Tuesday, April 19, 2005


State will open Blackbeard site


By Jerry Alleggod
April 18, 2005

These metal artifacts were discovered at the Beaufort
Inlet shipwreck site of the 18th-century vessel believed
to be Blackbeard's "Queen Anne's Revenge."

This fall, recreational divers who pay $500 can tour the shipwreck off Atlantic Beach.
The state is planning for the first time to allow recreational diving near a wreck many think is Blackbeard's pirate ship, despite concerns that modern pirates might loot the site.

Beginning this fall, the state program, called Dive Down, would allow 320 divers a year to visit the wreckage on trips arranged through dive shops.

Officials of the state underwater archaeology branch said the supervised dives will boost tourism and knowledge about the historically valuable shipwreck. They think the wreckage is that of Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge, sunk in 1718.

"It's not a glamorous site," said Mark Wilde-Ramsing, manager of the state's Queen Anne's Revenge project. "It's really built on history."

But Mike Daniel, a Florida diver who helped discover the shipwreck in 1996, worries that unscrupulous treasure hunters will pilfer artifacts if allowed access. He said the state should do more to recover artifacts before allowing sport diving.

Daniel, president of Maritime Research Institute, a private company, and partner Phillip Masters were searching for a gold-laden Spanish ship when they found the wreckage off Atlantic Beach. State researchers determined that the cannons, ship rigging and other relics dated to the 18th century, making it the oldest shipwreck in state waters, Wilde-Ramsing said.

The link to Blackbeard has attracted international interest since it was announced in 1997. But the claim recently encountered scholarly skepticism from three archaeologists who wrote in an archaeological journal that there was not enough evidence to justify identifying the wreck as the Queen Anne's Revenge.

At a symposium on the shipwreck at East Carolina University in Greenville last week, researchers bolstered the state's claim.

Donny Hamilton, director of the nautical archaeology program at Texas A&M University, said the "preponderance of evidence" supports the state's contention.

State officials have been criticized from both sides. Daniel has complained to North Carolina legislators that the state is not doing enough to recover, promote and protect the shipwreck. He said opening the site to recreational diving is the latest threat.

Daniel said there is not enough security at the site, about a mile off the Atlantic Beach shoreline, and laws governing it are inadequate. Some divers could learn the layout of the site and return without supervision, he said.

"I know divers who work only at night," Daniel said in an interview in Greenville. "There are people like that."

State officials say the wreck site is under regular surveillance by the Coast Guard and state agencies.

Diving, anchoring and trawling are prohibited in a 300-yard area surrounding the shipwreck, which the state has established as a "protected area of primary archaeological and historical value."

Wilde-Ramsing said divers would be supervised and would not be allowed to handle artifacts on the ocean bottom. The two anchors, cannons, ship rigging and ballast stones protrude 2 or 3 feet off the sea floor in a 20-by-30-foot area.

A state study on the diving program calls the site "an intriguing cluster of encrusted artifacts, unidentifiable concretions and ballast stones." The water is comparatively shallow, only about 25 feet deep, and visibility is usually about 3 to 5 feet -- though it can sometimes improve to 20 feet.

The $500 fee for divers covers a two-day program that includes classes on archaeology and the natural environment. Wilde-Ramsing said fees cover only costs, adding, "It's not a moneymaker."

Plans are to allow 320 people a year for five years, between September and November. He said dive shops that will arrange the trips have been besieged, even though the state has not actively promoted the program.

Tom Geren, an employee of Discovery Diving in Beaufort, said the shop has signed up some people for trips in October.
Geren said it's "not much of a dive," physically, because of the shallow water and restrictions, but the link to Blackbeard will heighten the appeal.

The state's program isn't likely to change the threat to the site, he said, because divers are familiar with it. "It's no secret where it is," he said.


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