11/25/2016 Update: I’ve just heard from a contact with the Explorers Club leadership, who has read the not-yet-public reports on the two expeditions to the now-missing wrecks. I’ve not yet read the reports myself, but he believes they clearly indicate the work of scrap metal scavengers as the primary cause of loss. It appears I may have gotten this one entirely wrong. I’m leaving the post up and will update as more information comes in. If you want to read a truly remarkable article written by one of the explorers here.
The headlines read like something out of an alien invasion film: “Mystery as wrecks of three Dutch WWII ships vanish from Java seabed.” Blame quickly went to “scrappers,” groups of war-grave targeting metal scavengers with the supposed ability to scavenge thousands of tons of scrap metal from depths exceeding 200 feet below the surface. Could this have theoretically happened? Perhaps. Is this the most likely explanation for the missing warships? Absolutely not.
First and foremost, illegal salvors do not respect war graves, especially in certain parts of the remote Pacific Ocean. Ship parts such as bronze propellers can be worth the incredibly dangerous operation necessary to pull them off the ocean bottom. There may be other valuable metals in the engine compartments worth the risks.
But three or more armored warships, lock, stock and barrel? There’s been too little evidence to seriously suggest this ever happened. Even after the story became international news, no evidence of the scrap steel or other artifacts have turned up. (Also, keep in mind that most of this steel would have been in very poor condition.) More importantly, the investigation thus far has released no bottom imagery beyond sonar data; meaning that the entire “missing ship” postulation is far from proven.
Here’s the most likely scenario. First and foremost, yes, illegal salvors likely pillaged the propellers and other highly valuable components the wreck. Parts of the wrecks likely collapsed on their own as well due to age. However, the most likely cause of the destruction of these ships (which are likely not missing at all, but instead scattered across a larger debris field than they were previously) is commercial fishing activity.
Fish like to hide in wrecks. Fishermen like to catch fish. Heavy industrial fishing activity often involves towing heavy nets that drag across the ocean bottom as close to known wrecks as possible. They very often hit these wrecks, sometimes damaging their fishing gear but always damaging the wrecks. It’s a little hard to communicate the sheer scale and force of these trawling operations, but suffice to say they are more than powerful enough to tear apart even a heavily armored warship, bit by bit, year by by year.
I’m no defender of illegal salvors–not for a moment. However, if we blame somebody we should blame those actually responsible… after a proper investigation, of course.
Not to say I told you so or otherwise rub in my point, but I hope this incident is the final nail in the coffin of so-called “in situ” preservation model for shipwrecks. Here’s an excerpt from a previous post:
The truth is, “in-situ” preservation of shipwrecks at depth remains an unproven theory. Indeed, much of the evidence collected to date shows that fishing activity and natural degradation over time has a profoundly adverse effect on these critical sites, a situation compounded by incidents such as the BP oil spill. As technology to find and recover historic shipwrecks continues to evolve by leaps and bounds, we must recognize our collective responsibility to find, document, monitor and excavate these underwater cultural resources. Given the confluence of factors working against us, now may be the only chance we have.
So are these lost warships damaged or destroyed? Absolutely. But missing? Let’s do a little more research before we make such an incredible claim.