

The shipwreck lies about 460 feet below the surface in federally-protected waters, its exact location undisclosed to the public to protect the wreck. The site was first found in 1989 and federal explorations looked at the wreck in 2002 and 2010.

“Nobody has looked at this wreck in a long time,” Meyer-Kaiser said. “It is a great opportunity to understand how this site has changed over time.”

Researchers will use Pixel, a cinema-class remotely operated vehicle, and Rover, an ROV equipped to collect samples from the seafloor, to assist in their exploration. The team will assemble three-dimensional photogrammetric models to measure and assess the condition of the wreck and will capture a 360-degree video to create virtual underwater tours of the shipwreck sites.

During the project, Meyer-Kaiser will focus on the marine life that has colonized the shipwreck, which she says serves as an “island-like habitat.” Researchers involved in the project also will study other aspects of the shipwreck, including the design of the ship and how the wreck happened.

Starting Tuesday, the work will be livestreamed online and to classrooms around the country. Those classrooms will be equipped with two-way communication to allow students to ask questions of the scientists as they work. Viewers also will be able to submit questions throughout the live broadcasts.

The first broadcast is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday  and can be viewed on the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Facebook page. That session will include a ceremony to memorialize the SS Portland shipwreck and offer insight into the history of the ship.

Sessions at 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Wednesday and 7 p.m. Thursday will explore the shipwrecks on the ocean floor. Viewers can access the livestreams through the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution website.

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