Friday, September 17, 2004


Shipwreck salvors see treasure for the taking


By Raja M, Asia Times online

MUMBAI - Tilman Walterfang was directing a German concrete-supply company until an Indonesian employee told him of a 1,200-year-old sunken treasure near his native island of Belitung, between Borneo and Sumatra.

Walterfang chucked his job, flew to Belitung, started a company called Seaboard Exploration, dived, and found 60,000 pieces of ceramic jugs, embossed golden plates and other cargo valuable enough for Shanghai, Singapore and Qatar to want to buy.

Walterfang's Batu Hitam wreck, with a US$40 million price tag, was part of an 8th-century porcelain cargo that China's Tang Dynasty traders had shipped aboard an Arab dhow for export to what is now Malaysia, India and that part of Arabia now comprising the United Arab Emirates.

The seven-year-old find, which is still making news, was the first indicator, experts said, of China being a maritime trading nation 200 years before European colonial powers emerged.

Walterfang's historically significant finding serves as a rare success among a struggling breed of maritime exploration companies, shipwreck salvors and treasure hunters in Asia. "The business is tending to get less viable," Dr Michael Flecker, managing director of the Singapore-based Maritime Explorations, told Asia Times Online.

"There is more competition, often from illegal looting." Maritime Explorations, working in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, struck its most recent discovery off Vietnam, surveying two 15th-century Thai shipwrecks off Phu Quoc Island. Both, according to Maritime Explorations, were heavily looted of their Thai Sukhothai and Sawankhalok ceramics cargo.

Flecker, who holds a doctorate from the National University of Singapore on the excavation of a 10th-century shipwreck off Indonesia, said historical cargoes in Asia usually consist of ceramics, an indicator of the demand for Asian ceramics driving medieval trade routes to the West.

Searching for sunken treasures involve other problems, such as governments demanding tall up-front license fees and high percentages of findings. Some agreements, though, have been successful. Maritime Explorations, for instance, excavated the Binh Thuan shipwreck off the coast of southern Vietnam working with the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture.

The unearthed artifacts were sold at Christie's in Melbourne for $1.39 million this March. On August 14, the Terengganu state government in Malaysia offered to help any exploration effort to retrieve ancient sunken treasures, a move earning applause from many professionals.

"The policy of the Malaysian government is a very good one - pragmatic and archeologically responsible," said Flecker. "Malaysia insists on far more archeological work than many other government in the region."

More than 3 million shipwrecks rest beneath the world's waters, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). But not everyone is impressed with that figure. A maritime explorer estimated that annually, about six shipwrecks are found in deep waters.

Hard to determine too is the financial health of maritime companies, with those that Asia Times Online contacted coy about revealing their annual turnover. Flecker said the costs of salvaging shipwrecks are depth- and weather-dependent.

He estimates that these costs vary from a few thousand dollars a day up to $25,000, "bearing in mind that the higher day rates often result in much shorter project times". Added bills come with the follow-up costs of transport, conservation, warehousing, cataloguing, analyzing, research and marketing. "They can sometimes cost as much as the offshore work," Flecker said.

Greg Stemm, co-founder and director of the Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, estimates the money spent in two days of excavating a 500-meter-deep shipwreck can pay a maritime archeologist for a year.

Stemm, credited to have discovered hundreds of shipwrecks, dislikes the word "treasure" and prefers "intrinsically valuable trade goods". In the summer of 2003, he located and recovered gold worth $140 million from the SS Republic, an American Civil War steamer lost in 1865.

Such finds are few and far between, as when Singapore-based Hallstrom Holdings salvaged the 17th-century Vung Tau cargo of Chinese porcelain that was auctioned in 1992 at Christie's in Amsterdam for $7.3 million.

Many valuable wrecks are still waiting to be salvaged in Asia, including the Manila Galleons - the approximately 40 16th-century Spanish trading ships lost when heading back to Mexico from the Philippines with some of the richest cargoes ever.

In trying to raise funds to salvage them, investor-seeking companies flaunt high-technology remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), robotics, cameras and specialized computer hardware and software. "If a company has a good track record and is known to be archeologically responsible, it's not too difficult to find investors," said Flecker.

"However, unscrupulous salvors have frightened many potential investors away." They frighten some maritime archeologists too, a breed that salvaging companies now enlist to reassure investors and governments.

The Professional Shipwreck Explorers Association, for instance, has an 11-point code of ethics that includes asking members to have a qualified project archeologist on important explorations.

Denise Lakey, an American scholar specializing in medieval Spanish maritime commerce, told Asia Times Online that salvors and treasure hunters have occasionally approached her. "My experience with them was, without exception, that they had big plans and promised a lot of things that never came through," she said.

Lakey said she would not have worked with any of them because, "as a professional archeologist, I see salvage and treasure hunting as extremely harmful to the archeological record".

But not all maritime explorers deserve that view, as Forbes magazine, in a report, mentioned how Seabed Exploration, Tilman Walterfang's company, paid "meticulous attention to historical, archeological and conservation procedures throughout its operations".

The Intan find, an 11th-century shipwreck with Song Dynasty artifacts, was said to have had "not a single object ruined or a site irresponsibly excavated". Besides, maritime archeologists might have no other choice apart from forgetting shipwrecks. As Stemm wrote in "Key to Davy Jones's Locker", a January 1996 article , "Deep ocean work is very expensive, and there are no financial shortcuts. You can't use volunteers to operate delicate multimillion-dollar deep-ocean equipment."

He said the only way archeologists will have access to the sunken knowledge is by working with the ventures that fund these projects. Maritime explorers themselves have a tough battle staying afloat. "Far more is spent on survey and salvage than is ever earned, when viewed overall," said Flecker. His primary motivation in the business, he explained, lies in the excitement of discovering a new wreck, finding new and unexpected artifacts - the long-lost messages from the past that the ocean whispers.

"Running successful projects with large numbers of local divers and crew is also immensely satisfying." The only problem, Flecker said, is that "in a good year I may spend only two or three months diving and the rest of the time chasing paper".

The oceans can drown mighty ships, it seems, but not red tape.

Raja M is an independent writer based in Mumbai, India.(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.

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