It was a maritime mystery. On the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Java Sea, a diving expedition formed to visit the underwater remains of three Dutch warships which sank off the coast of Indonesia. For three quarters of a century these wrecks, which were the graves of 2,200 people, sat undisturbed. Amateur divers first discovered the wrecks in 2002. When the anniversary expedition arrived, two of the ships were gone, and the large portions of the third were missing as well. It’s a crime to remove these cultural heritage sites (most likely by metal salvagers). Unfortunately this kind of theft is happening more and more. Fortunately some divers are doing something about it.
Scuba is an amazing activity, but it’s a double edged sword. While it’s great we can breathe underwater and go to places underwater that humans were previously unable to access, the bad news is that we can breathe underwater and go to places that humans were previously unable to access. Places like shipwrecks. And though it might be tempting to feel the thrill taking something from a sunken ship, most of the time that’s a no-no. So scuba is both the villain and the hero in this story, because not only are divers the problem, they are also the solution. Here are a few stories of divers guarding our underwater heritage.
Sea Hero Honored for Preserving Shipwrecks in the Caribbean
Dr. Charles Beeker of Indiana University is a sort of pioneer of shipwreck conservation. In 1988 he was a member of the federal Archaeological Working Committee for the 1988 Abandoned Shipwreck Act, a U.S. law that protects historic shipwrecks from professional treasure hunting and private looting. Since then he has assisted both California and Florida in establishing new shipwreck state parks as well as NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries in creating the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail.
Divers take on dual roles of cop and teacher in growing movement to preserve Ontario’s shipwrecks
The Great Lakes are salt-free and very cold, two conditions that bode well for preserving the many shipwrecks that dot the lakebeds. However, heritage theft is a major issue, and local divers recognize a need for action. Michael Hill, president of the provincial heritage organization Save Ontario Shipwrecks, says that there are plenty of laws on the books to protect shipwrecks from looting, but the problem is enforcement. Ian Marshall, a member of the Niagara Divers’ Association is in agreement. It’s divers like Hill and Marshall who are doing what they can, getting the word out and keeping a keen eye open for potential underwater crimes.
Kent divers help police protect English Channel shipwrecks
When word of mouth isn’t enough to stop the theft of our underwater heritage, some stalwart divers take action. The waters off of the UK are absolutely riddled with shipwrecks, and the Kent area is one of the most historic. It’s also a place that’s been hit hard by theft. Consequently, a group of divers have formed a sort of neighborhood watch for the sea. Mark Harrison, who used to work for Kent Police and spearheaded a partnership to tackle heritage crime across England, says most people, including divers and people living along the coastline, want to help.