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Shipwrecks in the Deep Freeze

Maritime Heritage Magazine - April, 1998
by Greg Stemm and Captain J. Ashley Roach, JAGC, US Navy (ret)

The Deep Ocean: Our Nautical Heritage in Suspended Animation

As the submersible settles into ooze a mile below the ocean's surface, ancient primordial muck mushrooms up in a swirling cloud. Through the haze, a camera focuses on the skeletal remains of a shipwreck that last saw the light of day during the reign of Julius Caesar. Pottery and glassware reflect the halogen glare, calling to mind a place setting for the denizens that call this ancient wreckage their home.

Until a few years ago, such a scenario would have been found only in science fiction. Today, it is a reality. Similar scenes have been played out perhaps a half dozen times in the past year alone. The ability to explore these deep ocean time capsules raises questions of technological, ethical, legal and historical ramifications, which desperately call for consideration today.

The words "nautical heritage" conjure a vision of a common maritime resource, one that belongs to everyone. Like natural resources, shipwrecks have a large and varied constituency. Sometimes the needs of these groups are compatible, but more frequently they are at odds. This state of affairs is complicated by a lack of understanding of the resource by virtually all who would stake their claims on the ocean floor.

Who has a right to explore these deep shipwrecks? To whom should the financial rewards accrue? Does the knowledge belong to those who risk their capital to recover it? As we enter the 21st Century, these questions beg an answer, as the race for shipwrecks in the "Deep Freeze" has already begun.

The Politics of the Deep Ocean

Last year in Paris, UNESCO decided to attempt to develop an international convention for the protection of underwater cultural heritage. The Secretariat is drafting core articles for consideration by a group of Government experts late this summer. In developing this draft, consideration will undoubtedly be given to accommodating the many objections raised to the original draft convention [20 Marine Policy, no. 4, at 304-307 (July 1996)], not the least of which was to the proposal for a cultural heritage zone on the 200-mile continental shelf in which the coastal State would have exclusive jurisdiction to regulate activities with regard to all objects of cultural heritage located on its shelf.

The Convention also would define cultural heritage very broadly as "all underwater traces of human existence". The draft would: 1) Exclude cultural heritage from salvage law. 2) Establish a presumption of abandonment at 50 years. 3) Apply the treaty to all underwater cultural heritage lost or abandoned and underwater for at least 100 years, and 4) Incorporate by reference the ICOMOS (International Convention on Monuments and Sites) Charter for the Protection and Management of the Underwater Cultural Heritage that would set forth scientific and archaeological standards.

Some of the issues that need to be addressed by UNESCO before adoption of this convention include: the definition of underwater cultural heritage; what, if any, should be the presumption of abandonment; treatment of sunken warships; a Country's jurisdiction to protect underwater cultural heritage; salvage law exclusion; and the ICOMOS Charter, which lays out parameters for the treatment of cultural and historical sites.

While UNESCO's timetable is extremely ambitious, there is a no doubt that there is an immediate requirement for a treaty that will receive broad international acceptance. With the advent of deep ocean technological advances comes a real need for this policy, otherwise we will find many of our irreplaceable maritime heritage and cultural sites destroyed before we know it.

Technology: DeeperCheaper

Through the exploits of Robert Ballard, the public has had its eyes opened to the possibilities of deep ocean exploration. What the public doesn't realize is that Ballard's adventures are, for the most part, courtesy of the United States Navy. As a highly respected researcher that understands the political, as well as military, ramifications of deep ocean exploration, he has been able to garner access to equipment that is priced well beyond the reach of most commercial applications. Development of this equipment has relied primarily on funding from one of two sources during the past three decades - military applications and fossil fuel exploration.

Not surprisingly, with these two groups pouring billions of dollars into research and development, the past five years have seen a drastic drop in the costs associated with access to the deep ocean. As these costs plummet, commercial companies are beginning to analyze the costs of seeking shipwrecks in the deep ocean, and the potential rewards are now beginning to justify the financial risks.

Deep Ocean Search Comes of Age

For example, one of the most sophisticated deep search systems in the world, the OE 6000 is now being used commercially on a limited basis. This is a low frequency deep tow side scan sonar which is capable of searching up to one hundred square miles of ocean bottom per day. Cutting a swathe up to a mile wide, to depths of 3 miles, operators on the surface can detect items as small as an individual 55 gallon drum. Under the right circumstances, the OE 6000 can even detect individual wine bottles. This is the same system that the US Navy will use if it loses a missile or some other classified piece of equipment.

