As “metal pirates” loot treasures from the ocean floor, fears are raised that Australia’s first submarine may be the next | Australia news

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Scavengers, trophy hunters and “metal pirates” plunder the treasures underwater – and there are fears that Australia’s first submarine may be the next.

The location of the HMAS AE1The wreck is a mystery to a small group of people, including relatives of the 35 men who were on board when the Royal Australian Navy ship sank at the outbreak of World War I.

The 726-ton submarine was sailing off the coast of what is now Papua New Guinea in cloudy weather when it disappeared and was declared lost at sea on September 14, 1914. For more than a century, people searched for it without knowing the fate of these sailors.

Australia’s oldest marine mystery was partially solved in 2017 when the wreck was found at 300 m depth near the Duke of York Islands in PNG. Scans show a crumbling but recognizable submarine on the ocean floor with its rudder crooked.

Now there are fears that people with bad intentions will find it too.

Many shipwrecks have already been looted. World War II ships are particularly valued because the thick steel hulls were forged in a time prior to nuclear testing. That is, they are made of “low background” steel that is free from the radioactive contamination that spread across the world at the beginning of the nuclear age.

The purity of low background steel makes it valuable in the manufacture of MRI machines, gamma-ray detectors, and ultra-sensitive equipment needed in the search for dark matter.

Propellers are valuable too, and even wiring a ship can be reasonably priced. Some looters may be after weapons.

In some cases, a mighty warship has only left an imprint on the sea floor.

Rear Admiral Peter Briggs led the search for AE1, for which he received a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2020.

Briggs says the salvage operations are driven by a desire to get steel that hasn’t been irradiated, but as a WWI boat, the AE1 “isn’t that attractive.”

“Decay has removed a lot of iron, it’s flaky … it’s rusting. And it’s much deeper, while the WWII wrecks that are being cleaned up are much shallower and easier to get, ”he says. “And it’s much more remote.

“So trophy hunting is a bigger risk than scavengers.”

Briggs is already worried about potential thieves.

“Probably the greatest threat is a rich man with his super duper yacht with his own submersible,” he says.

“There was a rich yacht that visited after we found her … so if the rudder is still there – we have to go back and see.”

The Guardian revealed in 2017 that dozens of Australian, British, American, Dutch and Japanese warships and thousands of unmarked underwater graves were threatened.

HMAS Perth ransacked

Surveys have shown that HMAS Perth has already been searched. The light cruiser was off the coast of Java when it was attacked by Japanese destroyers. During the Battle of the Sunda Strait, most of the crew tried to leave the ship under torpedo fire, but it was too late for many of them. Perth was declared lost on March 1, 1942.

The wreck of the 6,830-ton ship was found in 1967 at a depth of 35 meters in the waters between Java and Sumatra. It was largely intact. Some parts have been salvaged and preserved. Then, in 2013, the first signs of illegal recovery were discovered.

Dr. James Hunter says he, like Briggs, has concerns about the AE1 being found, but it’s the state of HMAS Perth that keeps him up at night.

Hunter, the curator of marine heritage and archeology at the Australian National Maritime Museum, says an easily accessible wreck in shallow water could only be looted for junk.

Others are after valuable bronze parts, quality metals from the early 20th century – and the low-background metals. He says it makes more sense to target those who are “quite rare and quite valuable”.

Hunter says when the damage to the Perth was discovered, three of the ship’s four Parsons turbines (a steam-powered turbine used on Royal Australian Navy ships) had already disappeared. “There was one left,” says Hunter.

Arrival of HMAS Perth in Port Jackson, Sydney. The ship was declared lost in service in 1942. Photo: Commonwealth of Australia 2017, Department of Defense

A protected marine zone was established around the wreck in 2017.

“But in 2019 (the last turbine) was also gone. We think the final salvage occurred before the zone was established. You probably came in opportunistically. “

More than 350 of the 680 crew members of HMAS Perth went down with the ship.

“Their remains are still in there, at least some of them,” says Hunter.

“That was the stomachache for me, this is a grave. It’s like someone got an excavator and drove it through a cemetery. Ultimately, my aim is to honor people who sacrificed their lives in times of war. “

Part of the problem is that unlike land sites, wreck sites are technically not war graves.

Hunter says submarine AE1 is not as vulnerable as HMAS Perth. Its coordinates are hidden, it is smaller and deeper.

“As long as the coordinates are safe. You have to have the kit to find it, and you have to have a sophisticated and extensive kit to pull it off. “

What protective measures are in place?

A complex network of national, international and local laws is supposed to offer some protection.

Dr. Kim Browne uses the term “metal pirates” to refer to those who loot military ships. The lawyer and lecturer in international law at Charles Sturt University says the existing Unesco Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage “doesn’t really cover World War II,” as shipwrecks generally have to be a century old to qualify. Many countries have not signed it, while others – including Australia – have not ratified it yet.

Browne says there are loopholes and even loopholes in current law. Protection is made even more difficult because wrecks are often located in international waters or in the waters of another country. The Perth is in Indonesian waters, the AE1 in PNG.

HMAS AE1
A joint US and Australian expedition to survey HMAS AE1 in April 2018 provided detailed images of the 103-year-old shipwreck. Photo: Paul G. Allen, Find AE1, ANMM, Curtin University

“They become vulnerable to looting because states may not be ready to protect them – the fate of these shipwrecks rests in the hands of these foreign countries,” she says.

“HMAS Perth, although we own it legally, it is in the waters of a foreign country.”

However, Browne says these aren’t all lone criminals. There are international criminal syndicates and gangs and even an infrastructure to process the loot.

“There seem to be illegal junkyards in Bangladesh and the Philippines. They sit in offshore waters where there are legitimate ship breaking industries … they wash it. ”And there is evidence that bones are destroyed, blown, even smashed or thrown away.

Shipwrecks in Australia do not come under the auspices of Veterans Affairs. Instead, they sit in the Agriculture, Water and Environment department. The department registers, manages and protects the shipwrecks that are on the Australian coast through a combination of legislation and protection zones.

Hunter says even if there was decent legislation governing underwater locations, it would be difficult to monitor, especially in international waters. “This is cowboy town,” he says.

“Even when you have nations with decent legislation, enforcement is the big problem. It effectively monitors the wreck sites and enforces it if someone has been there and damaged it.

“If the law has no teeth, does someone wave their fingers under your nose? Who cares? There are no consequences for the damage to the website. “

Hunter says land war graves are protected and treated with awe, but there is an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality about those lost at sea.

“Even if their bones are no longer there,” he says. “That’s where they died.”


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