His current work, in collaboration with an international team, focuses on tracing the ancient Maritime Silk Road. When he met with the eighth-graders in May, he told them his next diving expedition would be to a group of small islands off the coast of Vietnam. Originating in China and bringing goods west like its overland counterpart, one leg of the Maritime Silk Road sailed down the coast to the South China Sea, hugged the seaboard of Vietnam, connected to India, went on to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and reached the Mediterranean overland. Estimates date the maritime route to the first century AD. It gained popularity during the Han Dynasty in the second century, and eventually the sea became favorable because ships could carry more goods and transport them more safely than overland caravans. Chinese charts from 700 AD show the Chàm Islands, off the coast of Vietnam, where ancient seafarers found anchorage facilities and fresh water. Voyagers took shelter from storms in the calm-looking harbor, only to find that the storms followed them. Over the years, shipwrecks left behind their cargo: the sunken “treasure” marine archaeologists now hope to find. Leloup and his crew headed there in June.
The government and academia of Vietnam, as well as Finders and Monash universities in Australia, have been active in identifying and recording maritime archaeology sites. A new Centre for Underwater Archeology is in the works near Hoi An, on the mainland a half-hour’s speedboat ride from the Chàm Islands. Mrs. Brice’s students now follow the Vietnam Maritime Archeology Project on Facebook.
While Leloup was shipwreck diving, the students arranged another Skype call with him in their San Marcos classroom. The “principal had just purchased a very high quality HD camera and video-conferencing microphone, so we had excellent audio which made all the difference,” Brice shared.
That day the students had to get to school by 7 a.m. so they could connect with Damien and his research team at 8 p.m. in Vietnam. After dinner one night, Leloup and two other scientists sat down to chat with the students about exploring a shipwreck using a remote operated vehicle.
“They loved it…” said Brice. “They asked about the value of the porcelain and stoneware artifacts to understanding of the sites,” she said of her students. “‘How were the artifacts processed?,’ for example. ‘Why do you need to put them through a series of water baths, not just take them out of the ocean and let them dry?’...
“We spoke for almost an hour and they would have talked longer but the bell rang and they had to go to class.”
The Chàm Islands trip marked the first deployment of RYGH, the newest addition to the Scripps remote operated vehicle family. Named for the daughter of a major donor, RYGH was built in San Diego by SeaBotix Teledyne, in conjunction with U.S. Navy needs. The vehicle allows operators to explore at depths up to 1000 feet — much farther down than scuba gear can safely get a human. The students had built a remote-operated vehicle of their own in Brice’s after-school underwater robotics club, so they could talk shop with Leloup.
With tips from fishermen who get ceramics caught in their nets or dive for lobsters and spy pottery scattered on the seafloor, Damien and the team searched the waters around the Chàm Islands for new shipwreck sites. They talked with a local who found a piece of Changsha ceramics, from Hunan Province in southeastern China, dating back to the seventh or eighth century. Many of the findings date to Song Dynasty in China, from 960–1279 AD.
At a previously known site called “Bai Ong,” named for a popular beach, the team recorded over a hundred pot shards ranging in age from hundreds to thousands of years old. RYGH also allowed them to map the area by filming, so researchers can study details of the wreck without disturbing it. Divers brought up a select few pieces submerged in three to sixty feet of water, some estimated to be 2000 years old. The Management Board for Cultural Sites permitted Leloup to borrow a few of the retrieved items for conservation, study, and possible display at Birch.
But manmade artifacts were not all the vehicle captured on camera. RYGH sent back pictures from the depths that showed thriving specimens of sea life thought to be fished out or gone from those waters. Leloup said that his Vietnamese colleagues were glued to the screen trying to catch a glimpse of what was down there: soft corals, gorgonians, nudibranchs, what seemed to be black coral, angelfish, crustaceans, and more.
A series of photos and captions describing Leloup’s work went up on a wall at the aquarium in June. Helling has invited the San Marcos students back so they can provide input on the display.
Brice’s 2016–2017 pupils are on the list for a tour of the Sally Ride, which arrived in San Diego August 26.