The Key To Davy Jones' Locker

Ocean News and Technology - January, 1996
by Greg Stemm

A Review Of Deep Ocean Shipwreck Exploration Issues

Part I - The State Of The Deep Ocean Shipwreck Recovery Business

"You can always tell the pioneer, he's the one laying face down in the mud... with an arrow in his back" - Anonymous

What does the future hold for deep water shipwreck recovery? From all indications and the attention it is now receiving from the international press, this industry should be growing significantly in the near future. New technologies now enable the location and recovery of shipwrecks which were previously beyond the reach, both physically and financially, of salvors and archaeologists.

Most groups involved with shipwrecks traditionally focus in one of two different areas. First, there are the archeologists, who have traditionally maintained that recovering shipwrecks for commercial gain is unethical. The second group has been treasure hunters, who are interested in making fortunes by simply being in the right place at the right time... more like a "get rich scheme" than a serious business.

Unfortunately, a serious battle over the control of this resource has materialized. Neither side seems to dominate the issue. However, the hearts and minds of the public seem to support the treasure hunters, and public institutions tend to follow the archaeologists.

As the stakes for this turf battle grow, it is becoming increasingly evident that a whole new field must evolve, one that requires companies to focus on the science and archaeology as well as profit. An appropriate name for this field is "Nautical Commercial Archaeology".

Companies entering this new, evolving commercial archaeology field must understand that the knowledge gleaned from the company's expeditions and explorations belongs to the public. The company has a responsibility and an obligation to share the history as well as the adventure with everyone. This attitude alone will hopefully be the common ground on which both commercial and archaeological interests will be able to agree.

However, it is also clear that the financial returns from these projects should reward those who have risked their money in support of the expeditions. These new, responsible companies must communicate with their investors in a manner that allows people to make intelligent, informed decisions with regard to risk. It's important that those who risk money understand the true risks and potential rewards, and never make investment decisions based on unfounded data or speculation, whether positive nor negative.

These requirements for honesty with investors, credibility in the archaeological and scientific areas and the need for responsible and trusting relationships between governments, commercial archaeology companies and archaeologists need to be recognized and incorporated into the business plans of any company that is seeking to enter this field.

That First Slippery Step: Research and Government Liaison

Contrary to conventional wisdom, research is probably the riskiest part of the entire business. Why? Primarily because most newcomers to the field don't understand how to evaluate research. More dollars have probably been lost and investor's money drained away by people that didn't understand this process than by any other single factor. A phenomenon known as "research blinders" is primarily to blame for this problem.

What are "research blinders"? Imagine that you are a researcher that has spent 15 years in libraries and archives trying to come up with that one shipwreck project which is going to make you rich. You stumble on data that indicates a WWII wreck may have carried $50,000,000 in silver bullion. Dreams of retiring to the Caribbean are already dancing in your head, and you spend a year of your life, traveling from one library to another, developing an ironclad case that the ship actually did sink with this valuable cargo.

Next, you have interested a company in acquiring your data, and you negotiated a $25,000 "up front fee" and a percentage of the back end of any recovery profits. There is one minor problem. You have discovered data that indicates that maybe all that bullion wasn't on the ship. A transposition of two different currencies in the original documents seems to indicate that there may actually be only about $5,000,000 in silver. In shallow water this wouldn't be a problem, but in this case the wreck is 2,000 meters deep, and it will cost about $10,000,000 to recover the silver.

No one but you, the researcher, will probably ever know about this currency mistake, and you are faced with a dilemma. If you tell the company about your concerns, they probably will not go through with the project. Farewell to your up front fee, farewell to a year's worth of research, farewell to any possibility of your Caribbean retirement.

On the other hand, maybe this currency mistake wasn't a mistake at all, and maybe it is a $50,000,000 wreck. As a researcher, you aren't risking your own money to find out. At the very worst, if it has the smaller amount of silver, you received your advance and you may still receive a percentage of the recovery, even if the project loses money. At best, the contradictory currency data was erroneous and you can take that early retirement, after all.

While this may sound far-fetched, it is a fictionalization of a real situation that recently occurred. There is definitely a tendency of researchers to stop researching when they have put together enough good data to sell a project. There are a few good researchers out there that will give you the bad news with the good, but they are few and far between.

Another actual case shows how difficult it is to determine what you get when you contract for shipwreck research. In this particular instance, a researcher was under contract and received a consulting fee for working on a specific archival project. Under this arrangement, his contract precluded him from doing work for anyone else during the assignment.

Because of the fixed fee, he didn't receive a percentage of any shipwreck project that resulted from his work. It turned out that during this assignment, he was also secretly conducting research for another firm that had offered him a percentage of any projects he turned up. While he did turn over some dossiers to his legitimate employers, he passed along valuable data to the second group as well, in hopes of receiving a percentage of any of the projects he helped them with. The worse thing about this type of behavior is that it is very difficult to catch, and seems to be common in the world of shipwreck research. Caveat Emptor!

