As ‘Metal Pirates’ Loot Deep Sea Treasures Fears Australia’s First Submarine Is Next | Australia News

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

The location of HMAS AE1The wreckage is a secret closely held by a small group of people, including relatives of the 35 men who were on board when the Royal Australian Navy ship sank at the start of World War I.

The 726-ton submarine was traveling in foggy weather off the coast of present-day Papua New Guinea when it went missing, and was declared lost at sea on September 14, 1914. For more than a century, people searched for him without knowing the fate. of these sailors.

Australia’s oldest naval mystery was partly resolved in 2017 when the wreckage was found in 300m of water near the Duke of York Islands in PNG. Scans show a crumbling but recognizable submarine at the bottom of the ocean, its bar askew.

Now there are fears that malicious people will find it as well.

Many wrecks have already been looted. Ships from World War II are especially prized, as the thick steel hulls were forged in an era before nuclear weapons testing. This means that they are made of “low background” steel, free from the radioactive pollution that spread around the world at the start of the atomic age.

The purity of the steel with low background noise makes it valuable for making MRI scanners, gamma ray detectors, and the type of ultra-sensitive equipment needed to search for dark matter.

Propellers are valuable too, and even a ship’s wiring can be fetched a decent price. Some looters may be after weapons.

In some cases, all that is left of a mighty warship is an imprint on the seabed.

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

Briggs says salvage work is driven by a desire to get steel that wasn’t irradiated, but as a WWI ship the AE1 is “not as appealing.”

“The decay has taken a lot of the iron away, it’s flaking… it’s rusting. And it’s much deeper, while salvaged WWII wrecks are much shallower and easier to get, ”he says. “And it’s much further away.

“So trophy hunting is riskier than scavengers. “

Briggs worries that potential thieves are already on the case.

“The biggest threat is probably a rich man with his super yacht and his own submersible,” he says.

“There was a rich man’s yacht that participated after we found it… so if the helm is still there – we’ll have to go back and see.”

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

HMAS Perth ransacked

Surveys have found the HMAS Perth has already been trashed. The light cruiser was off Java when it was attacked by Japanese destroyers. During the Battle of Sunda Strait, most of the crew attempted to abandon the ship under torpedo fire, but it was too late for many of them. Perth was declared lost in action on March 1, 1942.

The wreckage of the 6,830-ton vessel was found 35 m deep in the waters between Java and Sumatra in 1967. It was largely intact. Some parts have been recovered and preserved. Then, in 2013, the first signs of illegal recovery were spotted.

Dr James Hunter says that, like Briggs, he fears the AE1 may be found, but it is the condition of HMAS Perth that keeps him awake at night.

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

Others are looking for valuable bronze coins, quality metals from the turn of the 20th century – and metals with low background noise. He says it makes more sense to target those that are “quite rare and quite valuable”.

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

HMAS Perth arriving at Port Jackson, Sydney. The ship was declared lost in action in 1942. Photograph: Commonwealth of Australia 2017, Ministry of Defense

A protected marine area was set up around the wreck in 2017.

“But in 2019 (the final turbine) was also gone. We believe the last rescue took place before the area was erected. They probably entered there opportunistically.

More than 350 of HMAS Perth’s 680 crew members sank with the ship.

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

“It was the punch for me, it’s a burial place. It’s like someone has an excavator and took it through a cemetery. At the end of the day, for me, it’s about honoring the people who sacrificed their lives in wartime.

Part of the problem is that wreckage sites are not technically war graves, whereas land-based sites are.

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

“As long as the coordinates are secure. You must have the kit to find it and you must have a sophisticated and substantial kit to pull it off.

What protections are in place?

A complex web 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 professor of international law at Charles Sturt University says that the existing Unesco convention on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage “does not really cover the Second World War”, because in general, the wrecks must have a century to qualify. Many countries have not signed it, while others – including Australia – have not ratified it yet.

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

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

“They become vulnerable to looting because states may be unwilling to protect them – the fate of these shipwrecks is in the hands of these foreign countries,” she said.

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

Browne says it’s not just about single criminals. There are international criminal syndicates and gangs, and even infrastructure to deal with loot.

“There seem to be illegal junkyards in Bangladesh and the Philippines. They’re sitting in waters close to shore where there are legitimate shipbreaking industries… they’re laundering it. And there is evidence that bones are disturbed, exploded, even broken or thrown.

Shipwrecks are not the business of veterans in Australia. Instead, they sit with the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. The department registers, administers and protects the wrecks that lie around the Australian coastline through a combination of legislation and protected areas.

Hunter says that while there was decent legislation that covered underwater sites, it’s difficult to monitor them, especially in international waters. “It’s the city of cowboys,” he says.

“Even if you have countries with decent legislation, the big problem is enforcement. It effectively monitors the wreckage sites and if someone has gone to damage it, it enforces it.

“If the law doesn’t have a bite, is someone going to wiggle their fingers under your nose?” We do not care? There are no repercussions for damaging the site.

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

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


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