Wreck Hunters: A look into the world of salvaging
Editor’s Note: Wreck diving and salvaging has become a politically sensitive and controversial area of diving. Who owns the wreck? Who gets to keep the contents? What about the thriving state of piracy? We set out to find the answers to these questions and talked with a seasoned wreck diver and salvager. His name has been witheld to protect his identity.
BBT: How did you get involved in wreck diving?
I personally got involved in diving because I wanted to explore shipwrecks and recover items from them. A secondary reason was that I enjoyed fresh fish and lobster. It still tastes good, although my ecologically friendly spear-fishing techniques of only catching what I want to eat instead of trawling the entire ocean and through the dead stuff that I shouldn’t have caught back overboard are deemed as carnage akin to the slaughter of African Elephant or Rhino.
Somewhere along in the last 40 years my ideals became ‘non-politically correct’.
BBT: If a ship is sunk in international waters, who can claim it?
If something lays on the bottom of the sea in international waters, it’s outside anyone’s jurisdiction. Time and time again, this appears to mean that whoever has the biggest guns at the time (real guns of course), they get to recover and keep whatever’s recovered (or steal it from the wreck divers who’ve just recovered it.) Strange, though, how the big guns don’t appear until: 1) the wreck has been located at often immense expense in time and resources to the salvager, and 2) most of the items have been recovered. (Editor’s Note: Legally, whoever discovers the sunken ship first that lies in international waters is considered to have the rights to salvage the ship. ) If the items are big enough, valuable enough, or just plain politically sensitive, then whole governments get involved in the acquisition of freshly recovered items. Governments are rarely interested in people salvaging worthless rubbish from the ocean floor, and only become involved if it’s worth something, apart from in bloody Australia where just entering a sensitive wreck will see you enjoying a free stay “in the pokey.” Yes, piracy is alive and well.
BBT: Steve Lloyd found the wreck of the S.S. Aleutian at 220 feet off Alaska’s Kodiak island. He is planning to charge clients $4,000 for seven days to dive to the wreck and salvage the Aleutian’s artifacts. (http://www.divealeutian.com/). This has archaeologists worried. Do you think any Joe Schmoe should be allowed to pay money and mine artifacts of sunken ships? Do these treasures belong to the public or the government?
Steve should have kept very quiet about the wreck, and with a hand picked crew of divers, he should have salted away the artifacts into his garage for preparation and release to public auction. Then at a public function, the government can decide if it values the “treasure” sufficiently to pay Steve what he rightfully deserves for finding the booty.
BBT: Do governments intervene if it’s a valuable ship? Any examples?
Check out Mike Hatcher’s “Middle of the Gulf” wreck story concerning the Thai government’s intervention into his salvage of a shipwreck in international waters close to Thailand.
BBT: What about non-governement ships? Do salvager’s have to worry about piracy?
Salvager’s always have to worry about piracy. I class piracy as having something I’ve found taken from me by anyone without giving me it’s full market worth at auction. This includes, of course, government, the coast guard, Navy, and other salvagers arriving on site to join the feeding frenzy
BBT: How can you find out if anyone else has already found the ship and laid claims to it?
The “receiver of wreck” keeps meticulous records on who the current owner of a shipwreck is. Sometimes shipwrecks can be purchased for ridiculously small amounts of cash, such as US$1.00. This is often the case for a wreck laying in a dangerous position, which is a risk to shipping. The new owner ends up purchasing the wreck’s liability to other shipping from the insurance company.
BBT: What about military shipwrecks? Who is permitted to salvage those?
A tricky question, and one suddenly loaded with modern-day politics. Somehow, all of a sudden, shipwrecks that have been rotting on the ocean floor and subject to commercial salvage for 50 years and previously of total unconcern to the survivors’ relatives and governments are now hot potatoes. Fast acting and ever concerned about grieving relatives, the governments act to make them a “war grave.” Plainly, this should have been done immediately. It does not take this long to discover that a soldier died on the ship. Let’s make it clear here – it’s not the making a vessel into a war grave and the banning of salvage that angers me. It is that the governments waited so long to do so.
BBT: So what does the modern shipwreck recovery operation need outside western seaways nowadays?
1. Absolute secrecy enforced.
2. The vessel must assume they will may be boarded by quasi official government bodies who want to get hold of any loot recovered. How word of this got out must be determined.
3. Archaeologist from many governments are just as big a bunch of thieves (if not a bigger bunch of thieves) as the wreck item recovery team. Many recent ‘official’ recovery operations reveal as much as 75% of the recovered items ‘disappear into private collections’ once the items leave the vessel and go into storage. Just who knows exactly what was recovered. and where is EVERY item now.
4. The recovery vessel in international waters must be prepared to defend itself with adequate lethal force. As a bare minimum M16’s with 40mm RPG’s, Limpet mines to attach to ‘visitors vessel’, Over-shoulder-boulder-throwers ( Stinger anti-aircraft missiles) for irritating helicopters, plus wire guided anti-tank weapons for Patrol vessels.