SHIPWRECKS:

MYTHS AND REALITY

A shipwreck is an entity caught between the past and present. A sunken ship may speak of a bygone era but the relentless forces of the sea are in perpetual motion to dissolve, oxidize and chemically reduce any remnant of its existence. Hence, the contemporary dilemma with what to do with the past. Do we leave everything in situ, touch nothing and pretend relics will last forever if only we don’t disturb them? Do we leave all shipwrecks to archaeological teams to survey? Or do the facts demand a balanced approached to sensibly record past maritime events?

On one side of the dilemma, some archaeologists argue that shipwrecks are in a state of suspended preservation therefore nothing should be removed. But one need only examine the written records of those who have spent lifetimes studying wrecks to see empirical evidence to the contrary.

Gary Gentile, noted shipwreck explorer and author, wrote a realistic description in "Seafarers: Journal of Maritime History." "A shipwreck is a time capsule, a fragment of history buried in the sea, a temporary repository which hides the remnants of a bygone age. The wood or steel hull is a transient storehouse that precariously extends the life of man’s handiwork only slightly beyond the date of disaster and human suffering. The artifacts it contains are not granted eternal life, for the sea is ever changing, ever destroying."

Researcher and author John S. Potter Jr. concurs in his description of an average wreck: "Once settled on her submarine grave, the ship went through a steady disintegration. If wave motions or currents extended their effect to where she lay (nearly always the case), the wooden beams would be worked back and forth by water pressure, gradually coming loose to be dragged away or fall, waterlogged, alongside. As iron spikes and nails were rusted away this breaking up increased in tempo. After 50 years the wreck would be reduced to the wood of her sides and lower deck, already porous from the attacks of borers. By the end of a century there would be nothing left except what was preserved underneath the ballast, or sand or mud..."

In light of these facts, it is curious indeed that this radical side of the spectrum demands all underwater remnants of the past should be left to disintegrate and not be removed for public display. They believe the government should own all shipwrecks and relics. This philosophy includes restrictive legislation regarding both land and underwater discoveries, placing such sites off-limits to the public and the use of law enforcement agencies to insure the laws are followed. Proponents also demand complete control over such sites. They, in turn, will dictate all things regarding relics including whether or not one can build on his own property. They also wish to own all relics, even if they’re found in your own backyard. For the most part, this has been the decided course of action in the United States.

While some may maintain this as a "safe" approach, there are numerous flaws in its implementation especially where shipwrecks are concerned. First and foremost is the obvious fact that the vast majority of wrecks are deteriorating at an alarming rate. There is no way to stop the deterioration, no way to slow it down. Couple this with the fact that there are perhaps as many as 100,000 shipwrecks in the United States and serious questions arise. Is it possible for the government and archaeologists to survey even 1% of these wrecks before they succumb to nature? Or, for that matter, do they even have the desire to survey most wrecks? The facts again speak the contrary.

In the March, 1995 issue of "Underwater USA" the author describes this real-life issue: "The California Lands Commission, which implements the state’s shipwreck legislation, lists approximately 1,600 known shipwrecks in California. According to state records, only four permits have been granted to explore shipwrecks in the last five years; one was later revoked. Of the three remaining permit recipients, two were archaeologists.

"Apparently archaeologists aren’t remotely interested in the vast number of wrecks they worked so hard to ‘protect.’ In a five-year span, only 0.2 percent of the known wrecks are being surveyed. If the trend continues, over the next century 14 wrecks will be explored by archaeologists, about five will be frequented by sport divers, and 1,581 known wrecks will disappear from sight and memory."

But there is yet another problem with the strict preservationistís philosophy. Throughout history, the private sector has discovered the majority of sunken ships, not governments or archaeologists. Well-known treasure hunter Mel Fisherís search for the Spanish galleon Atocha is but one example. He and his staff of researchers, historians, attorneys, divers and captains utilized millions of dollars worth of equipment and spent 14 years searching for the ship before discovering the wreck site. As with most business endeavors, the capital was provided by investors and stockholders.

Since this new approach of government-owned resources discourages, and in many cases, outlaws private enterprise, the question arises: Would the Atocha have ever been found if the current ideology had been implemented? Preservationists believe private sector salvage is a sin beyond belief. But then, where do they propose to get the millions of dollars to fund such an endeavor? There appears to be only two possibilities: taxpayers fund the search, or there is no search at all.

