Should You Dive War Graves?
Underwater war graves should be revered but not dived. By Ned Middleton
Ned Middleton is a professional underwater photojournalist, a retired British Army major, BSAC Advanced Instructor and First Class Diver and an authority on shipwrecks.
In a perfect world, all war graves would be open to all divers at all times. As a former serviceman in Northern Ireland, my family ate, breathed and slept the realities of casualties of war — we attended far too many funerals as a result of the battle for peace.
Having said that, I have also been an active diver for 35 years. During this time, I have visited more than my fair share of shipwrecks, including the remains of HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Scotland, on which 833 sailors were lost in 1939. Scapa Flow expert Lawson Wood described a visit to that wreck as “a grave and solemn dive, and it is one which remains in mind long after others have passed.”
Why shouldn’t everyone experience the magnificence of the Royal Oak and the many other wrecks that are, after all, only slowly rotting away until the day when nothing is left to appreciate? I will tell you why: Because there are those who are not interested in the sanctity of the ship as a grave site, but only in recovering as many artifacts as possible. There are even well-known divers within our local community who have, allegedly, pillaged such wrecks as HMS Hampshire — also off the coast of Orkney — and I cringe every time I read something they have written. On websites and blogs, these people have written adamantly that they don’t care for any War Grave status — only for getting at the ship’s brass, to add to their personal collection. For as long as this culture of “I found it so it’s mine” continues unabated among certain groups of divers, then I defend the decision to post all war graves as out of bounds.
Just as the culture of the speargun has been debated, we now need to develop an attitude that helps protect our maritime history by leaving each shipwreck as intact as it was found. In Canada, divers are not allowed to remove anything whatsoever from the sea. That is how they preserve their country’s maritime history intact from looters. Yes, I’ll admit that in my early days I collected portholes and anything else that was made of brass, and every time I did, I made each wreck that much less desirable for those who followed me. I have learned from that.
Today, underwater history — our very maritime heritage — is being removed from our seas to the mantle-pieces and garages of those who arrived first. Until this wholesale pillaging of our shipwrecks is ended by passing of a suitable law, we simply cannot trust ourselves to visit a war grave and not be tempted to take something. The mistakes of a few make it impossible to trust the many other divers out there.
Diving war graves is a privilege that should not be denied or dishonored by unprincipled behavior. By Vince Capone
Vince Capone has been diving shipwrecks for more than 30 years, and has worked with the FBI, EPA, NOAA and international navies in a wide variety of underwater investigations.
As part of a Sea Hunters TV expedition, I helped locate the U-215 on Georges Bank off North America’s east coast. Divers confirmed its identity and filmed its remains. Its final resting place was reported to the German government and relatives were notified. No artifacts were removed and only a memorial left behind. Had it not been for this privately funded expedition, the U-215 would still be on patrol, its whereabouts unknown.
Marine archaeologists tend to view every diver as a vulture and argue that any access to diving war graves should be denied. However, removal of artifacts should not be confused with diving a wreck. Truk Lagoon is a perfect example of a no-removal policy, with divers visiting submerged memorials of fallen warriors without removing souvenirs. Whether it is a quiet stroll through the Andennes Memorial in Belgium or swimming over the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow, people should have access to these memorials. Diving war graves should be allowed as long as the divers are respectful.
Some vessels that have enormous significance can and should be designated as nondiving areas — such as the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. However, this protection should not become a blanket prohibition on diving vessels lost in a time of war. These submerged memorials belong to the public at large. Just as we can walk through Arlington National Cemetery, we should be able to visit our submerged memorials as well.
Enforcing the “dive, but do not touch” rule might be problematic, but not insurmountable. While it might be far easier to deny everyone permission to dive ship- wrecks, the long-term solution is for archaeologists and governments to work through the issues with the diving public. Part of that partnership is designating which wrecks should be open to salvage. The passenger liner SS Andrea Doria sank in 1956, and with a loss of 46 souls was literally a submerged museum. Divers penetrated the Winter Garden lounge to find a number of Gambone friezes on the walls. After the privately funded rescue of two irreplaceable panels in 1993, the following year returning expeditions found the entire Winter Garden area had collapsed into a mass of rubble. Shipwrecks in salt water are not static; they’re in a continuous state of degradation. Many artifacts or pieces of history are constantly being lost at sea. A no-touch policy on war graves and the more-resilient freshwater shipwrecks is an important first step. However, the corroding and collapsing wrecks in salt water should be open for the removal of mementos.
If divers were allowed some leeway in retaining artifacts (recorded in a Voluntary Electronic National Registry of Artifacts), or given recognition for recovery and preservation when on public display, the rate of cooperation would increase significantly while reducing looting of critical sites such as war graves.