Researchers Are In A Race Against Time to Preserve Maritime Wrecks

Steam windlass and mooring winches on the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm, sunk in 1941. Woodym555 - CC BY-SA 3.0

According to research that was presented at a maritime archaeology conference, there are at least 48 shipwrecks that have been illegally salvaged in Southeast Asia. This is in addition to a few recently discovered wrecks that were damaged or destroyed by illicit salvaging.

Japan has been hit the hardest, but Australia, the USA, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, and Sweden have also lost wrecks to thieves.This might still just be a drop in the ocean. One salvaging firm in China boasts of salvaging over 1,000 wrecks in the South China Sea alone.

Archaeologists are racing to preserve the remaining known wrecks in the oceans and the history that they contain. Museums are partnering with them to raise public awareness. The Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) is hosting a “Guardians of Sunda Strait” exhibit, which shows the power of the stories these ships tell, even as the ships themselves are being erased.

The ANMM exhibit focuses on the wrecks of the HMAS Perth and the USS Houston. The Perth is a recent victim of salvaging operations. The stories in the exhibit include those about Arthur Bancroft, who served on the Perth and was shipwrecked two times and Chaplain Rentz of the Houston, who insisted that another sailor took his life jacket when the ship sank. The emotional impact of stories like this is all the more poignant due to the destruction of the scenes of such heroism and drama.

A view aft of the bridge of the SS Thistlegorm – CC BY-SA 3.0

The United States is one of many countries enacting laws to protect their military shipwrecks no matter where they are located in the world. And in 1982, the UN passed the Law of the Sea, which grants exclusive jurisdiction to the flag state of the sunken vessel. The flag state is the country where the ship was registered. That jurisdiction is not impacted by whether the wreck occurred in foreign waters or not.

Some archaeologists are working to recover “touchstone objects” from wrecks before the salvage crews arrive. Touchstone objects are items like a ship’s bell, with which every sailor on that ship would be familiar.

The bow of the RMS Titanic, photographed in 2004

In 2002, the Royal Navy responded to threats to British wrecks in Malaysian waters by sending teams to remove the bell from the HMS Prince of Wales. Part of the British squadron Force Z, which was formed to protect British interests in Southeast Asia, it was sunk in 1941. There is evidence that salvaging is ongoing at both the site of the Prince of Wales and the nearby Repulse.

For all the wrecks that are known to have been destroyed, there are others that are untouched and more that have never been found. Australia’s first submarine, AE1, sunk and no one has located it since.

HMAS Canberra’s forward 8-inch gun turrets.

Near the Solomon Islands, the HMAS Canberra is sitting intact and upright on the ocean’s bottom. It was scuttled after being damaged by the Japanese in August of 1942. Robert Ballard, famous for discovering the location of the Titanic, found the location of the Canberra in 1992. Whether the ship becomes another victim of the salvagers or not, it will not last forever at the bottom of the ocean. Time will eventually naturally erode the ship.

Ships like the Canberra are being preserved through a new method of digital preservation. Using advances in three-dimensional photogrammetry, divers take thousands of photos of a wreck. The photos are then stitched together to create 3D images and replicas. There is significant potential for such technology in a museum environment, not least of all because it enables new audiences to virtually access wreck sites, while eliminating the challenges of depth, currents, and poor visibility. Photogrammetry also surmounts legal barriers to access.

Museums have the potential to provide new exciting exhibits allowing visitors to access these shipwrecks, which are located in some of the most remote places in the world and preserving the condition of the wrecks for future generations, no matter what time or salvagers do to the actual ships.