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Ship Logs

Wrecks as Common Heritage: Looting and the Law
Written By Hans Van Tilburg, Ph.D, "Dr. Shipwreck"
Underwater Photography by Jim Watt

Macaw wreck at Midway.Many divers have a fine appreciation for history and enjoy seeing wreck sites underwater. Unfortunately, a few of them enjoy this so much that they feel compelled to take some of it home with them. There are a couple problems with this. First of all, historic wrecks represent our common maritime past. They are a scarce resource to be enjoyed, not to be randomly stripped of artifacts and destroyed. Information about the past, about the crew, the ship's construction, its trade, the wrecking event itself, is preserved in subtle ways. Any excavation or tampering with the site can destroy this record. Second, according to state and federal preservation laws, it is illegal to loot wrecks.

The federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 is one of the main tools for the protection of our maritime past. This act grants the state title to abandoned vessels in state waters, and establishes management guidelines for the study, preservation, and enjoyment of these unique historic resources. There are literally hundreds of sites in Hawai‘i where vessels have ended their careers, only natural for a maritime location such as this. We are surrounded by the remains of ships of exploration, local schooners, 19th century steamships from the inter island trades, and more. These sites and the information they contain are the real cultural "treasures" beneath the waves.

Anchor at Kure Atoll.  Photo by Jim Watt.Navy ships and aircraft are even more carefully managed. These almost always remain property of the US government no matter how deep they lie, and theft of material from them has led to fines and jail time.

The historic wrecks in the Northwestern Hawaiian Island chain have been further protected by their isolation. (Unfortunately, it's rare to find an unlooted wreck site in the main islands.) That's something that makes these atolls even more special. Stewardship of natural marine resources and cultural maritime resources can go hand in hand. Both are forms of respect for what the ocean possesses.

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