There’s nothing more romantic than a hunt for hidden treasure – and when those riches are located in the watery depths of the ocean, it can seem even more exciting. Shipwrecks fire the imagination, sparking dreams of untold riches and swordplay adventures.
There are more ships at the bottom of the sea than you think; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration database lists over 10,000 known shipwrecks off the coast of the United States alone – and this is not a complete list. According According to the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, there are at least 3 million such shipwrecks around the world, dating back thousands of years.
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And then there’s the loot carried by some of these ships. Although there is an argument to be made that the treasure aboard the now sunken ships is priceless, some experts estimate up to $60 billion worth of precious metals lie at the bottom of the ocean.
But the idea that shipwrecks are there for discovery – and looting – endangers cultural heritage and vexes authorities and archaeologists alike. And it turns out there’s more to shipwrecks than wet wood and age-old gold. So what’s behind abandoned boats and on the water, and how can you help keep them safe? Read on to learn the truth about shipwrecks.
Why do ships sink, anyway, and where?
Everything from storms to sabotage can sink a ship, although it can be difficult to determine exactly why a ship has sunk. Human error is also a factor: historically, humans’ ability to build seaworthy ships and navigate the high seas efficiently was miles behind the abilities of modern sailors. Even advanced civilizations like ancient Greece were under threat, as in the case of a 2,400-year-old Greek ship discovered in the Black Sea in 2018, touted as the oldest intact shipwreck ever discovered.
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Shipwrecks tend to be clustered in areas with perilous conditions or a history of trade or war. In the United States, the Florida coast and the Great Lakes are home to a high concentration of disasters, with Lake Erie to boast the most shipwrecks per square mile of any freshwater body on Earth. The Outer Banks of North Carolina won the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” International hotspots can be found in places like Bermuda, Greece, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Baltic Sea.
How are wrecks found?
Considering the number of wrecks, one would think that it is easy to find one. The reality is that most are both inaccessible and unexplored. Professional wreck finders once relied on physical diving and luck to locate wrecks. But the ocean can be dangerous and nearly impossible to get to, especially at non-coastal depths.
But times and technology have changed. Searchers now have access to a barrage of sophisticated equipment that can help them find long-lost ships. The increasing availability of historical records may point to the final resting places of ships. Remote sensing techniques like sonar, which uses sound waves, and LiDAR, which uses lasers, allow wreck finders to map the seabed and underwater objects. And satellite imagery can to help spot the plumes of particles generated by the wrecks. Scientists are even using artificial intelligence in the search for shipwrecks, with machine learning tool proving 92% effective in identifying wrecks in images taken both above and under water.
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Once a potential site is located, modern autonomous vehicles can help researchers discover and document wreckage. The robot-like underwater craft can withstand deep water, locate wreckage, then take photos and videos and create maps for researchers above the surface. They can even help assess the chemical composition of the wreckage.
Can I see a shipwreck for myself?
Not always. Even the most publicized shipwreck discoveries are often shrouded in secrecy. One of the greatest discoveries in shipwreck history, that of the legendary heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis— show why.
(China kept this 800-year-old wreck a secret for decades.)
On July 30, 1945, Japanese forces attacked the ship as her crew of 1,200 returned home from the Mariana Islands (where they had delivered parts of the atomic bomb later used to destroy Hiroshima). Two torpedoes sank the ship in just minutes and only 317 men survived – the largest loss ever suffered by the US Navy at sea.
In 2018, using new information about the attack, a civilian crew scoured a 600-mile stretch of the remote Pacific Ocean in search of his remains. They finally located the ship, but its exact location is still a closely guarded secret to protect both the wreckage and the remains of those kill during the attack.
This is normal for most historic wrecks, which are subject to various protections. However, some are open to the public. Divers can get up close to the abundance of 19th and early 20th century shipwrecks in Lake Superior. Isle Royale National Parkand snorkelers off Florida can see a ship that was part of an 18th-century Spanish flotilla in the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Reserve State Park. There are also a variety of other underwater museums around the world. But this does not mean that it is possible to search for treasure there.
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Who owns the wrecks, anyway?
“People grow up believing it’s the finders who keep them in the ocean,” says James Gooldattorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, and a leading attorney in matters involving the protection of historic shipwrecks.
But in US waters, wrecks are subject to strict protections. The 1988 Abandoned Shipwrecks Act putting the states in charge of most wrecks found in their waters, and the states in turn have their own laws covering wrecks. The Sunken Military Vehicles Act of 2004 claims national ownership of US military craft that faced a water disaster.
Things get complicated when another country claims wreckage. But Goold says nations have changed the way they view shipwrecks in recent years, moving from a “guardian of discovery” mentality to seeing most shipwrecks as historic treasures to be shared.
Goold led a variety of landmark cases that brought about this change. In a 2012 case, he represented Spain in a lawsuit involving the wreck and treasure of the so-called Black Swan, a Spanish frigate sunk by British forces near Portugal in 1804.
“It was the Spanish equivalent of Pearl Harbor,” says Goold. After a US company discovered the wreckage and claimed the nearly $1 billion worth of parts for itself in 2007, Goold went to court to help Spain assert sovereignty over the vessel. Spain won.
“It was a huge moment,” says Goold, who also represented the National Geographic Society. “It is the national history of Spain.” And it’s not just about treasure, he says. “A lot of people tend to forget that these wrecks are often the resting places of people lost at sea.”
Today, thanks in part to Spain’s efforts to recover its lost vessels, the international community widely recognizes that a country’s vessel remains its property, even if it sinks in international waters or on the territory of another country. another country and regardless of the duration of the shipwreck.
What if I find a wreck?
If you are lucky enough to discover a wreck, check it yourself. You should contact local authorities immediately and only explore with a permit. Touching or disturbing wreckage can jeopardize its research value for archaeologists, ruin fragile remains, or allow artifacts to fall into the hands of looters or black market traders.
But the consequences of manipulating a shipwreck can be serious: treasure hunter and shipwreck dog Tommy Thompson has been jailed since 2015 for contempt of court after refusing to tell a federal court where to find a cache of missing gold coins in the wreckage of the 1857 SS central America.
Although shipwreck law has tightened in recent years, the public perception of shipwrecks as free for all underwater still presents a problem for conservationists. To truly protect the world’s incredible underwater heritage, the public must change their mindset from treasure hunting to recognizing the real value held at the bottom of the ocean: treasure troves of cultural and historical wealth.
“These are unique, irreplaceable time capsules,” Goold says. “You can’t just take souvenirs – those days are over.”