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Citizen Science

Citizen Archaeologists Underwater

By Heather Creech

Dive archaeologists from the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) record data on historic shipwrecks. Photo courtesy: Florida Public Archaeology Network

Citizen science is not just for nature explorers. Two years ago, a group of history buffs and shipwreck divers announced that they might have found the oldest known wreck in Lake Erie: the 47-ft (14m) schooner Lake Serpent, which disappeared in 1829. They are “citizen archaeologists”—divers passionate about documenting the history that lies beneath the waves. They have spent their free time over 20 years tracing the final journeys of freighters and fishing vessels. To date they’ve identified at least 35 major wrecks, including, most likely, the missing Lake Serpent. 

These divers—the Cleveland Underwater Explorers (CLUE –—are serious about preserving wrecks and their place in history. They work in partnership with The National Museum of the Great Lakes and fundraise to underwrite their survey costs. And they are far from unique. The search for underwater heritage has been engaging divers around the world for decades. Since 1964, the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) has bridged sport diving with historical research agencies across the U.K. In Central Canada, Save Ontario Shipwrecks (SOS) follows the NAS guidelines for training volunteer divers in underwater exploration. On the Canadian West Coast, maritime archaeology is so popular that The Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia (UASBC) is considered the largest dive club in the province. In the U.S., The Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society (MAHS) offers its own Basic Underwater Archaeology course, training divers to volunteer on formal surveys. In Australia and New Zealand, GIRT Scientific Divers (GIRTSD) not only trains sport divers on basic archaeology methods but helps them to ‘Adopt-a-Wreck’ to preserve the underwater heritage of their own communities.

Focus on training

None of these organizations has management authority for heritage sites. Instead, they train volunteer divers to work with the government agencies that do. The Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) has a two-stage process: first, divers learn to monitor historic shipwrecks and other sites with photographs and a checklist of observations, and submit the data at the end of a sport dive. The second stage provides more training with traditional recording and site plans, so that divers can volunteer on archaeological projects. But government heritage programs haven’t the capacity to document and protect every one of the hundreds of thousands of ships that have foundered since humans first took to the seas. Increasingly, like GIRTSD in Australia, divers are being encouraged to research their own local wrecks and help to preserve the rich history lying off our coastlines.

Getting sport divers involved in citizen archaeology is not without challenges: many divers love the exploration of wrecks but, in the process, disturb the site and remove souvenirs for their own pleasure. From Open Water courses and up, every dive master and instructor should remind those wanting to explore wrecks of the historical context, the importance of leaving sites as intact as possible, and to follow national laws on underwater heritage. 

Need to protect

To become more involved in underwater archaeology, divers need a connection to a larger goal—either to support an agency with a mandate for cultural heritage or to research and protect a local wreck on behalf of their community. The organizations mentioned above (among others) will help divers learn what data to collect, how to collect it and what to do with it. While deeper shipwrecks may require advanced skills, Dr. Scott Ireland from FPAN says that first and foremost is the need to channel a diver’s love of wrecks into enthusiasm for gathering the data to protect them.

And she is passionate about why we need protect this heritage: 

“Many divers first learn to dive because of shipwrecks—the excitement of seeing a historic shipwreck is unparalleled. How did it happen? What were the results? Did anyone perish? What was lost? What remains? But cultural resources will never ‘grow back’. We’ll never have another sunken Spanish galleon. There will never be another wrecked Civil War gunboat. All we have today is all we will ever have and if they are damaged or lost due to development, looting, salvage, dredging, whatever, they are gone forever and we’ve lost not only that cool dive site but also whatever we might have learned about the past…. We need to protect what we have for the future, and for future generations of divers.” 

Heather Creech is a citizen scientist with ReefWatch, dividing her time between Victoria, BC, and Adelaide, South Australia. To contact her:

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