Ever wonder what happens when shipwrecks happen, or are discovered? Well, modern-day explorers, aka salvage divers, are contracted to rescue remaining objects of value from the ships, to disassemble wrecks for safety and environmental reasons or to provide research assistance on sites in the ocean. Salvage divers can play many roles, often at the same time: construction worker, historian, hero and detective, and they connect the past and the present through secretive, underwater worlds. At the moment there are many salvage expeditions taking place around the world, combining art, history, sociology, restoration and, of course, the hands-on, hard core skills of commercial diving.
Diving for treasure and knowledge
The London, a British warship, inexplicably exploded in 1665 just off the coast of Southend, UK, and was discovered in 2005 with some mysteries aboard. Funded by English Heritage, salvage divers have recovered artefacts from the wreck that shed light on England’s naval history and technology from the era. Strangely, many female skeletal remains have been found in the wreck, likely the wives and sweethearts of the crew. But why were they aboard, in the middle of a war with the French? If we ever find out, it will be thanks to the dive crews who work in very difficult conditions on the site, diving between tides with extremely low visibility, sometimes able to see only a few inches ahead. Despite these challenges, divers have found a wealth of objects by the low light of their headlamps – pistols, scales, spoons, navigational devices, and piles of leather shoes. Local volunteers are donating their time to classifying the artefacts which will find a home in the Southend museum.
Flipping a beast
In 2012 the world experienced the closest thing to a modern-day Titanic accident: the sinking of cruise ship Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy, in which 34 people perished. The salvage operation included parbuckling the boat, which involved lifting the 27,000 ton vessel from lying on its side on the ocean bottom to floating upright, requiring a custom platform to be built, constructed largely by salvage divers. The whole project required over 48,000 man hours of engineering and over 22,000 dives.
“You could go down 100 feet in a 3mm or 4mm wetsuit and you could pretty much see the surface from there; the visibility was just phenomenal. I have never before seen three foot long mussels in my life. Though we’re not allowed to eat anything we find in the ocean, we’d go on land to this nearby island, which nobody ever really heard of, Giglio, and we’d go to the restaurants… oh, the gelato, the chocolate, the wine, the olive oil, it’s so delicious you’re just like, l’m living the dream! It’s pretty much like a vacation party spot, I couldn’t think of a better spot for the boat to go down. Most of the work was cutting, welding, tons of welding, fabricating, removal, concrete grounding, a lot of dives. National Geographic came out and filmed us – I was like, I can put that on the bucket list!”
Here’s a time lapse video of the Costa Concordia being towed from its original site. Click Here For Video
Exploring distant depths
In another recent and strange tragedy, a Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared over the deep, inhospitable trenches of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia. The cause for the plane’s disappearance is still unknown – one reason that Australian and other forces are vigorously plowing ahead with the search. Divers initially explored the area where the plane was thought to be. However, since then, telecommunications evidence seems to show that the area may be larger than previously thought. High-tech sonar devices have mapped some of the sea floor; massive trenches and an underwater volcano have been found. One of the world’s least-explored undersea areas is now being combed, mapped and will perhaps yield even more mysteries of the deep – and salvage divers will be the first in the know.