Below the Surface
Joseph W. Zarzynski ’73 is at home in a history classroom — even if it’s underwater.
By Keith Davis
The U.S. Department of the Interior lists six shipwrecks as National Historic Landmarks. Among them are the USS Arizona, USS Monitor, and Land Tortoise, which has lain at the bottom of New York’s Lake George for 252 years. Designated by the Smithsonian Institution as “the oldest intact war vessel in North America,” the 1758 Land Tortoise radeau was discovered in 1990 by Joseph “Zarr” Zarzynski and his colleagues from Bateaux Below, the nonprofit educational corporation Zarr cofounded in 1987.
“Exploring the bottom of Lake George transports me back over 200 years,” Zarr says.
Originally from Endicott, New York, Zarr graduated from IC with a history degree and taught in the Saratoga Springs school district until retiring in 2005. Six years into his teaching career, he took up scuba diving and began exploring underwater mysteries. After authoring books on the Loch Ness monster and Lake Champlain’s own lake monster named Champ, Zarr’s visits to Loch Ness took a different tack when, in 1985, he helped salvage a WWII-era bomber whose pilot had ditched into the lake during a training flight. Recovering the aircraft intact after 45 years of submersion inspired Zarr to shift the focus of his underwater research to shipwrecks, and to do it closer to home. (He was also inspired to get a second master’s degree, in archaeology; his first was a master of arts in teaching.)
“Diving in Lake George, I’d discovered that some of the sunken vessels had been vandalized,” Zarr says. “Bateaux Below was established to promote historic preservation of those sunken vessels and to conduct underwater archaeology.”
Though referred to as shipwrecks, many of the vessels were inspection-ready when they went down. In autumn 1758, Britain was competing for control of North America with the French and their American Indian allies. With winter coming, the British were reluctant to expose their wooden fleet for fear enemy raiders would burn them, so they sank 260 warships with rocks, intending to raise the vessels when fighting resumed that spring.
“Many were raised, but we’ve found nearly 50 that weren’t,” Zarr says. “Most of them were bateaux, which were about 35 feet long and used as troop transports.”
Two and a half centuries underwater took a toll on the bateaux, but the Land Tortoise, a seven-sided, oar-propelled gun battery of the radeau class, was found intact under 107 feet of water.
In a presentation to the Ithaca College history club, Zarr talks about the French and Indian War,
underwater archaeology, and the importance of preserving underwater historic landmarks.
“We saw it exactly as it looked on the day it sank,” Zarr says. “It was like visiting a one-of-a-kind cathedral. The insights the find gives into 18th-century military history makes the Land Tortoise one of the great shipwreck discoveries of the 20th century.”
To build on those insights, the six volunteer members of Bateaux Below have undertaken a systematic inventory of Lake George’s sunken vessels. Employing robotic cameras, advanced navigation equipment, and Klein side scan sonar — a towed probe that produces an ultrasound of the lake bottom — Bateaux Below has located nearly 200 vessels from all eras.
“We’re currently 60 percent done mapping the lake,” Zarr says. “Once we finish, we’ll have a greater understanding of the people and watercraft that once plied Lake George.”
Because the project attracts few grants and the work is done by volunteers, Zarr calls the effort monumental. “We put in an estimated one million dollars of donated time, expertise, and services on the Land Tortoise alone,” he says.
But thanks to Bateaux Below, the Land Tortoise; a cluster of seven 1758 bateaux; an 1893-built steam launch Cadet ex Olive; and the Forward, a 1906-built gasoline-powered launch, have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also, a state park was established at the bottom of Lake George in 1993, offering divers free observations of the Land Tortoise, the cluster of seven bateaux, and the Forward. For nondivers, the scuba visitations are detailed in two DVD documentaries that Zarr coauthored and served on as executive producer. One,The Lost Radeau: North America’s Oldest Intact Warship, aired on PBS in 2009.
“I believe the final frontier isn’t outer space, but rather our oceans and lakes,” Zarr says. “History sometimes is like a book with pages missing. Our underwater archaeological investigations have put some of those pages back into the book. I hope we have many more pages to find.”
Learn more about this expedition.