Putting "Professional" into Shipwreck Exploration

UnderWater Magazine - September, 2000
by Greg Stemm

Editors Note: The world of shipwreck exploration has grown from romantic fantasy to a serious underwater contracting industry. IN this issue's column, ProSEA's Greg Stemm advocates the need for professionalism and credibility among contractors already engaged in the industry, and advises those not involved to pay attention to a rapidly growing and profitable venture.

To most serious offshore technology companies, shipwrecks are like auto accidents. You know you shouldn't let them distract you, but they are so fascinating, it's hard to ignore them. Most of my friends in the deep ocean business have their favorite story about the crazy guy that called up and offered them the opportunity to get involved with a shipwreck project that sounds something like this:

  1. "Nazi Gold" (We really had a witness that saw the gold being loaded! He died last month, but...);
  2. "Lost Spanish Treasure" (We found documents in the archives that prove everyone else has looked in the wrong place);
  3. "The Secret Cargo" (These priceless jewels were so secret that no one else ever even knew they existed!)
Most of theses "treasure hunts" offer the opportunity to share in the "loot" for simply contributing some capital and equipment. But don't ask for too much research data. It's extremely confidential, or maybe it was stolen by government agents...

The Need for Legitimacy

Unfortunately, these types of shipwreck "deals" represent the extent of the experience of most professional offshore companies. It's too bad that these all-too-common situations are interfering with development of a new potential marketplace for ROVs, submersibles, DSVs, and survey equipment. When you stop to think about it - it is a problem you'll find in most embryonic business fields.

The early days of the oil industry, biotechnology, precious mineral mining, alternative fuels and even equity markets were rife with scams and unscrupulous promoters. Somehow, these commercial opportunities grew into serious businesses in spite of all the problems. Will the same legitimacy ever reach shipwreck exploration?

This month marks a significant event in the development of a "real business" dedicated to the exploration of shipwrecks. When the Professional Shipwreck Explorers Association (ProSEA) signed an affiliation agreement with the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADC), a corner was turned in the development of serious professional standards for the private sector's involvement in this new field of ocean exploration.

Until quite recently, shipwreck exploration was viewed as (at best) a hobby for weekend divers and adventurers, and (at worst) an investment scam dedicated to the plunder of the world's underwater cultural heritage. During the past five years, we have seen a new paradigm emerge, one that finds serious business people viewing shipwrecks of the world as a resource with fascinating latent possibilities for archaeological, economic, and scientific development. With traditional ocean technology companies like Oceaneering, Comex, Sonardyne, Deep Ocean Engineering, MRJ Technology, and Nauticos joining the ranks of ProSEA, the potential of this new field is obviously attracting leaders in the offshore field, but what do they see in this nascent industry?

This sea change in the business community's interest in underwater cultural heritage has probably resulted from some interesting new business models that we are starting to see on the horizon. Three of the most interesting include: archaeological contracting, media property development and shipwreck tourism.

Archaeological/Historical Contracting

Archaeological and historical contracting provides a fascinating twist on the traditional shipwreck recovery model. Salvors and archaeologists have typically fought over shallow water sites in part because archaeologists believe it is just as easy for them to strap on tanks and do the work themselves. When it comes time to do archaeological work in the deep ocean using sophisticated technology and robotics, we're looking at an entirely different scenario. As evidenced by Oceaneering's contracts this year on the Titanic, Hunley, and Austrian Lake project, historic expeditions are beginning to rely on professional offshore contractors to do their work.

Recent headlines proclaim that governments around the world have begun to try to take control of their underwater cultural heritage, no matter where it lies. With this ownership comes management responsibility, and I predict that deep ocean archaeological excavations will one day be contracted out exactly as they are on land sites - to archaeological contracting firms. This field will require a new and unique approach to underwater technology, providing real challenges as archaeologists require ROVs and submersibles to perform tasks that simply aren't found in the oilfields or other traditional offshore marketplaces.

