Technically Speaking: A review of the "Review of Historic Shipwrecks Act"

The recent noise around the UNESCO Convention and changes to maritime heritage legislation had got me wondering. What the...?  Why the fuss? Will anyone care? Admittedly, after several years of being a blissfully ignorant recreational diver before joining The Sydney Project, this writer was relatively new to the hot-bed of politics and passion which is affectionately known as the “Technical Dive Community” perhaps should not have been surprised at the vocal and vehement level of interest and concern apparent across the industry. It’s nothing if not passionate!

 Everyone knows the basics of the Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976), and for anyone wondering why it needed to be reviewed, try wading through all 49 pages of legal jargon in the full document ! It was (even internationally) one of the first moves of its kind, implemented over 30 years ago to protect shipwrecks from unlawful pillage and plunder. Shipwrecks were to be protected from the 75th anniversary of their sinking, new finds reported and a register maintained (not to mention each State and Territory also each having their own additional legislation to protect historic shipwrecks in local state waters like as bays, harbours and rivers ). Innovative and world-leading moves at the time, albeit before the popularity-explosion of SCUBA and the birth of dive tourism. But since then, developments in technology and techniques, as well as discoveries and a growing collective knowledge of what’s out there have far outgrown the Act. We now know that there are countless wrecks that may be old, but which possibly all can’t be ‘historically significant’; and similarly, many wrecks ‘younger’ than 75 years which it doesn’t cover and have to be specially protected anyway. It also meant that wrecks were at the mercy of diver integrity for their first 74 years, and then suddenly protected on their 75th ‘birthday’. Or perhaps, what was left of them was protected...

In comparison, terrestrial Acts which refer to land-based heritage management are much more sensible and up to date - they don’t give blanket protection on an arbitrary age limit. They establish protection on a case-by-case basis, using established guidelines to determine significance of “...aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations...” from a document called The Burra Charter . This means every case for protection is determined on its own merits rather than a blanket solution.   Imagine a city full of buildings, streets and houses trapped in architecture and materials from the 1940’s! (Granted, there are obvious differences in available space and development requirements between the worlds above and below the water, but we’ll ignore that for the time being). It would be a waste of time, space and resources to try to protect every single old Steam Engine found on land, for example. Instead, it’s much more efficient to select the most historically significant ones, and direct the resources into giving them the proper love and protection they deserve, like the marvel of the Boulton & Watt steam engine at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum , which focuses available resources on its preservation, rather than spreading resources too thin to the point of ineffectiveness.

But, I digress; let’s go back underwater where the same principals will perhaps now start to apply....

For anyone lucky enough to be too busy diving to stay across the commotion, there has recently been an open invitation for the general public to have a say and participate in the Review of the Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976) . Submissions were made by divers, maritime archaeologists, museums, the Navy, academics and individuals; with somewhat surprising results. This otherwise naive writer might have been under the impression that the big bad government wanted to ruin wreck diving for all of us. But instead, the submissions even between divers and museums were almost boringly similar, and counter to the “us” and “them” mentally one might otherwise expect. From the 29 questions posed, a sample few were more pertinent than others to the current climate in the dive industry, and in the interests of saving time and collective sanity, here are some interesting, summarised responses from several contributors  which contradict parts of general public assumption (with apologies to respective authors for the paraphrasing!);

Q.8   Are the current reporting requirements for the discovery of shipwrecks and relics sufficient? If not, what information should be reported and how should it be reported?

AIMA – Generally yes, but for environmental purposes, no.
ANMM – Reporting should be made as easy as possible, even an on-line format. Finders should be encouraged to participate in survey and assessment of the find.
MAAV – Allow at least a phone call first, with paper report later.
SP – Reporting should acknowledge finders and collect data to contribute to Shipwreck Database
WAM – Needs better information for the public, ease of online forms, availability of contacts

Q.9   Should the capacity to provide monetary rewards for reporting of shipwrecks continue to be provided for in the Act? If not, how could those reporting the discovery of shipwrecks be acknowledged?

AIMA – Non-monetary rewards should adopted; eg, media releases, exhibition captions, replica’s etc.
ANMM – Yes, monetary as well as other forms of recognition.
MAAV – No; but instead provision of grants for research, equipment, etc.
SP –  Better ‘finders’ acknowledgement, and a % of value if for actual commercial valuables
WAM – No; public acknowledgement, exhibition captions, etc instead

Q.10   Should the Act continue to allow open access to most shipwrecks? if not, what should be required?

AIMA – Yes, retain open and free access.
ANMM – Yes, maintain open access.
MAAV – Yes, otherwise with supervision/permits
SP – Yes, keep open access, and promote ‘Respect The Wreck’ ethics 
WAM – Yes, the “enjoy but don’t disturb” generally works, and important to keep public involved

For the full responses from these and all other submissions, you can access them all on the DEWHA site.   There were also many more questions relating to treatment of relics, human remains, return of artefacts, etc; which are likely also of interest, but unfeasible to summarise all here.

So in these (albeit few) examples, the consensus is to make reporting of finds easier, publicly acknowledge the finders, and keep sites open for diving – and this was the general trend across the 25+ submissions. Whereas the original Act passed through a parliament of assumedly non-diving government ministers in the 70’s, the current interest in the Act is from people in museums, universities and heritage offices who are more likely to actually be divers themselves. It’s a move towards greater trust and communication between those who dive the wrecks, and those responsible for protecting them.
This article isn’t going into the moral issue of respecting wrecks and leaving them intact for other divers to enjoy. It is merely to acknowledge that there is a first step, and action (at whatever level) to involve ‘us public’ in forming the future legislation that will apply to our diving, and also highlight the fact that, judging by the submissions, these days we all pretty much want the same things. Down at the more detailed level, hopefully Australia will learn from other international examples; like the UK model which set-up a collaboration between divers, museums, academics, etc, to advise government on suitability of each wreck site for protection.   Or the register that allows finders to log discovered artefacts but otherwise remain the custodian of them. As is it, museums do not want every single artefact anyway – they don’t have the space, staff, money or time to curate them all. Go back to the Powerhouse Museum, and imagine a warehouse of 1000’s of steam engines. Kind of freaky, and it would be at the expense of displaying or maintaining anything else.

The review is a fin in the right direction, and hopefully part of an improving process of greater future collaboration. Submissions closed in July and are currently being processed. The review is slated to be completed by this 30th October 2009 , after which we can expect information on the results of the submissions and any changes to the existing Act. Stay tuned....

The writer is a keen diver and history geek, who likes diving on shipwrecks that still have things to see; and apart from a scary HECS debt, has no affiliation with government; and is not actually obsessed with steam engines.


[1] Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. Full document available at;$file/HistoricShipwrecks1976.pdf

[1] Historic Shipwreck Laws

[1] The Burra Charter

[1] Boulton & Watt Engine

[1] Review of historic Shipwrecks Act

[1] Acronyms of submissions from;

  • AIMA – Australia Institute Maritime Archaeology
  • ANMM –Australian National Maritime Museum
  • MAAV – Maritime Archaeology Association of Victoria
  • SP – Sydney Project
  • WAM – Western Australian Museum

[1] DEWHA; all submissions

[1] English Heritage

[1] Review Factsheet


Remember Me