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March 14, 2023

Stockton University professors explore Prohibition-era New Jersey for National Geographic series

Three staffers appeared on Sunday's episode of 'Drain The Oceans,' which will soon be made available to stream on Disney+

TV Shows Prohibition
Stockton University National Geographic Susan Allen/Stockton University

Two Stockton University professors and the director of the school's Marine Field Station appeared on the latest episode of National Geographic's 'Drain the Oceans,' a docuseries about maritime mysteries. Stephen Nagiewicz (left) is an adjunct lecturer.

Three Stockton University faculty members delved into the history of a wrecked New Jersey ship filled with Prohibition-era whiskey bottles in the latest episode of National Geographic's "Drain the Oceans," a docuseries that uses advanced technology to explore mysteries beneath the sea. 

Stephen Nagiewicz, a scuba diver and adjunct professor of marine science at Stockton University, was one of a handful of experts featured in the episode, "Rise of the Mob," which aired on Sunday night. Nagiewicz embarked on an expedition with Peter Straub, a biology professor at Stockton, as well as Steve Evert, the director of Stockton's Marine Field Station in Port Republic.

The episode follows several experts as they take a deeper look into the origins and early years of the American mob. Though street gangs existed prior to Prohibition — the 13-year period in which the U.S. government banned the production, distribution and sale of alcohol — the illegal market for beer and liquor helped many groups gain prominence and organize more closely to bring in massive profits, according to The Mob Museum

Rumrunners, people or ships bringing prohibited liquor across the border, worked quietly off the New Jersey coastline during Prohibition. Not much information is known about their expeditions, other than evidence of 4,000-7,000 shipwrecks on the seafloor and some archival records. 

"I've been a scuba diver for over 40 years, and it's the shipwrecks and the stories they have which have fascinated me the most," Nagiewicz said in the episode. "They're exciting, they're historic. They are time capsules on the seafloor. And of all the ones I dived, one really stuck with me. It led me on a journey into the heart of the mob." 

During a dive in the 1990s, Nagiewicz found a shipwreck, located about 25 miles off the coast of New Jersey. There, he found the remnants of what appeared to be a tugboat, including an old steam engine, wooden walls and several bottles of whiskey protruding from the sand. 

And there they stayed for over 30 years. But last year, Nagiewicz returned with Straub, Evert and a film crew aboard one of the Field Station's boats, the R/V Petrel, to map the shipwreck using a multi-beam sonar and remote-operated vehicle camera. 

Sadly, they couldn't find it. After mapping a similar Prohibition-era wreck 19 miles northwest of the original site, Nagiewicz determined that the ocean currents likely moved the remains, which could also have degraded in the ensuing decades.

Nagiewicz visited the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City, where he pieced together historical information to identify his missing shipwreck and its connections to other rumrunners that frequented the New Jersey coastline during the early years of Prohibition. 

While Nagiewicz did not find much information about the men who were on the ship or those who paid them to smuggle illegal whiskey across the Atlantic Ocean, other experts like Erik Petkovic and Christian Cipollini provide additional context about the the mysteries of the American mob and gangsters like Lucky Luciano and Al Capone in the episode.

Season 6 of "Drain the Oceans" premiered on Sunday, March 5 with "Alaska," an exploration of Alaska's deep north region. Its previous seasons focused on the Gulf of Mexico, World War I battleships, Malaysia Airlines 370, the Civil War, the Clotilda, remnants of hurricanes and Pearl Harbor. 

National Geographic's "Drain the Oceans" will be made available on Disney+ at the end of its current 10-episode season, but fans of the show can catch up on the previous five seasons using the streaming platform. New episodes of the show can be streamed on National Geographic with a cable subscription. Check out the trailer for "Rise of the Mob" below.