Pirates’ Treasure: The Effects of Shipwreck Hunting

May 3rd, 2007 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.


  1. Tomomi Endo

    Hello Sherry,

    My name is Tomomi Endo, I’m a graphic designer working on the new Nova Scotia Interpretive Master Plan project. The project is operated by province.

    The reason I got in touch with you is I am hoping you to give us a permission to use a photograph of shipwreck hunting.

    Your image will be appeared in the document with your photo credit. It will be one of the unique Nova Scotia’s representatives.

    If you have any concerns or questions, please let me know.

    Best regards,

  2. Sherry

    Hi Tomomi,

    This photo is not mine. It was added to my article by those running this site, so if you would like to use it, I believe you’ll have to ask them.

  3. jeremy

    steal, assault, plunder, looting ,kidnapper, thoughtless and short-sighted…lol you are a fucking retard. if someone want to take the time and money to treasure hunt let them. dont be a fucking ass hole

  4. Adda

    Jeremy, your level of maturity has left me speechless. If you can think of it no other way, please consider this: would you allow someone to dig up the bones of a deceased loved one in order to make a pretty buck on them?

  5. Larry

    Apparently the young lady, ‘Adda’ has little ‘real-life’ experience, and like all who cry fowl, is nowhere even close to reality. The ‘excuses’ cited bear no relevance and are way off target. History is not history until uncloaked where others can then appreciate it… not found in something left sitting on the bottom of the sea. And I’ve yet to hear of a treasure hunter dragging timbers to the surface where they can deteriorate. Nor do you generally ever find a wreck fully intact. Gold, Silver and Gems do not decompose when reintroduced to air. Their lies no good whatsoever in leaving precious metals and gems buried in ocean silt for some ‘presumed’ recreational diver’s awe…. for when they come to the surface it is then where others may enjoy their vision. When speaking of those who plunder, it was those onboard these varied treasure ships which stole the booty from others, and bears no historical significance at all. The ship they were transported in, maybe, but not the prize. Next thing you’re going to hear, is, ‘leave all the minerals in the ground – for they’ve been there billions of years and that qualifies them as being of historical significance.’ There’s far too many people running around on the face of this planet who have a whole lot to say about stuff they themselves know ‘absolutely’ nothing about. And I think this is a classic example of just that. The only raping going on, is that which the ‘hugger types’ try to impose upon others out doing their thing. If they are not beseeching another human, then leave them alone…. for you’ve no God given right to interfere with your neighbor. Dear Adda…. destine your course for politics, for your off-center vision and traits of wanting to control the lives of others, is consistent with that of the best.

    Respectfully, Larry

  6. Steve

    I figure people should be allowed to do what they think best with a find such as a shipwreck. Lift the whole thing and recycle it, if you can find a way. As for the bodies and respect for the dead and all that, if you get on a boat and it sinks, well you had to know going in, ya think? A hazard of the job, wouldn’t you say? perhaps you were a passenger on a liner; um hard luck, or poor skill I dunno, but your fish food now so whatever. Lets say it’s your ship and it sinks in 175′ of chilly water, and it’s 1875, so it would be unlikely for anybody to show up and offer to lift the ship. Now if it sinks in 30 feet of water, you probably get it up even if people died in it, you move on, right? but just because it wasn’t cost effective or technically feasible to raise it at the time, we should all go boohoo for ever and ever. I think it is perfectly logical to after lost ships and make some money at it. Ecologically sound too.

  7. Scott

    Eh?? If there’s bodies on the ship, leave them alone. You’d bleat like a wee bitch if your relatives graves were desecrated, what makes the bones of an unfortunate souls on a ship any different?

    And when I go on a liner its to enjoy myself; I don’t consider “what if this sinks?” – who does? You must be a right laugh on cruises!!!!

  8. Robyn

    I am not prepared to get into a debate about whether or not treasure hunting is wrong, I would just like to point out that the Treasure Trove Act in Nova Scotia is in the process of being repealed (hopefully in favour of something better for all parties interested in underwater archaeological resources).

  9. Harry

    I think you should be allowed to keep the treasure as long as a archaeologist is involved in persevering the wreck and keeping some of the value. I don’t think by them keeping all the loot is persevering the wreck or grounds.

  10. John Tocher


  11. What do you have to say?