Diver down

Fri, 10/14/2016 - 11:45am

“I had a mask on me when I was three years old,” says Dave Robinson. “I love being under water.”

Robinson is a scientist at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. Many years ago, while a student at Narragansett High School, he and a friend became certified scuba divers and dove on a wreck off the coast of Bonnet Shores. He found a couple of nails from the site and then brought them into school to show his history teacher. “Mr. Bob Kimball was excited and impressed with my artifact, and I realized that what I did had some value,” he said. It was here that Robinson’s career started — he just didn’t know it yet. 

Robinson’s father was a commercial diver from Newport. He worked on the Pell Bridge, and did salvage and underwater demolition work. “When my dad was 21, he dove on the German U-boat 853 off Block Island, and when I turned 21 I did the very same dive, and I was amazed,” he said. Robinson speaks with a measured and assertive tone. His drive is veiled and understated; however, his resumé as a diver and scientist has a very important prerequisite: enthusiasm. His life’s work requires this paradoxical relationship. Moreover, he’s a sharp guy.

These days Dave Robinson is an underwater archeologist. His path to this profession started at the University of Rhode Island as an art major. “I wasn’t really a good student. I hacked around quite a bit and raised some hell,” he said. Subsequently, he applied for a spot at Texas A+M University and was accepted. “They had a Nautical Archeology Program, I applied and I got in,” he said. This became a perfect fit, and his love of the ocean and history, along with a very strong, inquisitive nature were the perfect skill set for this graduate program. “I want to know things, I want answers,” he says. Scientists hop from one hypothesis to another — answers lead to more questions. Talking with this guy for five minutes will have you wanting to know more — we want answers, right?

Dave Robinson, the kid who dove on the wreck off Bonnet Point in Narragansett, has had quite a career arc. Currently, Robinson is a Senior Marine Research Specialist at the Graduate School of Oceanography at URI. “My first underwater research was a dive on a Burlington Bay Horse Ferry,” he said. This profoundly simple design was used on Lake Champlain circa 1830. These ferries a.k.a. “turntable ferries,” were powered by horses — one faced forward, and one faced aft — who walked on a turntable, which powered a drive shaft that then turned the paddle wheels. The horses were penned port and starboard, and freight horse and carriage rigs, and general cargo, were loaded amidships. The horsepower propelled these ferries across Lake Champlain. They were 60-feet by 23-feet and were used until 1830. These ferries were also used on Narragansett Bay.

Green Jacket Shoallies just southeast of the hurricane barrier in the City of Providence. Through his research Robinson has found a graveyard of ships in this shoal water. At a charted location calledBold Point, there once stoodProvidence Dry Dock and Marine Railway. This place was a vital part of the city’s maritime infrastructure. When the railroads came, coastal trade was compromised and this place was dispatched to the past. Moreover, vessels of various types were stripped and scuttled nearby. One of these vessels was a steam powered passenger ship called The Mount Hope (seen here). She was a two hundred foot ferry that was capable and licensed to carry 2,000 people in Narragansett Bay, and 1,200 in Block Island Sound. Over her time in service, she made trips from Providence to Newport, to Block Island. If you look east on Route 95, you can see her stem and bones embedded in the harbor muck. Robinson has been documenting these maritime artifacts in order to archive and protect their cultural significance.

Recently, Dave Robinson has been diving, exploring, and collecting data from some important Native American sites off the shores of Block Island. “Twenty thousand years ago, people could walk to what is now Block Island,” says Robinson. “Before the glacier retreated from the Ice Age, people lived and hunted along the coast.” At certain underwater sites, significant artifacts have been found and analyzed by Robinson and other scientists, along with members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. “If I’m not in my office, I’m collecting data underwater,” he says.

Besides his local projects Robinson has done research in Sweden, and 100 miles out and 800 feet below the Gulf of Mexico. He was part of a thirteen person crew aboard a 130-foot nuclear powered submarine that was spending three days below the Gulf’s surface. The sub NR-1, now used by oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard, was designed as a covert ops vessel during the Cold War that sought out Russian submarines under the ice caps. The expedition was called “Secrets of the Gulf,” and took place in the Flower Garden Banks Marine Sanctuary. “There were dual goals for the study. First, to identify ancient shoreline submerged by sea levels. Secondly, to look for evidence of biological connectivity between the reefs in and outside the sanctuary,” he said. During this research, Robinson rubbed elbows — literally in this cramped space — with some very bright folks. “What was impressive was the power of the collective intellects that were doing research in the vessel,” he said.

Finally, archeologist Dave Robinson’s inquisitive nature continues to drive him forward. This austere column is but a scratch as to what lies beneath the water’s surface, and in the scope of his scientific knowledge base and global awareness. He will continue to search “down under,” for answers.