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Picture this: you’re on an 85-foot research yacht called the Fortaleza on the Mediterranean Sea. The sonar you’re using to map the seafloor shows a large anomaly lying on the sea floor, and you have a hunch. So you send down a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) to take some pictures. As you suspected, the giant mass is not a rock, a log or an animal; it’s a shipwreck. And there are hundreds of ancient amphorae onboard, which tell you that this is no ordinary find. It’s a Greek vessel from about 400 B.C that will never make it to port. You call your local partners in the Ministry of Culture, who are absolutely ecstatic about the find. They request that a sample of the cargo be recovered, and soon that sample is on display at a museum for the world to see.

That’s just a day in the lives of Ian Koblick and Craig Mullen, directors and founders of the AURORA Trust, a marine survey and exploration foundation that has worked in the Mediterranean Sea for the past seven years.

Koblick has been doing undersea exploration since the late 1960s, “living and working in the sea like Jacques Cousteau used to do,” he said. But it was not until 2004 that Koblick and Mullen founded the AURORA Trust.

The company got its official start with what Koblick terms a “small project” looking for the wreck of the Canadian tribal-class destroyer HMCS Athabaskan, presumably lost to German torpedoes on April 29, 1944. One of the expedition’s investors was the grandson of a sailor lost in the tragedy, and when Mullen located the vessel, the investor finally found closure in the case of his grandfather’s death. He encouraged the AURORA Trust to continue with similar work.

The company’s next stop was Malta, where the AURORA team established a formal relationship with a government corporation—Heritage Malta—to systematically survey Maltese coastal waters. In an initial seafloor survey off the north coast, AURORA achieved a truly unique find: a massive debris field of ancient pottery. Nearby, AURORA also discovered the oldest shipwreck ever found in the Western Mediterranean, dating to the eighth century BC. After that, they spotted a previously unknown World War II shipwreck where the port authority had planned to dump dredge spoils.

“Our goal,” said Mullen, “is to systematically survey Malta’s coastal waters and provide the government with a record of our finds, both natural and man-made. This allows Malta to manage its marine cultural heritage and protect sites from exploitation or destruction.”

Over the years, AURORA’s relationship with Malta has been used as a model for establishing formal Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with other national and local partners throughout the Mediterranean. These have included the ministries of culture in Spain, Italy, Sicily and Croatia.  Local partners have included universities, museums and recognized non-profits. “Establishing a solid working relationship with our partners is the key to a successful operation,” Mullen said.

Centrally located in the Mediterranean, Malta is AURORA’s base of operations.  Two ships—a main support yacht called the Fortaleza and the survey vessel ISIS—are at port there. “The ISIS is our workhorse,” said Koblick. “It’s outfitted with a complete suite of subsea hydrographic survey and robotic work equipment. We have a very, very sophisticated operation that can map coastal waters and identify objects on the seafloor.”

Mullen explains the technical details. “We use side-scan sonar towed from the ISIS to create a ‘sonic picture’ of the seafloor in the area under investigation,” he said.  “This is typically followed up with passes over objects of interest using the sonar in a very high-frequency, high-resolution mode to further refine the information. With high-frequency sonar, we can often tell whether it is man-made even before sending down the ROV video camera. And once we do get footage, our director of archeology can generally give us a rough age and the likely cargo.”

Once AURORA finds a wreck, it’s up to authorities to determine the next step: preserving the finding in place, recovering everything or recovering a representative portion. Koblick cites these authorities and AURORA’s relationship with them as an unexpected benefit of the job. “We have made connections throughout the Mediterranean,” he said. “Once AURORA arrives in a new place, we become part of the local community and establish close working relationships.”

A good example of this is the Ventotene project.  Ventotene is a small island off the west coast of Italy in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a port for ancient Rome, and it contains the ruins of a villa built by Augustus Caesar for his exiled daughter, Giulia.

Leading the AURORA team and carrying an expedition flag from the Explorers Club, Mullen and Koblick worked around Ventotene for three summers. Their efforts yielded five previously unknown shipwrecks. Collecting a team of professional technical divers—underwater cinematographers backed up by divers from the Italian Carabinieri—AURORA took the lead in making a documentary about its discoveries in the area, which aired on National Geographic in Europe and PBS in the United States.

Even an organization as successful as the AURORA Trust must deal with the challenges of a flagging world economy. The company is at a crossroads, in search of new business partners with a thirst for new experiences. AURORA’s expeditions so far were funded by donors who underwrote the expeditions, as well as a separate investment group that bought the beautiful Fortaleza and leased it to AURORA during the summer operating season.

After seven years of great expeditions, the investment group has decided to sell the Fortaleza in response to tough times. The vessel is now on the market, presenting an opportunity for new investors to join this highly acclaimed ocean exploration business and continue the adventure.

Koblick says that the business has had to find ways to fund itself. They have, for instance, raised capital by chartering the Fortaleza in July and August, when a high tourist presence in harbor areas impedes AURORA’s work. About 18 months ago, Koblick and Mullen also started chartering their research vessel, the ISIS, for commercial ventures.

Despite the challenges of harsh weather, demanding scientific work and a tight worldwide marketplace, the partners still love making their living from the sea. “It’s a fun job, “they say. “It really doesn’t feel like work. We just hope we can keep it together so others can experience what we do.”

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