SOS - Safeguarding Our Shipwrecks by Bruce Stannard

Australian waters are littered with shipwrecks and none more so than the ironbound coast of New South Wales where the sunken remains of more than 2,000 vessels include some that date back to the very beginnings of our European history.
Although theft from wrecks is a serious criminal offence, underwater sites continue to attract unscrupulous divers willing to go to extraordinary lengths to plunder property that does in fact belong to every one of us.
Bruce Stannard reports.


Maritime archaeologists estimate there have been around 7,900 ship losses in Australian waters, but only about 750 of those wrecks have been located. In NSW waters alone there have been 2,112 wrecks with 175 located. All of which means there’s an awful lot of  undiscovered booty lying out there on the seabed.
While it may not be the fabled gold and diamonds of the Incas, there are no doubt treasures of many kinds and unfortunately, just as many wreck hunters eager to get their hands on them.
This is the daily challenge that confronts maritime archaeologists like Sarah Ward and Tim Smith from the Heritage Branch of the NSW Government’s Department of Planning. Sarah and  Tim have the unenviable task of keeping tabs on all the wreck sites in state waters.
They also have the much tougher job of riding shotgun over those who either deliberately or unwittingly disturb the sunken remains, salvaging everything from coins to crockery, brass bells to bronze belaying pins.
Maritime archaeologist Tim Smith recording timbers from the Centurion lost off Cannae Point, Sydney Harbour in 1887The task of policing the wrecks is all but impossible. Only one case has ever been successfully brought before the courts and that was some 20 years ago when a diver was prosecuted under the Crimes Act for illegally taking ceramic tiles and copper pots from the wreck of the coastal steamer Satara which came to grief off Seal Rocks on the north coast of NSW in 1910.
The diver was convicted and fined $1,000 plus court costs, a mere slap on the wrist, which would have done little to discourage others eager to follow his example.
Sarah Ward is candid enough to concede the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. She is, however, taking a proactive approach in running an outreach programme aimed at educating dive groups, maritime archaeologists and the general community on the laws governing wrecks and the responsibilities we all have in ensuring the security and the integrity of our collective maritime heritage.
Having had the privilege of attending one of her two-day courses in Sydney recently, I came away with a much clearer understanding of the obligations we all share. The first thing I learned was that ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law.
Although we are all at liberty to hover over a wreck site and look down at the remains on the seabed, the law says emphatically that we must not, under any circumstances, touch and disturb, much less remove artefacts from that site unless permitted to do so.
Sarah makes the point that once an artefact is moved, even if it’s only by a few centimetres, its value as archaeological evidence is at once compromised if not lost altogether.
A diver inspects the Tuncurry, lost in 1916 off Barrenjoey Headland.“Anyone who comes across a wreck,” she said, “has a statutory obligation to report it as soon as practicable.
“People should not assume that a wreck site has already been reported. If they were previously unaware of its presence and it doesn’t show up on a chart, then they should report it.
“It’s very tempting for some wreck-hunters to keep these things to themselves. They take the attitude that this is ‘their wreck’ and they’re not about to share it with anyone else who might dive down under their very noses and rip it off.
“We do have a statutory obligation to keep a register of historic shipwrecks and in NSW this is the Maritime Heritage Online website, but for management purposes we may not disclose a new find immediately. We dive on the site and confirm its location. We survey it and try to identify it before any details are made public.
“Once we do all that, we can determine whether or not the wreck is heritage sensitive and whether or not it’s at risk and perhaps needs a protective zone placed around it. We have no interest in denying people access to their heritage. After all, it’s not my heritage or your heritage. It’s our collective heritage.”
Of the 7,900 historic shipwrecks nationwide, only 22 have a protected zone that controls entry. All the others are freely accessible. In NSW waters only three wreck sites have protected zones. Sarah points out that the law says that all wrecks not claimed within 12 months of wrecking, are the property of the Commonwealth.
“Once a shipwreck becomes ‘historic’, everything on the wreck is protected,” she said, “and that means it cannot be damaged, destroyed or interfered with and nor can any items be removed.
“That applies to all wrecks 75-years-old or more and located from the mean low-water mark out to the Continental Shelf. Even in state waters the Commonwealth Act applies. If a wreck site doesn’t have a protected zone, then it can be visited on a look but don’t touch basis. If it has a protected zone, then you need a permit to enter the site. If you intend to survey the site you may need a permit and the same applies if you wish to remove something from the wreck site.
“A lot of these sites are three or four miles offshore, which means that sometimes divers take an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach on the assumption that no one will ever know. The point is that there are penalties and they are likely to be much more onerous once the federal Government’s new Australia Environment Act comes into force.”
Sarah says many divers take artefacts from wreck sites in the misguided belief that if they don’t take it, somebody else will.
“Their attitude,” she said, “is that they’re taking the object to protect it. What they often don’t seem to appreciate is that the moment those artefacts are exposed to the air, the process of decay is great accelerated.
“The plain fact is that the majority of those objects will not survive.
“Bronze and brass objects recovered from the seabed may look robust, but unless they are properly desalinated and conserved, they go on decaying.
“We have had quite a few examples of ship’s bells that are now heavily corroded simply because they’ve been put up on a mantelpiece and left untreated. Over time they become so degraded that they end up as little more than tat and so they’re thrown away.
“Often, when the divers who recovered the objects eventually pass on, family members have no knowledge of or interest in the objects and so they’re simply tossed out. If we don’t discover the object during the finder’s lifetime, then we have absolutely no chance of doing so once they pass-on.
“The result is that we are all losers.”
Sarah Ward stresses the fact that all artefacts recovered from Australian historic shipwreck sites remain the property of the Commonwealth in perpetuity.
“Just because someone has been able to obtain a permit to recover an artefact, retain it and even on-sell it,” she said, “that does not mean that they actually own that object. Possession does not confer ownership. Ownership always remains with the Commonwealth.”
Something well worth bearing in mind next time a gimlet-eyed old seadog tries to sell you gold doubloons, double moydores, louis d’ors and portagues.
For further details visit www.maritime.heritage.nsw.gov.au

A diver on bollards from the Ovalau, lost in 1903 off Lord Howe Island.Wreck Spotters

If you live near the coast, have a recognised interest in the preservation of historic shipwrecks and underwater cultural heritage, you may be interested in joining the Wreck Spotters program.
The role of the Wreck Spotter is to assist Maritime Archaeologists from the Heritage Branch in documenting known historic wreck sites, ‘spotting’ any changes to existing wrecks, and in detecting and reporting new finds.
Contact Heritage Branch Maritime Archaeologist, Sarah Ward on 02 9873 8533 or via email: sarah.ward@planning.nsw.gov.au