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Last updated at 10:56 GMT, Friday, 04 November 2011

Protecting shipwrecks


4 November 2011

Ten years ago UNESCO established a policy to protect shipwrecks over 100 years old.

The difficult question of how and if to protect more modern wrecks, particularly those in which people died, still exists.

Sam Wilson

HMS Sheffield on fire

The wreck of British warship HMS Sheffield, sunk in 1982, is protected under British law


Click to hear the report


Polish authorities recently banned divers from coming within 500 metres of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The German ship was sunk by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea in 1945. More than 9,000 lives are thought to have been lost - the single largest death toll at sea.

Last month, seven European naval associations condemned Dutch salvage firms which they said were desecrating sailors' graves. They'd been searching for scrap metal aboard three British warships torpedoed and sunk off the Netherlands in 1914.

UNESCO's Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which was adopted ten years ago, does not apply in these cases, because it only protects shipwrecks more than 100 years old.

Whether ships and their dead should be left to rest in peace, or are sites of legitimate archaeological interest, can be a vexed and often emotional question.

Archaeologists say their job is the recovery and meticulous preservation of priceless artefacts. Many of them reject the label "treasure hunters".

But, with deep-sea exploration equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars a day, they need to cover their costs somehow. It's no surprise, then, that a ship laden with gold, silver and other valuables is seen as the greatest prize.

Sam Wilson, BBC News


Click to hear the vocabulary


death toll

number of people who died


criticised very strongly


damaging and showing no respect for

scrap metal

metal from old items which can be sold and then reused




reasonable and acceptable


complicated and controversial, causing a lot of disagreement


careful and extremely detailed

to cover their costs

to make enough money to pay for their expenses

laden with

with a big cargo of