Pirates’ Treasure: The Effects of Shipwreck Hunting

April 21st, 2014 BY Sherry Obenauer | 10 Comments

Nova Scotia’s geography, weather and seafaring ways make it one of the most shipwreck-prone coasts on the continent and one of the shipwreck capitals of North America. There is an estimated more than 10,000 wrecks littering the sea floor around the province: a virtual treasure trove of wealth and ancient history. Unfortunately, divers seem more interested in acquiring the underwater riches than in safeguarding ancient remains and promoting historical insights.

Nova Scotia’s laws allow treasure hunters to keep 90 percent of the valuables they find. The latest assault on the bay began in 2005. With a license from the Nova Scotia government, the Canadian salvage firm Deep Star Exploration launched a well-funded, multi-year search. If successful, it will keep nearly all the valuables it recovers, from silver cutlery and sword hilts to passengers’ gold rings. These the company may sell to the highest bidder or dispose of as it chooses a deal that has aroused the fury of many Canadian archaeologists.

What’s the big deal?

Taking oceanic souvenirs harms both the historical and recreational value of shipwrecks. Wreck stripping is a thoughtless and short-sighted activity. Down below, cold water and low oxygen levels slow the deterioration of wood and metal. The underwater environment acts naturally to preserve them. Topside, they start to deteriorate immediately and quickly suffer permanent damage. Taking wreck artifacts is easy, but few individuals have the resources to preserve waterlogged objects once they are exposed to air again. As a result, such precious artifacts are often left to rot on a shelf of their kidnapper, who sits in isolation admiring its short-lived splendor.

Certainly, ocean currents and wave action do break up wrecks, but such damage is dwarfed by the irreversible effects of diver looting.

Most people don’t walk into historic houses and steal things. Most people don’t pick the rare flowers in national parks. So why should divers be granted the right to take whatever items they deem valuable from shipwrecks? It’s time to start thinking of shipwrecks as important pieces of our heritage, not as undersea junkyards free for plundering.

What the law says

It is illegal to collect artifacts without a permit.

The Special Places Protection Act, the Canada Shipping Act, and the provincial Treasure Trove Act are laws guiding artifact retrieval from Nova Scotia waterways. Hefty financial penalties are incurred if such laws are broken, but these may not be enough to curb careless behavior if the financial rewards of selling found artifacts are far greater.

The Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom which provides protection for designated wrecks. Section 1 of the act provides for wrecks to be designated because of historical, archaeological or artistic value. Section 2 provides for designation of dangerous sites. A number of other wreck sites have been protected as maritime scheduled ancient monuments. In addition, all wrecked aircraft and a number of designated military shipwrecks are protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act. Maritime sites other than wrecks, such as fish traps, may also be protected by scheduling.

What can I do to help?

You can start by saying no to the temptation to bring up wreck souvenirs. Encourage your diving friends to do the same. Refuse to purchase items dredged up from the ocean floor. Report illegal divers. Write letters of protest to shipping companies engaging in such unsavory behavior.

Divers might learn to record wreck locations accurately for future archaeology, rather than strip and destroy them. They can learn to carry out shipwreck surveys, diving, sketching, drafting, surveying and photographing for research and public education. Be a part of history rather than economy.

History is something that can never be replayed for clarity, except through the various artifacts and records left behind. Part of our ocean’s history is found in the countless shipwrecks that blanket the bottom of sea. If we are to learn anything from the past and to appreciate the beauty of the ships and personnel that sailed them, we need to respect the burial places that hold them. Let’s not allow ravenous scavengers pilfer our history.


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