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Metal Salvagers Are Destroying World War II Shipwrecks in Asia

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Military shipwrecks are viewed as underwater graveyards, but some illegal salvage divers view their metal hulls as goldmines. Their quest for scrap metals and valuable materials has led to the partial or complete destruction of up to 40 World War II ships in southeast Asia, according to a detailed account by The Guardian.

Crews of divers pretending to be fishermen or researchers have raided submerged ships around Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. They might have been looking for steel scrap metal, or copper cables, phosphor bronze propellers, and radiation-free steel, the last of which is used in scientific and medical equipment.

Some ships have been found cut in half, while others have been completely removed. But these divers aren't just destroying history, according to veterans and archaeologists—they’re also desecrating grave sites, as the 40 destroyed or damaged ships may have held around 4500 corpses. They belonged to World War II servicemen from countries including the United States, Australia, the Netherlands, and Japan.

Important British warships like the HMS Exeter, HMS Encounter, and HMS Electra—all of which sank in the Java Sea in 1942—have fallen victim to scavengers. So have the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, which sank off the coast of Malaysia in 1941.

Australia, meanwhile, has suffered the loss of the HMAS Perth, which met its end in 1942, near the islands of Java and Sumatra. Nearly 60 to 70 percent of its hull is gone, according to archaeologists. And Japanese ships have also been destroyed, with hundreds still remaining vulnerable underwater. All of these ships likely had the bodies of crew members onboard.

UK and U.S. officials have requested that Indonesia protect historic sunken warships. In the meantime, Cambodian, Chinese, and Malaysian-registered vessels have all been spotted hovering around wrecks, and shipwreck scavenging appears to be on the rise. The UK Ministry of Defence is asking the Indonesian government to step in, according to a spokesperson quoted by The Guardian: "A military wreck should remain undisturbed and those who lost their lives onboard should be allowed to rest in peace."

[h/t The Guardian]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Take a Closer Look at the $17 Billion 'Holy Grail of Shipwrecks'

Feast your eyes on these new images of the treasure among the wreckage of the Spanish ship San José, often called the "holy grail of shipwrecks." When it sank on June 8, 1708, it was carrying gold, silver, jewels, and other precious cargo worth roughly $17 billion today. Now, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is revealing the major role it played in the 2015 expedition to find the San José.

The three-masted, 62-gun Spanish galleon exploded and sank at the hands of the British during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was carrying its riches to the Colombian city of Cartegena to finance the war. Archaeologists had been trying to find the San José for decades before it was finally located on November 27, 2015, during an expedition organized by Colombia, Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), and WHOI. The multibillion-dollar treasure, which still sits nearly 2000 feet below the surface of the ocean near Cartegena, is just now being revealed.

WHOI's autonomous underwater vehicle REMUS 6000 was responsible for finding the elusive wreck. REMUS has been with the project since the beginning: The machine created the first side-scan sonar images of the site. After that, REMUS journeyed to a point 30 feet above the site and captured high-resolution photos of the ship's distinctive bronze cannons, which are engraved with dolphins. REMUS's documentation of this defining feature allowed scientists to positively identify the wreck as the fabled San José. (Thanks to whoever had the idea to put dolphins on the cannon in the first place.)

WHOI also released REMUS's photos of the wreckage, which show details of the horde, including ceramics and those famous cannons. "This constitutes one of the greatest—if not the biggest, as some say—discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind,” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said back when the treasure was discovered.

The San José's treasure is the subject of a legal battle for ownership between Colombia and U.S. salvage company Sea Search Armada, which helped look for the wreck. In 2011, four years before the San José was even found, the court ruled that the booty belongs to Colombia, but the dispute is ongoing. Because of the legal drama, the exact location of the wreck remains a government secret.

Below, check out the newly released pictures for a closer look at cannons, teacups, and other ceramics.

cannons from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

pots from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

teacups from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

REMUS 6000
REMUS 6000
Mike Purcell, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


A mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 depicts the whole site.
A mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 depicts the whole site.
Jeff Kaeli, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Researchers Accidentally Discover 128-Year-Old Shipwreck
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Scientists conducting a routine survey of the waters along Australia's east coast got more than they bargained for when they accidentally discovered a 128-year-old shipwreck.

Their encounter with the sunken Carlisle, which sank in 1890, was captured on camera, and Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has released footage showing an aerial view of the wreckage, teeming with schools of fish.

The researchers were mapping the seafloor of Bass Strait, which separates mainland Australia from the island of Tasmania, to improve nautical charts for the major shipping route, according to Mashable. During a scan of the waters, the sunken ship showed up as a "blip," ABC reports.

"We just happened to go over this blip, and we noticed it, and thought, 'Oh jeez, that looks just a little too much like a shipwreck,' and so we did a little bit more investigating and looked at it digitally," CSIRO hydrographer Matt Boyd told ABC. "Then once we established that yes, it was a shipwreck, we put a drop camera down."

Volunteers from the Maritime Archaeological Association of Victoria then went to the site and confirmed that the ship was indeed the Carlisle. It most likely collided with rocks while sailing from Melbourne to Newcastle, where it was supposed to pick up coal on its way to South America. All 23 crew members survived, escaping on three life boats.

The researchers discovered two more shipwrecks during a weeklong expedition from Brisbane to Hobart, one of which was identified as the HMAS Pioneer, a ship built for the British Royal Navy in 1900 that was scuttled in 1931.

[h/t ABC]

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