The seas, rivers, and lakes of this world are filled with marvelous plants, amazing fish, and unique mammals. They are also filled with wrecks! There are hundreds of wrecked ships around the coast of the United Kingdom alone. A five-year study done recently in the Baltic Sea discovered over 100 previously unrecorded wrecks, and the researchers involved estimated that there were hundreds more yet to be found. The variety of wrecks is astounding too, from ancient galleons to medieval merchant vessels, submarines to warships (the legendary scuttled Scapa Flow German fleet in the Orkney Islands being a prime example). And not only ships lie in these waters. Downed planes, for example, do as well. In fact, just recently, the remains of a Spitfire from World War II were discovered in Scottish waters. The famous Valentine Tanks which lie in Swanage Pier off the coast of Dorset in England are yet one more example of an unusual dive site. And most excitingly of all we have barely scratched the surface of what our underwater world can reveal.
As a passionate wreck diver, I’ve explored these underwater remains in Greece, Cayman, Egypt, along the Croatian coast, in Orkney and in other UK waters, just as a few examples. Wrecks can be challenging diving, though. It’s important to have specialist training in overhead environments in order to safely enjoy these adventures, especially when exploring the inside of these wrecks. Wrecks are seldom upright and it can be disconcerting for a diver when ‘up’ and ‘down’ are not clear. They are also constantly changing environments. Caves that have taken thousands of years to form are, as a general rule, much more stable than a shipwreck that has been submerged for “just” a hundred years! Icy waters (like those of the Baltic Sea and the Great Lakes) help to preserve shipwrecks but can be very uncomfortable to dive in without the proper equipment and training. Drysuits and proper thermal protection are a must. Poor visibility and hazards like old fishing nets may also await the exploring diver. Neither can all wrecks be accessed by recreational divers, many being too deep (the Britannic and Titanic for instance), or dangerously unstable. Others are too archaeologically sensitive for recreational diving to be allowed. And remember, protected sites should always be respected, especially if human remains are present. Who, after all, would dream of plundering a churchyard? As an example, Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia, where the main anchorage for the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II was based, is an underwater museum and memorial and should be treated and respected as such.
That said, what riches wrecks can reveal! Who doesn’t dream about chests of gold doubloons or other lost treasure? Wrecks, however, offer other kinds of ‘treasure’ too. They can tell marine archaeologists about ancient shipbuilding techniques, for example. Bronze Age sewn-plank boats ranging in date from 1900 BC to 400 BC have been recovered from estuaries in England. And we all have thrilled to the sight of the beautiful Viking boats recovered and displayed in museums. The Vasa ship now on display in Sweden is one of the most spectacular examples. Shipwrecks can also demonstrate trading routes, as well as what people traded. Amphora from Ancient Greek and Roman ships, like the Antikythera wreck, can reveal what people drank (wine for example and where it was made) and what they ate (olive oil and garum, which is Roman fish sauce). Sculptures, like those from Antikythera, retrieved from the seafloor demonstrate the amazing skills of ancient artists. From the clear luxury afforded first-class passengers on board a vessel like the Titanic, to the armaments of a warship such as the Mary Rose, to the workaday remains of a cargo ship, wrecks bring past communities and worlds to life again. They help us recreate those worlds. Shipwrecks are a reminder and a record of past events, some of them world-shattering. The Scapa Flow wrecks are a great example. They are where they are as a result of one of the most cataclysmic events of the last century: the First World War. The recent discovery of the wrecks of the Terror and Erebus in the Arctic are a somber reminder of the great risks, often fatal, undertaken by early explorers. As an archaeology student, these elements definitely add to the fascination of a wreck! There are many stories and experiences just waiting to be uncovered. There is so much more than meets the eye when diving around these underwater time capsules.
The most fascinating thing of all, however, is what shipwrecks tell us about the people who sailed in them. While it is, of course, very exciting to explore the skeletons of ships and to uncover their secrets, there is something especially moving and unforgettable about human connections, whether it’s recovering the wedding ring of a young airman in a downed plane, or discovering the bones of a Roman sailor. The recent reconstructions of some of the faces of the men who sailed on the Mary Rose bring alive the variety of ages, nationalities, and skillsets of those men. It is an undeniable link to our ancestors and our history. A once-pretty buckled shoe in the hold on the Goya, a refugee ship torpedoed in the Baltic, is a powerful and poignant reminder of the people aboard her and the terrible cost of war. Wrecks bring us face to face with the people and events of our past and help to keep their memories alive.