Galway (Irlande): Exploration of ill-fated SS Gairsoppa reveals treasure from the deep



In advance of the Centenary of World War I next year, UNESCO has called for special attention to the world’s underwater cultural heritage.

Describing the seabed as “the biggest museum of the world”, it estimates shipwrecks around the world range from the Titanic and the Belitung all the way back to the 4,000 submerged vessels of Kublai Khan’s legendary fleet. There are also sunken ruins and cities, like the pirate stronghold of Port Royal in Jamaica, which disappeared beneath the waves after an earthquake in 1692, and Egypt’s ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria. The recent discovery of Neolithic villages beneath the Black Sea may even help explain Noah’s great flood, according to scholars.

“Protecting our underwater heritage is extremely important and increasingly urgent as no site or shipwreck is now out of bounds for treasure hunters,” said Lyndel Prott, director of UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage Division. “New technologies have made deep-water wrecks easily accessible and these technologies are getting cheaper.”

The result of this new ‘gold-rush’ is the destruction of whole chapters of human history. “Treasure hunting is driven by commercial logic and not by the concern for increasing our knowledge of history,” explains Mounir Bouchenaki, Assistant Director-General for Culture at UNESCO. “Time is money, so the treasure hunters must work quickly to raise as many artifacts as possible and sell them.”

An archaeologist can spend 10 years or more studying and excavating a ship, conserving objects and publishing its findings, while often records are not kept and artifacts are spread worldwide in private collections.

“This is tragic for humanity, as a whole. Where there is no knowledge, there is no memory.”

When a site is excavated properly, everybody profits. The archaeological survey of the Pandora, which sank off Australia’s Queensland coast in 1791, for example, helped complete the story of the mutiny on the Bounty. In Sweden, the wreck of the 17th century warship Wasa is one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions, and underwater excavations at Bodrum in Turkey made it one of that country’s most popular sites.

In 2001, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage was enacted to protect “all traces of human existence that have been preserved in a submerged environment for at least 100 years and have a cultural, historical or archaeological character”. According to the convention, submerged archaeological sites should be considered as heritage and should be studied without being subjected to looters or commercial exploitation. Critics from the salvage industry argue that such a measure will only deprive the public from access to their heritage, and lead to its destruction by natural forces.

However, Robert Grenier, the chairman of the International Committee on Underwater Heritage of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, disagrees.

“It has been well demonstrated that shipwrecks can last thousands of years underwater as valid and fruitful archaeological sites. If shipwrecks are seriously damaged by natural destruction in given areas, the damage generally occurs well within the first century of immersion. After that initial period, the degradation can be more or less stopped or slowed down until the site reaches an equilibrium and stabilises itself for centuries.”


As one of Odyssey Marine’s longest-serving offshore team members, Irishman Andrew Craig has taken part in all of the company’s major discoveries as a senior project manager. He was one of the first to see the Republic’s paddlewheel since it sank beneath the waves in 1865, and was also involved in the exhilarating task of recovering nearly 600,000 coins from the Black Swan site.

Additionally, he supervised the team bringing up the largest artifact ever recovered by Odyssey — the four-ton, 42-pounder bronze cannon from the HMS Victory site. Originally from Lorrha near Nenagh, Andrew’s father ran Gurteen Agricultural College.

“There was no previous history in the family of going to sea. My passion for all things underwater developed when I took up diving in 1995,” he explained of the journey that has taken him all over the world. “I then worked as a commercial diver, where I refined my specific interest and skills.”

Having completed a degree in Underwater Technology at Plymouth University, he discovered Odyssey Marine Exploration.

“After finding out Odyssey was the only company working on deep-ocean projects full time, I banged on their door until they hired me,” he laughs. “That was over 10 years ago and, since then, I have worked my way through the ranks from a junior side-scan tech to senior project manager.”

On board the Odyssey Explorer, his duties include interpreting data to pick out potential shipwrecks, working out how to perform tasks with the remotely-operated vehicles or developing re-navigation plots elusive targets. “We use ROVs because most divers are limited to 50m and even saturation divers are only able to go down 200m. We specialise in wreck sites beyond that depth so that we can be fairly certain that they will be untouched by looters when we find them,” he says.

Viewing untouched history on the ocean floor has yielded many memorable moments. “I’ve seen all sorts of interesting things from an incredible variety of shipwrecks dating back a number of centuries to submarines, cars, trucks, a tank, a few unexploded bombs, and even a broken up container full of wine and champagne bottles. On one occasion, a school of dolphins surrounded the ROV when we were doing a night recovery and a giant turtle swam all they way up to the camera lens and hit it with his nose.”

Often at sea for lengthy periods, Andrew occupies his downtime with the variety of distractions offered by the Odyssey’s on-board activities: “My day tends to be taken up with work most of the time, but I do try to get to the gym where TV show watching and cycling can be combined to great effect,” he says. “Typically, I fall asleep at the end of a long day with a good electronic book.” While life can be physically demanding during the extended periods of marine activity, the rewards of being at the cutting-edge of historical salvage more than compensate for its difficulties.

“I am constantly amazed how artifacts survive at the bottom of the sea for centuries, so, when we find something that turns out to be historically significant, it’s a very special feeling to know we were responsible for discovering it and, in doing so, are able to share its story with the people all over the world.”

As a career choice, Craig cautions on demands of this maritime lifestyle: “Working with heavy machinery on a floating platform in very heavy weather can be a bit hairy at times, but we always make sure the safety of the crew comes first no matter what.”

“If you’re interested in exploration, enjoy working hard, are good at improvising and don’t mind spending 30-60 days at a time away from home, then this is for you.”


For the past 12 years Ireland’s offshore waters and coastal seas have been subject to one of the largest seabed surveys in the world in a joint venture between the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Marine Institute. Photographic and sonar images of over 300 shipwrecks have been compiled during the survey in co-operation with the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s Underwater Archaeology Unit, part of the National Monuments Service. The collaboration led to the production of a recent book, Warships, U-Boats & Liners — A Guide to Shipwrecks Mapped in Irish Waters, tracing the history of 60 of the most historic shipwrecks around the Irish coast. The book combines archaeology, history and marine mapping with never before seen graphic imagery detailing the condition of these ancient vessels.

The Underwater Archaeology Unit is responsible for the management, protection and recording of underwater archaeological sites and wrecks in Ireland’s inland and coastal waters.

Since its establishment in 1997 the unit has created an extensive archive, with over 13,000 documented to date. Recent finds include the 1796 French Armada wreck, La Surveillante, in Bantry Bay, an early-medieval bridge at the great monastery of Clonmacnoise, the processional cross from a crannog site in Tully Lough in Roscommon and the Lough Kinale book shrine from Co Longford.

One of the main sites for ongoing exploration centres around the Spanish Armada, which was decimated by storms in the autumn of 1588 off the west coast. In August, 2012, the RV Keary, an aluminium catamaran operated by the Geological Survey of Ireland, stationed itself off the coast of Rutland Island, near Burtonport, to search for wreckage of the legendary fleet.

The dive was carried out by the Underwater Archaeology Unit, led by Corkwoman Connie Kelleher. “It’s really trying to figure out how best to preserve the wreck site itself,” she said. “A university could use it for a field school to teach how to record and excavate. While some people might say we should invest in education, my argument would be that this is education. We can always argue against funding heritage, whether natural or built heritage, but if we don’t continue to address it, protect it and actively manage it, Ireland’s rich cultural resources will be lost. This is a finite resource. Once a species or a heritage site is gone, it can’t be replaced.”

With over 80% of Ireland’s national territory lying beneath the sea, it provides a potentially rich seam of historical and commercial value for future generations.