We're From The Government, And We've Come To Help...

Even the trustworthy researchers can't help with the many other risk factors in the shipwreck business. The legal ramifications of ownership, admiralty law, jurisdictional issues, and even which countries will try to enforce a right to control projects outside their own territorial waters are all absolutely critical issues. There is no shortcut to discovering the myriad potential hazards lurking in the form of legal and government intervention, since most of this territory is uncharted.

For an education in how complicated the legal issues of ownership of a deep water shipwreck can be, read the appellate court's decision on the Central America case that was handed down in 1995. The issues of admiralty law as they relate to ancient shipwrecks have probably never been more thoroughly explored.

To make matters even less predictable, the laws are changing yearly. In fact, a draft exists for the United Nation's "Buenos Aires Convention On The Protection Of The Underwater Cultural Heritage" that could severely impact all shipwreck projects, even those in international waters. Of the many people that are listed as having been involved in the writing of this convention, not one is involved in any aspect of commercial use of this resource. The Underwater Cultural Heritage, which would be regulated by this convention, is defined in the convention as, "sites, structures, buildings, artifacts and human remains, together with their archaeological and natural contexts, and (a) wreck such as a vessel, aircraft, other vehicle or any other part thereof, its cargo or other contents, together with its archaeological and natural context.

It goes on to define "abandoned" as, "whenever technology would make exploration for research or recovery feasible, (but) has not been pursued by the owner of the heritage within 25 years after discovery of the technology; or whenever no technology would reasonably permit exploration for research or recovery and at least 50 years have elapsed since the last assertion of interest by the owner in the underwater cultural heritage."

The document goes on to say that all vessels that have been sunk for more than 100 years will be considered Cultural Heritage Sites, and that this convention and the rules about these shipwrecks under the convention "shall supersede the law of salvage."

While the general theory of this Convention is laudable, and it is necessary to exercise control over historically significant shipwrecks in order to prevent "looting" and destruction of these sites, Commercial Archaeological interests should have some input into this process, since it will directly affect how they will be able to work on shipwreck projects.

All these factors could make the difference between a successful project and another $5,000,000 wasted in search of the Davy Jones' equivalent of the Holy Grail.

The Needle In The Haystack: Search and Identification

Assuming a company has had the luck, brains and money to get past phase one, and they are prepared to enter the search phase, the first challenging task is the search for the equipment and personnel that match the job. Anyone with extensive experience actually using deep ocean search systems will always find it fascinating to listen to the sales pitches for all the new and improved search equipment currently being offered. Watching the side scan company's carefully acquired and massaged "perfect side scan images" of shipwrecks, it is easy to believe that by simply spending the right amount of money, you will even see the bones of the skeleton at the wheel of an old Spanish Treasure ship.

The intricate and carefully designed software and hardware "promise" a quick, accurate and easy search. The hard realities of cable short-circuits, fish plowing into seamounts, signal fall-off, and shipwrecks that don't look like they do in the demonstration software are usually learned about the time a search project has run through it's first round of financing. The sales pitches of the equipment manufacturers and the search contractors don't usually mention the equipment interface problems, thermocline blank spots and software crashes.

It is too easy to be seduced by technology and overlook the most important factor in search operations. Shipwrecks are found in the archives and libraries, then they are pinpointed with technology. Before any equipment ever hits the water, every avenue of investigating the shipwreck's location through further research, computer modeling and probability analyses should be explored. For the cost of one day of deep water offshore operations, you can keep three researchers at work for a month, or prepare an in-depth analysis of the effects of current, tides, weather and bottom conditions on your target.

As a company moves into the offshore search operations, it is critical that they obtain the services of a consultant that has experience looking for a target similar to the one sought, in similar conditions. Scores of search operations have been complete failures because contractors or consultants with oilfield or deep ocean mapping experience didn't understand what they were looking for, and the nuances of a shipwreck search. The classic example of mismatching technology with an operation was the employment some years ago of an extremely slow and expensive deep ocean manned submersible to attempt to actually conduct a search operation using scanning sonars. That operation made as much sense as mowing a lawn with scissors. Another $3,000,000 down the deep hole.

In Summary

As more and more companies move into the growing field of deep ocean shipwreck recovery, those that take the biggest risks at this early stage will quickly move ahead of the pack. However, bad luck, bad deals and bad judgment will conspire to eliminate many of these pioneers from the field.

Those that are successful in negotiating the research and technical portions of this business will be faced with an even a greater challenge... dealing with the ethics and politics of shipwreck recovery.

In Part II, we'll take a look at these issues from both the archaeological and the commercial point of view.

©1996 Greg Stemm

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