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Posted 12.03.2021

Dive something different, dive a protected wreck site

Alison James is one of the owners of Go Dive and a maritime archaeologist with a passion for protected wreck sites! In this blog she shares why she thinks everyone should try and dive one in 2021.

I am in quite a unique and lucky position. I have been a diver for over twenty years and since 2018 have been a co-owner of Go Dive. I particularly love this as Go Dive is where I learnt to dive when I was 18 and where I completed by PADI IDC and became a PADI Instructor with the legend that is Clive Albon.  In my professional working life, I am also a maritime archaeologist. I now work for MSDS Marine but for over ten years I was the archaeologist at Historic England responsible for managing England’s protected wreck sites. The sites are all unique and range from bronze age remains through to 20th Century submarines and take in pretty much every type of wreck site in between that you could imagine (although I am still hoping that one day, we will find a Viking boat to add to England’s protected wreck sites – something my marine geophysicist husband promised me for my 40th birthday but hasn’t delivered on to date!).

Map of the UK showing the location of wrecks protected by law in England only.

Map showing the location of wrecks protected by the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 in England. © Historic England

I have to confess to being something of a protected wreck site anorak. My lockdown project in 2020 was to create a protected wreck Trump card game, its on sale here if you would like to order a set.

The rich and varied underwater cultural heritage of the UK is appreciated by all divers, although admittedly some might show their enthusiasm in different ways. As divers we are lucky enough to have access to what is inaccessible to most people. Under the Protection of Wrecks Act a licence is required to visit or conduct fieldwork on the protected wreck sites. Licences are free and anyone can apply to visit a site. Indeed, some sites even have trails on the seabed to guide you round and explain the site – think Stonehenge and a map but underwater! A good example of a site with a dive trail is Normans Bay. The site was discovered by local divers Martin Wiltshire, Steve Pace and Paul Stratford whilst trying to free a lobster pot in Norman’s Bay, near Eastbourne in Sussex.  It is known to be a large warship of the period 1600-1800 and recent research has suggested it may be the 64-gun Wapen van Utrecht, a Dutch loss dating to the Battle of Beachy Head that sunk in July 1690. Today the wreck site contains a cluster of at least fifty-one iron guns, timber hull structure and various other artefacts including a large anchor on top of a ballast mound. The Nautical Archaeology Society have created a dive trail on the site with funding from Historic England. They arrange trips to the site every year which is a fantastic opportunity to dive a site with loads of cannon!

Because these sites are protected and access is controlled there is often a lot for visiting divers to see. Take HMT Arfon for example, a requisitioned Admiralty trawler that had a short but important career before being lost during the First World War on the 30th of April, 1917. For the next 100 years Arfon remained largely forgotten and untouched until she was discovered by Martin and Bryan Jones of Swanage Boat Charters in 2014. The site was incredibly intact when discovered. Historic England worked with Martin and Bryan to recommend that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport protected the wreck site and the site was subsequently protected. Divers can still visit but under a licence. This has meant that the wreck has remained intact with many original features still in place. Where else can you see a wreck with mine-sweeping gear, deck gun, portholes and engine room still intact on the seabed?

The stern of HMT Arfon © Swanage Dive Charters

Work on protected wreck sites is undertaken by volunteer teams, often referred to as Licensees. They work tirelessly on the sites, often funding their investigations themselves, to help bring these wrecks alive for the public on dry land for everybody’s benefit. They are a unique breed of diver: focused, enthusiastic, committed and dedicated. So what’s the problem? Well, to be blunt our licensees are an ageing breed! Many licensees have been diving on the Protected Sites for a long time and are starting to get older. Although as enthusiastic as ever, there surely will be a time soon when they decide its time to hang up their fins and stop diving (although, to be honest, in many cases I can’t see that happening for a long time yet!). It is vital that we act now to get new divers involved with the licensed teams ready to take the lead when the time comes.

So, what do you need to be in the new generation of licensees? Well, commitment is vital! Many of our current licensees have been doing this for decades! Enthusiasm – obviously we need licensees who are going to champion the sites on which they work. I became an archaeologist when at the age of 7 I was shown around a Romano British farmstead by an archaeologist. Professor Rob Phillpott managed a near impossible feat: he got a seven-year-old excited about the stories a post hole in a muddy field could tell! I knew from then I would be an archaeologist, all thanks to Rob’s enthusiasm. It is that kind of enthusiasm which will raise the profile of these sites and spark another generation of licensees twenty years from now. And finally, a good licensee needs a touch of obsessiveness, as I think many a licensee would agree! Working on these sites can often become all-consuming with hours spent doing research both above and below water, however, the many hours spent by licensees is well justified by their results. Maritime archaeology does not just take from the licensees but also gives many of hours of enjoyment back to the licensees themselves and to the wider public when they share their results and finds.

The first step to becoming involved though is to go and dive on site. Go and enjoy a virtual trail, visit a site that not many people are able to see and get bitten by the protected wreck bug. You can find a full list of the sites with dive trails here: https://historicengland.org.uk/get-involved/visit/protected-wrecks/dive-trails/

You can apply for a licence to visit a site here: https://historicengland.org.uk/advice/planning/consents/protected-wreck-sites/applying-for-licensing/

If there is enough interest through Go Dive we may put on some diving visits to protected wreck sites this year so if you’d like to visit a site drop me an email – alison@godive.net – and I will add you to a protected wreck site visit list!

If you then want to do more you can talk to Hefin Meara at Historic England – maritime@historicengland.org.uk – who will be able to put you in touch with the licensed teams in your area. You could become involved first with them and then perhaps consider becoming licensee for a site with no current licensee. Potential licensees will need to fulfil all the elements required for application including showing evidence of skills, knowledge, training and an appropriate source of archaeological advice and support. For those of you with an interest, Nautical Archaeology Society training courses can really give you a good insight into underwater archaeology and help equip you with the necessary skills. Again, if there is enough interest, we will organise a training day at the shop.

If there is one thing you do this diving season then make sure you visit one of England’s protected wreck sites – they are pretty special!

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