Media Programming

The value of shipwrecks to the media is becoming more evident every year. There appears to be an unquenchable desire for the public to participate vicariously in the latest shipwreck finds. In a trend that may have been sparked by James Cameron's famous three-hour Titanic shipwreck exploration promotional piece, you can hardly flip through the channels without seeing something to do with shipwrecks. What's more important is that these media productions will all require ROVs, submersibles, divers, and other technical services.

With bandwidth increasing through both the television and the Internet, and as technology opens the potential for many exciting new finds in the coming years, this is likely to become a burgeoning field of its own. As such it will require special expertise in lighting, videography and an understanding of the dynamics of exploring shipwreck remains in a manner that will transfer well to different media formats.

Deep Sea Shipwreck Tourism

Of particular interest, because we have seen significant growth in this field during the past two years, is deep sea shipwreck tourism. A logical extension of the dive tour business, this field has been pioneered by adventure tour operator Deep Ocean Expeditions, whose previous experience includes taking tourists to exotic and difficult to access locales such as Antarctica and the North Pole. During the summer of 1998, they took tourists to visit the shipwreck of the Titanic aboard the Russian Mir submersibles, and plan a similar expedition in the fall of this year.

As a result of a lawsuit between Deep Ocean Expeditions and RMS Titanic (the salvor-in-possession of the shipwreck of the Titanic), the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the right to sell tours to shipwrecks did not hamper the salvage rights of the court-appointed salvor. This case opened the potential for virtually any tour operator to visit not only the Titanic, but virtually any other shipwreck.

Prior to this lawsuit, RMS Titanic funded trips to the site by charging the Discovery Channel for rights to visit and film the site. The loss of this revenue to the salvor is a two-edged sword in the development of shipwreck exploration. On one hand, it has the effect of removing a source of revenue that would have had the effect of encouraging salvors to leave shipwrecks in situ, developing revenue by charging access fees. On the other hand, there is little doubt that there are a lot of adventure tourists throughout the world that are willing to pay to visit famous ships like the Titanic and the Monitor.

I must confess that I have some real concerns about the ramifications of the 4th Circuit Court's decision. We spend a lot of money and effort to locate shipwrecks, and in many cases, these sites are better left on the ocean bottom until there is a compelling reason to excavate or recover them. For most sites, there will probably never be an economic or scientific rationale for doing anything other than leaving them as an artificial reef and tourist destination.

Unfortunately, at this point there is no way for us to protect the site from interlopers that would love to take advantage of our find, allowing us no compensation for bringing the shipwreck to light. In spite of this, I believe that this field has a lot of potential.

During our last expedition to the Mediterranean, Odyssey Marine brought several visitors along with us to see whether there was a marketplace for charging people to join us on our expeditions. On this particular operation, we were dropping ROVs to inspect anomalies located during a previous side scan survey, in depths to about 3,280 feet (1,000m). Our concern was that ROV operations wouldn't be as exciting as diving in subs or jumping over the side in scuba gear.

In fact, we found that the unpredictability of what we were doing, and the fact that the visitors were seeing sites that had never been seen before, added to the excitement. They were participating in a real expedition, not a tour. The enthusiastic response to the trial has led us to begin development of a program that will bring guests along on our future expeditions.

Is there room for a professional industry built around shipwreck exploration?

In affiliating with ProSEA, the ADC has shown that they believe that there is certainly the potential for a legitimate industry. By learning from the great work the ADC has done to bring professional responsibility, safety, and accountability to the offshore industry, ProSEA should be able to pave the way for the same principles to be applied in this new field.

If you are interested in shipwrecks, make sure you attend ProSEA's series of shipwreck exploration presentations at Underwater Intervention 2001 in Tampa, Fla., this coming January. You'll learn about the current state of technology and legal issues in the field as well as some of the opportunities that are presenting themselves.

Who knows? Your company's next balance sheet may contain a revenue category entitled "shipwreck projects."

UnderWater Magazine is the bimonthly journal of the Association of Diving Contractors International, Inc. It is published by Doyle Publishing Company for the commercial diving, ROV, and underwater industries. Entire contents © 1993 - 1999 Doyle Publishing Company. Reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission is prohibited.

©2000 Greg Stemm

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