The U.S. District Court readily understood this. Judge William 0. Mehrens in his ruling for Fisher and against the state of Florida stated: "The finding of a great treasure from the days of the Spanish Main is not the cherished dream of only the United States and Florida citizens; countless people from other lands have shared such thoughts. It would amaze and surprise most citizens of this country, when their dream, at the greatest costs, was realized, that agents of respective governments would, on the most flimsy grounds, lay claim to the treasure."’

Another argument commonly asserted for government-controlled shipwrecks is that wrecks need to be protected for the public. But again, governmental actions have proven diametrically opposite. Gary Gentile was repeatedly denied permission to photograph the wreck of the Monitor. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made it clear it is "their" wreck and the public has no right to dive on it, photograph it or even look at it. NOAA was so insistent that they didn’t mind spending millions of dollars of our tax money in a five-year court battle just to prove their point. To the benefit of all citizens, Gentile finally won the battle.

And then there’s the cost and expansion of legislative enforcement. In the late 1980's, 22 sport divers were cited for removing a few small objects from a wreck. Several law enforcement agencies were used in the incident and the court battle raged for seven years. The cost to taxpayers for the investigation and subsequent trial was, without a doubt, staggering. And now, the same ideology has been expanded to land. One man’s house was ransacked by the FBI, his private property and cars were confiscated, he drained his savings in a lengthy court battle and went to prison ... just for collecting arrowheads on a privately-owned field. In light of the crime problems in the United States, is this a prudent use of taxpayer’s money? And these are but a few of the absurd cases which cost citizens millions.

Probably the most haunting question is: Does history really just belong to a handful of bureaucrats, or is it a heritage that belongs to all of us? In writing about the Titanic, author and researcher Nigel Pickford stated, "There are those...who are totally opposed to any disturbance of the wreck (The Titanic) ... and this is also the official position of the American and Canadian governments."

So who are these people who are making such a profound impact on shipwreck legislation? Do they really have the expertise to make such fantastic claims about shipwrecks? Famed underwater archaeologist Robert Marx described them in one of his many books on sunken history: "Of the 50 or so underwater archaeologists, fewer than a dozen have ever led an underwater archaeological expedition. Several of them—believe it or not—do not even know how to dive! The chairman of the Council of Underwater Archaeology during the first 10 years of its existence didn’t even swim, let alone dive. The underwater experience of his successor, who did have a PhD, was limited to diving for prehistoric shark’s teeth off Florida’s beaches. A number of years ago during the annual Underwater Archaeology Conference, the head underwater archaeologist of the National Park Service was forced to resign when he admitted he had not been in the water in over seven years.  It is difficult to understand how people with such rigid attitudes can try to make themselves the arbiters of shipwreck exploration."

And when all the rhetoric is set aside, what is their real opinion toward shipwrecks? Marx describes a meeting regarding shipwreck legislation with a group of 30 archaeologists and Federal bureaucrats: "...Some participants went so far as to proclaim that a fishing boat, lost the day before, would have archaeological potential. Others said no one with less than a master’s degree in archaeology should be permitted to dive on any type of shipwreck. We even had one purist who proposed that Congress pass a law prohibiting any diving, even by archaeologists, on any shipwreck for the next 100 years. When I mentioned that all shipwrecks are constantly deteriorating underwater and that hundreds of others are destroyed by nature and man (through harbor dredging, construction, etc.) each year, his response was, ‘It’s better to let them be destroyed than fall into the hands of treasure hunters.’ There is no reasoning with some of these fanatics."

We at California Wreck Divers believe there is a better way. Most certainly some of the wrecks which are in an unusual state of preservation, such as those in fresh water, might be preserved. And most certainly an archaeologist surveying a wreck site should be protected from public interference. But the purist’s approach that demands nothing be removed for public display, that we should purposefully leave artifacts to simply rust into oblivion, is nothing short of robbing future generations of their heritage. Total governmental control has already proven to be a dismal failure, and we have just seen the beginning of its ramifications.

Since 1970, California Wreck Divers have worked diligently to research, record and explore maritime history. Many of the wrecks now frequented by sport divers were discovered and identified by CWD. We have given hundreds of presentations on shipwrecks to help stir the publicís interest in maritime history and have donated both time and resources to many maritime museums. Members have written articles and books regarding shipwrecks and underwater exploration and many of the items displayed in museums  were restored and donated by our members.

This is the result of allowing private and individual initiative to work unencumbered by governmental interference. And it is the only way our maritime history will be saved for future generations.

Can we afford anything else?