Proposed Shipwreck Policy

By Peter Johnson

Draft of a position statement being worked on in Connecticut, USA, reflecting a pure sport diver / archaeologist view point.

If I may introduce myself, I am a wreck diver with 20 years diving experience off of the Northeast US coast. I also have an amateur interest in marine history specializing in marine engineering technology.

I have followed the debate concerning archeologists and sport divers over the past few days and would like to make some observations from my background and experience:

  1. Many shipwrecks are found not by archeologists but by divers who then report them to the archeologists. I believe that George Bass has stated publicly that without the sponge divers he would never have located many of the wrecks he has spent his life working on. In northern European and American waters there are no working divers who can fill this role except the recreational SCUBA divers searching for shipwrecks.
    Many of these divers have spent considerable amounts of their own time and money acquiring the skills and equipment to operate at depths that are exceeding 300 feet and at distances from shore reaching out to 100 miles. A large percentage of these divers are professionals with college and advanced degrees. These divers have spent many hours researching the ships and their histories before going out to these deeper and further off wrecks. They also write, publish, and present about these wrecks whenever asked.

  2. Most shipwrecks in the Northeast US of interest to these wreck divers are of recent origin, post 1880 to 1900, and are of iron and steel construction. Wood shipwrecks are of interest mostly as a place to do lobstering, not for artifacts. Most of the steel wrecks in depths of 100' or shallower have been broken up as hazards to navigation. Metal wrecks are constantly deteriorating due to the salt water environment and storm/current conditions.

  3. Since the late 1960's the power and size of commercial fishing boats has greatly increase. This increase in power has resulted in wood wrecks that used to be avoided now simply being run over and destroyed, even steel wrecks are being broken up. The wreck of the trawler Amagansett, sunk in 1960 off of North Carolina was fully intact during the summer of 1994, in 1995 it was found broken up and spread over several acres of the bottom, the remains of a steel trawl net were also found. Many of the captains of these large fishing boats have artifact collections larger than any wreck diver will ever collect. I have also talked to sport charter fishing boat captains and they all report that many "Hangs" just are no longer found. The result of the above is that wrecks that may be of significant archaeological interest are not safe in any area where commercial trawler fishing is conducted and that the option of leaving wrecks in situ may no longer be a safe option.

  4. Not every shipwreck older then 50 years is of archaeological or historical interest.

  5. Due to the large areas of water involved and lack of funding for enforcement, laws protecting shipwrecks are ineffective without the cooperation of the local sport diving community. Realizing the above and the need to preserve the history involved with the shipwrecks. The State archeologist office of Connecticut has started talks with the local sport/wreck divers on a voluntary program to document and preserve shipwrecks of interest.


Beginning points for discussion are that shipwrecks can be divided into 3 broad categories:

  • Pre 1840:
    These wrecks often are not documented and little is known about them. Wrecks in this category should be reported and preserved until they can be surveyed.
  • 1840-1880:
    These ships, if they are identified, are often documented to some degree. However, some archaeological data may be recovered and should also be preserved until the ships are surveyed. This survey does not necessarily require the supervision of a professional archaeologist.
  • Post 1880 to Present:
    These ships are most likely known and archival information can be found. This information can be as detailed as photos, builders plans, bill's of lading, crew and passenger lists. Therefore, no new archeological data is likely to be gathered. However, the wrecks may be of historical value and preservation would only be on a case by case basis.

The first and second category of wrecks would be recovered or preserved in situ if desirable and possible.

Artifacts from the first category would be recovered under archeological supervision. Artifacts from the second category would be documented by the divers and the documents submitted to the state for review. If the artifacts recovered are deemed to be of archeological or historical value the state would have the right to study them for a period of time, and purchase them for a negotiated sum (right of first refusial) or have them donated as a tax deduction. The diver would be credited with the recovery at any display.

Artifacts from the third category could be recovered at will if not otherwise protected. The divers would be encouraged to submit documentation on the wreck and artifact to be placed into a data base. Preservation of the artifacts and documentation would be stressed and a system for the donation of them implemented when they are no longer wanted.

An education system would be set up so that the differences and exceptions between these categories, proper documentation, and preservation techniques could be taught to the divers.

Professional salvage would be allowed only on a case by case basses. Commercial salvage of existing shipwrecks is not in the interest of either the archeologist or wreck diver.


The benefits to the archeological community would be:

  • A willing exchange of information between the archeologists and divers such as wreck sites, conditions, and research/artifacts already gathered.

  • A vastly increased search/survey capability of the bottom.

  • A trained reserve of skilled wreck divers with capabilities to dive in excess of 200 feet. In most cases the services of these divers would be available at no cost except perhaps for air/mix, boat, and food. I believe that since the USS Monitor has been opened up to the deep sport/wreck diver, supervised recovery of artifacts is being done at no cost to the government.

Benefits to the diving community would be:

  • Inclusion into the archaeological and decision making process.

  • Elimination of unnecessary regulations involving the wrecks of primary interest (post 1880-1900).

  • A greater understanding of any historical/archaeological significance of the wrecks dove and artifacts recovered.

I invite constructive comments from the people on this distribution list on the above proposal. All comments will be forwarded to the state/sport diver committee.

Peter Johnson

Connecticut, USA, May 1999

Opinions expressed here are personal, not representing any official opinion of this web site.

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