A look into the world of salvaging...
May 3, 2003
Editor's Note: Wreck diving and salvaging has become a politically sensitive and controversial area of diving. Who owns the wreck? Who gets to keep the contents? What about the thriving state of piracy? WetDawg set out to find the answers to these questions and talked with a seasoned wreck diver and salvager. His name has been witheld to protect his identity.
WD: How did you get involved in wreck diving?
I personally got involved in diving because I wanted to explore shipwrecks and recover items from them. A secondary reason was that I enjoyed fresh fish and lobster. It still tastes good, although my ecologically friendly spear-fishing techniques of only catching what I want to eat instead of trawling the entire ocean and through the dead stuff that I shouldn't have caught back overboard are deemed as carnage akin to the slaughter of African Elephant or Rhino.
Somewhere along in the last 40 years my ideals became 'non-politically correct'.
WD: If a ship is sunk in international waters, who can claim it?
If something lays on the bottom of the sea in international waters, it's outside anyone's jurisdiction. Time and time again, this appears to mean that whoever has the biggest guns at the time (real guns of course), they get to recover and keep whatever's recovered (or steal it from the wreck divers who've just recovered it.) Strange, though, how the big guns don't appear until: 1) the wreck has beeen located at often immense expense in time and resources to the salvager, and 2) most of the items have been recovered. (Editor's Note: Legally, whoever discovers the sunken ship first that lies in international waters is considered to have the rights to salvage the ship. )
If the items are big enough, valuable enough, or just plain politically sensitive, then whole governments get involved in the acquisition of freshly recovered items. Governments are rarely interested in people salvaging worthless rubbish from the ocean floor, and only become involved if it's worth something, apart from in bloody Australia where just entering a sensitive wreck will see you enjoying a free stay "in the pokey." Yes, piracy is alive and well.
WD: Recently, Steve Lloyd found the wreck of the S.S. Aleutian at 220 feet off Alaska's Kodiak island. He is planning to charge clients $4,000 for seven days to dive to the wreck and salvage the Aleutian's artifacts. (http://www.divealeutian.com/). This has archeologists worried. Do you think any Joe Schmoe should be allowed to pay money and mine artifacts of sunken ships? Do these treasures belong to the public or the governement?
Steve should have kept very quiet about the wreck, and with a hand picked crew of divers, he should have salted away the artifacts into his garage for preparation and release to public auction. Then at a public funtion, the government can decide if it values the "treasure" sufficiently to pay Steve what he rightfully deserves for finding the booty.
WD: Do governments intervene if it's a valuable ship? Any examples?
Check out Mike Hatcher's "Middle of the Gulf" wreck story concerning the Thai government's intervention into his salvage of a shipwreck in international waters close to Thailand.
WD: What about non-governement ships? Do salvagers have to worry about piracy?
Salvagers always have to worry about piracy. I class piracy as having something I've found taken from me by anyone without giving me it's full market worth at auction. This includes, of course, government, the coast guard, Navy, and other salvagers arriving on site to join the feeding frenzy.