Enjoy It, But You Can't Own It!

There is something about the activity of scuba diving that can mislead you into thinking you are the only diver to visit a particular dive site. Maybe it’s the narrowing of vision caused by the refraction of light in the mask that gives rise to this perceived solitary experience. Pioneering Jacques Cousteau and his team probably were the only ones to have visited those places mentioned in his book The Living Sea at the time. Because of this they were able to embroider the facts without fear of discovery. In the early 50’s he said he stumbled across the WW2 wreck of the Thistlegorm in the Red Sea and omits to mention that British merchant-men on their way north to Suez dipped their ensigns as a mark of respect for this War Grave. They knew where it was because its masts still broke the surface. Later, the masts fell and the existence of wreck got forgotten.

The Napoleonic era anchor found concreted into the seabed. The Napoleonic era anchor found concreted into the seabed but unsuccessfully recovered by the author.
I had a small dive centre in Mallorca in the mid-eighties. One day the anchor of my unattended boat dragged in the current near the island of Mitjana and I found it fouled in some obstruction in the sand. I discovered it was a large Napoleonic-era Admiralty pattern anchor and decided to recover it. It was so well concreted in that although I had exposed it and attached lifting bags to it, it took many hours of work with hammers and chisels and by that Autumn it was still securely in place. I went back to the UK and returned in the Spring only to find that anchor proudly displayed in the entrance to a small local hotel. Another diver had finished the job and lifted it and I didn’t get a mention let alone the return of my lifting bags. I couldn’t complain. The anchor was not mine. You cannot claim ownership of things found in the sea, yet people still do. About the same time a British couple operating a dive boat in the Red Sea discovered a wreck and systematically plundered all the brass from it. That included many portholes, angel lamps and the compass binnacle. I even made a video of them doing it.
The Carnatic. No sign of any brasswork now. The Carnatic. No sign of any brasswork now.
In fact the compass binnacle became a point of issue because another British captain called Darren ‘stole’ it from where it had been left on the shallow reef top. I pointed out that Darren could not have stolen it from them because they were guilty of stealing it from the wreck themselves. It was not a popular point made! All the brass was shipped back to England where the man continued life as a schoolteacher. The wreck was at first named after him and his wife, then named after the multitude of tonic bottles that were located in the bowels of the wreck, and finally its plundered remains became revealed as the Carnatic, a P&O steam-sailing ship. Maybe you’ve dived it. That couple finally retired to live in La Paz in Mexico. I don’t know if they went to the expense of shipping all the brass out there or maybe it went to scrap-metal merchant.
Sharks at Sha'ab Rumi reef in the Sudan. Grey Sharks at Sha'ab Rumi reef in the Sudan.
At the start of the ‘nineties I was a dive-guide in the Red Sea and used to conduct a shark-feed dive at Sha’ab Rumi. There were only two other boats operating out of Port Sudan doing the same. Soon other dive boats started making the long haul down from Egypt with regular groups of divers and among them was a well-heeled diver called Norman Temple. He decided that the sharks at Sha’ab Rumi were his and invented the Sha’ab Rumi Shark Club. The Israeli captain and crew of the boat they used, Sea Surveyor, was unimpressed when Mr Temple invited them to apply for membership! I have not been able to discover what happened to Norman Temple since that time.
a case of shells hammered open by Kenny MacDonald in 1992. A case of shells hammered open by Kenny MacDonald in 1992.
Meanwhile a small group of foreign dive guides were told about a fantastic wreck by Shimshon Macchia, an Israeli skipper who had decided to return back to Israel for good. It was Autumn 1992. I was among those privileged to dive it. I will always remember Kenny MacDonald, the engineer from the Lady Jenny V hammering open one of the many silver boxes only to discover it contained four shells. We laughed at his antics as he attempted to rig as many motorbikes upright on the decks of the trucks that formed the wreck’s cargo. At that time they even still had their tool kits in place under their seats. In January of that year I went with British diver David Wright to document the whole wreck. It was truly stunning but during our tenth dive on it a boat arrived from Hurghada. It was the Lady Somaya owned by German dive centre owner Rudi Kneip. After its divers descended we were deafened by the noise of hammers as those divers ripped off souvenirs. I decided that the wreck was going to be changed dramatically and published an article about it in Diver Magazine that May. Later that year I published an article about the way the wreck's cargo was being trashed. It was entitled Diego You Should Be Ashamed.
Diego, you should be ashamed! Diego, you should be ashamed!
Some of my diving friends including German Udo and Mike Archer thought I had made a breach of confidence but I wanted as many divers to see it as possible before it was ruined. By 1993 it had become the most oft dived wreck in the world and the damage was done.
One of the motorbikes on the wreck of the Thistlegorm  plundered by souvenir hunters within months of the wreck being rediscovered. One of the motorbikes on the wreck of the Thistlegorm plundered by souvenir hunters within months of the wreck being rediscovered.
Rudi Kneip eventually returned to Germany where he spent his last days. Kenny went on to another career in Vancouver. We don't know what happened to Udo. Mike is in Malta. The wreck has seen literally thousands of divers visit it since and recently I was dismayed to see that proprietorship for one of the Norton bikes has recently been ascribed to a young woman who was probably not even born back in 1992. It is not her bike. Jeremy Strafford-Deitsch, a pioneering shark photographer, discovered a place in the Bahamas Abaco chain where massive bull sharks aggregated. He invited me to join him there and later invited Shark Behavourist Eric Ritter to do the same. Eric soon claimed these sharks for his own; that is until he was severely bitten by one. That island is now closed for diving and Jeremy lives in his castle in Cornwall where he still writes books, but not necessarily about diving. American dive operators, driven out of Florida by a change in the law, have adopted some shark diving sites around Grand Bahamas and Bimini. They frown at the activities of Bahamian dive operators that legitimately have every right to dive there too. And so it goes on. Divers make their own voyage of discovery but they should respect the achievements of those that went before them. They too will move on in life and find that others are later claiming their individual discoveries for themselves. You may want to but you cannot have proprietorship of what is found in the sea. There really is very little that’s new under the sun. John Bantin is author of Amazing Diving Stories.

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