Technically Speaking: Visiting Graves

Visiting Graves

When a shipwreck event occurs it is often that lives are lost, at times a small number of lives other times in significant numbers. Shipwrecks are due to accidents and more so during war and other conflict.

Past Naval traditions during war time the dead were buried at sea; any lives lost during a sinking of a ship, the shipwreck is then considered to be a grave site. While the sea teems with life, there is a starker reality in that the sea is a big cemetery for thousands of people who have lost their lives sailing the oceans. Shipwrecks are their coffins - tombs that freeze the moment in time.

Divers often dive on shipwrecks that saw loss of lives. Countries like the UK and Germany forbid their countrymen from diving shipwrecks out of respect for their dead. There are times a number of countries with combined interests agree to restrict access to specific a shipwreck. An example of this would be the German liners Wilhelm Gustloff in Polish waters, the Wilhelm Gustloff had a loss of more than 8000 souls, and Stuben in the Baltic internationals waters with the loss of 4 thousand souls. Both Poland and Germany have agreed to stop divers from visiting these wrecks. But these restrictions came about after pirate divers became entrapped in fishing nets and drowned – the Polish Navy later discovered their bodies.

The majority of countries around the world do not limit or ban diving on wrecks that have had a loss of life. In Australia there are lots of shipwrecks that have seen a loss of life, but most are not restricted to diving; the exception being the Japanese Midget Submarine off Sydney’s northern beaches. In this instance the Australian government declared the Midget submarine site protected – a move that was in line to respect Japanese wishes due to the two submariners who were entombed.

Australia’s most tragic and largest loss of life in Australian’s waters was that of the HMAS Sydney; torpedoed off the West Australian coastline, HMAS Sydney lost a total of 645 personnel. HMAS Sydney was found in 2008 and was immediately declared a protected site, and a war grave. Being in extremely deep water it will forever stay untouched. Unfortunately, other deep wrecks such as the Titanic continue to still being visited by submersibles where large numbers of items were being recovered. A number of these items have passed through auction houses.
The debate will always be should we dive on wrecks that had loss of life? Should we recover items of these shipwrecks? And are we disturbing graves?

There is no right or wrong answer here, because everyone can argue the point for and against. Some will view shipwrecks as graves, and others will consider them as tombs. I questioned myself what do these sites mean to me, and only when we dived the first wreck with possible remains inside, did this really make it clear for me, especially when I met the relatives of those dead. I realised that I was to see the final resting place of someone’s father, brother or husband, and it’s then I knew that what I was visiting is a tomb; this twisted metal in front of me was the monument to these people that gave their lives serving their country during war.

The next two events that changed my view of shipwrecks, is diving a U-boat in the Gulf of Oman, and the search for Australia’s first submarine the AE1 in Papua New Guinea.

The U-533 was lost with 49 souls on board, and being on one of the first dives to this wreck, it was difficult not to think of the large number of human remains inside the vessel. The tensest moment came when I found a hole to enter in the bow of the submarine; I had to brace myself in case I came across human remains. I was in 120 metres depth 10 minutes into a 20 minutes bottom time, with a stiff current flowing away from the shot line, I prepared to inter the interior which was extremely silty with sharp metal and wires hanging down everywhere.

I first swam looking forward into the bow, but found it to be partially buried, so I turned to swim into the middle of the submarine, but only a short distance I found the way in was blocked by fallen debris, and only space forward was through a small opening for someone on a no mount set up to get through. At every stage inside the Submarine I kept well clear off the floor in fear of disturbing any human remains, but I couldn’t see any that may have been visible. I think I was happier not seeing any remains, than being able to exist that horrible place.

The next event was the recent trip to Papua New Guinea, to search for Australian first Submarine the AE1. Having read the history about the submarine and its crew, and also having the privilege to dive on the AE2 in Turkey, this was not just a search for a vessel from WW1, but a grave site for men that sacrificed their lives to protect Australia. Every dive on a potential target was done with the heart beating a little faster.

I find the attitude of a number of people out there that seem to forget about the dead and rather only think about the vessel itself. That destroys any chance of future generations to pay their respects to those fallen men, when these wrecks are picked apart.

Should we ban people from diving shipwrecks that had loss of life? I don’t think it’s necessary, but it is vitally important that divers do respect these particular sites, more so than others if only out of respect of the dead. These shipwrecks hold the remains of people, I don’t think it’s immoral to see these remains, but I don’t agree when divers start handling these remains - Truk Lagoon is an example where human remains and handled and become an object of fun and frivolity.

Attitudes can take a long time to change, and in Australia divers are changing theirs. We are seeing more and more who encourage others to show a greater respect towards shipwrecks that have remains of the dead. In order for divers to change their ways, maybe we must see authorities show more trust in divers as well. We will not be able to change this mentality if we restrict divers from shipwrecks, there have to be a lot more communication from the government on educating divers, who wish to visit historic wrecks or those that have remains of humans.

I am confident that we will reach this point of trust eventually and future generations will, hopefully, always remember the sacrifice that others gave on the high seas.

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