In Situ Access
Once out of the water and exhibited on land, objects from submerged archaeological sites are deprived of their context and lose part of their significance. Therefore, several recent initiatives have been undertaken to offer visitors in situ experiences. These include dive trails and tours on glass-bottom boats or submersible for non-divers.
SCUBA diving is increasing in popularity worldwide, with the number of certified divers growing by an estimated 12-14% annually. Diving allows visitors to experience underwater cultural heritage in the splendour and authenticity of its original surroundings.
However, initiatives for diver access must go hand in hand with site protection. Different countries have come up with creative solutions to this problem including the establishment of official dive trails, the protection of sites in metal cages and the granting of site-stewardship to certified local dive clubs.
The passenger ship SS Yongala sank off Cape Bowling Green, Queensland, Australia on 23 March 1911. Today it is a major tourist attraction for the scuba diving industry in Townsville, Australia. The wreck lies within the Central Section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This, combined with its own beauty, makes it a popular dive spot. It features an extensive array of marine life and at 110 metres long, she is one of the largest, most intact historic shipwrecks, and unsurprisingly one of the top ten dive site recognised worldwide.
The Bou Ferrer shipwreck, a large sailing ship from the 1st century AD with a cargo of hundreds of amphora with fish sauce (garum) from Cadiz, was discovered in 2000. This initiative takes recreational divers to the spectacular merchant wreck, as it is being excavated and researched. The purpose is to make society aware of the fragility of underwater cultural heritage, to show the importance of proper scientific archaeological work as well as to show the regional importance of ancient Roman trade. The team responsible for the visits is composed of archaeologists who are working on the wreck. The regional government of Valencia also initiated an in situ protective covering to prevent pillaging and is supporting the public access initiative which will involve sport divers and local communities in the protection of the shipwreck.
In 1987, Florida began to develop a state-wide system of underwater parks featuring shipwrecks and other historic sites. The shipwreck preserves have become popular attractions for skin and scuba diving visitors to witness a part of Florida's history first-hand. They contain not only interesting archaeological features, but also an abundance of marine life that make the parks living museums in the sea. Each site is interpreted by an underwater plaque; a brochure and laminated underwater guides are available from local dive shops. The parks are open to the public year round, free of charge. There are eleven parks at present, and several others under development.
The Croatian part of the Adriatic Sea holds a rich archaeological heritage due, in part, to a large number of Roman shipwrecks. In these waters, visitors are able to visit several shipwrecks which are protected from external intrusion by means of metal cages. Guided tours take recreational divers to sites such as a Roman merchant vessel from the 2nd century BC, shipwrecks containing over 1,200 North African amphorae from the 3rd to 4th Centuries BC and World War shipwrecks. While visiting the underwater sites, the visitor is taught to understand how important it is to protect them.
The ancient port of Caesarea Maritima was built by King Herod to honour his Roman patron, Caesar Augustus. It was one of the largest ports in the Roman Empire when it was inaugurated in 10 BCE. Located on Israel’s Mediterranean coast today it has become an underwater museum for divers. They can swim along the sign-posts and admire the relics of the celebrated harbour: a ruined lighthouse, an ancient breakwater, the port’s original foundations, anchors, pedestals and even a shipwreck from Roman times.
Glass-Bottom Boat and Submarine Visits
In addition to providing diver access, some projects give visitors the opportunity to visit underwater cultural heritage in situ through tours on glass-bottom boats or submarines. These approaches have the advantage that the impact on sites is more controllable and that they facilitate access for the non-diving public.
The ancient city of Baia was a popular seaside resort for rich families of the ancient Roman Empire. By the end of the Roman Republic, it was a more influential and fashionable city than Pompeii or Herculaneum. Due to volcanic activity and coastal subsidence, most of Baia is now submerged in the Bay of Pozzuoli. In 2002, the Underwater Archaeological Park of Baia was established. It prohibited all navigational activity in its waters and made efforts to protect the marine area. An agreement was made between authorities and diving clubs in order to provide diver access to the magnificent site. Enjoyment for the general public is ensured thanks to glass-bottom boat tours.
Located in north western Lake Huron, Thunder Bay is adjacent to a treacherous stretch of water within the Great Lakes system, which caused many ships to wreck in this location. The US Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve (Thunder Bay NMS) was designated in 2000 and is a freshwater inland sanctuary belonging to the US National Marine Sanctuary System. It protects 160 ancient shipwrecks. The range of depths of the shipwrecks appeals to a variety of diver skill levels and also promises recreational opportunities for non-divers. The shallower wrecks can be viewed by snorkelers, kayakers, and boaters. The sanctuary also partners with a local company to provide access to the shipwrecks through glass-bottom boat tours.
Public access to underwater heritage in Barbados is provided among others by a private dive club using a submarine that can descend up to 40 meters depth. In this case four shipwrecks have been identified as dive sites, each located at different depths and with diverse types of natural environments. The initiative allows non-divers to learn about underwater cultural heritage and at the same time preserves this heritage in situ. The visit is accompanied by explanations and introductory briefings.