During 1996 and 1997, two shipwreck exploration companies, Odyssey Marine Exploration, and Blue Water, used the OE 6000 to search for deep ocean shipwrecks for commercial purposes. Both modern and Colonial shipwreck sites have been located, from as shallow as 200 feet deep to a depth of approximately 18,000 feet, the deepest shipwreck ever located! For reference, this is nearly three times as deep as the Titanic. Searches at this depth are extremely complicated, requiring so much cable for the towfish that just to turn at the end of a search pattern can take up to a day.

Because of the exorbitant costs, this technology is only practical when used to locate shipwrecks that have a potential for high monetary returns. A typical search budget would be in excess of $1,000,000. Nevertheless, prior to 1994, the equipment would have been much more expensive, if available at all.

While the OE 6000, and other similar deep tow low frequency search systems finally provide a commercially viable method for searching the deep ocean, they will only show acoustic anomalies. Research may show that a valuable shipwreck was lost in a 1,000 square mile area, but a search of that same area may result in the location of dozens of anomalies that could conceivably match the target profile of the ship that is being sought.

Enter the new breed of deep ocean ROV's (Remotely Operated Vehicles), high tech robots that carry cameras, sonars and manipulators to the oceans depths. In the case of the OE6000 search system, a Magellan ROV typically accompanies the side scan system, which enables visual inspections of depths to 20,000 feet. When the side scan sonar finds targets, the Magellan ROV is deployed from the same ship. It sends pictures and sonar images to the surface that enable the operator to determine exactly what caused the sonar anomalies. This is a very tricky part of the operation, because the ocean bottom is littered with ships of all ages. Shipwrecks more often resemble a large pile of debris than the intact hull of the lost vessel being sought.

Even relatively modern sunken vessels are often very difficult to identify. This can be a huge potential problem, because at stake is the difference between a successful, profitable operation and a costly failure. At least one deep ocean salvage attempted in 1996 took place on the wrong vessel. After a relatively modern shipwreck was mistakenly identified, a very expensive deep grab operation was mobilized to recover what was thought to be a cargo of valuable non-ferrous metals. After the first grabs were made, it was determined that the ship was the wrong onea mistake that cost a small fortune, but a mistake that can be easily made.

Deep Ocean Shipwreck Recovery

The lack of deep ocean shipwreck recovery experience presents some very complicated problems. Each operation is an experiment, requiring a certain amount of ingenuity and some degree of risk. There just haven't been enough of these operations to create standardized techniques. Recovery operations fall into two relatively broad categories. The first, and simplest, is simply "grab bucket" salvage. In this case, huge grab buckets are directed by remote cameras and used to rip the remains of a shipwreck apart. The buckets of salvaged materials are hauled to the surface, where the valuable cargo is separated from the trash, and the trash discarded over the side.

While there has been some success in recovering artifacts as delicate as porcelain and fine jewelry using this method, there is no way to determine how many culturally important pieces have been destroyed, and where artifacts came from on the wrecksite. While this is accepted practice for modern shipwrecks (which arguably have little cultural value) the idea of the use of this technology on historical shipwrecks is simply unacceptable to all but a few of the most unethical treasure hunters.

The other type of salvage operation, of which only a few have been attempted and only one completed, is a commercial archaeological excavation. In the deep ocean, this requires a very advanced work ROV, that has very specialized equipment attached to it. In the case of the only remote deep ocean archaeological excavation completed to date, an ROV nicknamed "Merlin" was developed specifically for this purpose.

At a cost of over $2,000,000, it incorporated very advanced camera, positioning and manipulator systems that virtually allowed the operator to undertake the painstaking excavation as if he was on the bottom himself. Every artifact recovered had the X,Y and Z position of its location noted, as well as photos of each item in situ. Because of this, archaeologists can virtually re-create the entire shipwreck site at will. Artifacts as small as individual seeds, pearls and insect skeletons were recovered and conserved. After recovering over 17,000 artifacts from the 370 year old Spanish Colonial shipwreck, the expedition was hailed as a successful model for a cooperative effort between the archaeological and commercial communities.

In spite of this example of cooperation, the debate still rages over the ethical treatment of shipwrecks as a cultural resource. In part II of this article, we will take a look at the legal and ethical ramifications of the exploration of our Maritime Cultural Heritage in the Deep Ocean.

©1998 Greg Stemm

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