Power Struggle Surfaces on Claims to Shipwrecks

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- As new technology spurs underwater exploration of storied shipwrecks like Blackbeard's pirate galleon, the Titanic and the Lusitania, a battle for control of sunken artifacts has erupted between commercial treasure hunters and marine archeologists.

Congress had hoped to quiet the warring interests by passing the Abandoned Shipwreck Act in 1987, giving coastal states like Massachusetts, with about 3,000 known shipwrecks offshore, the right to claim title to the ships and their treasure in the name of historic preservation.

But discoverers of the shipwrecked Brother Jonathan, which sank in 1865 in California's worst maritime disaster, have won the right in federal court to privately salvage the lost steamship. The Supreme Court is now considering the case, and the ruling, expected by June, could restore order or bring further turmoil to the sunken treasure business. The lines in the dispute are clearly drawn. Archeologists contend commercial divers destroy historic wrecks in the search for loot. Independent treasure hunters, however, say priceless artifacts will be lost to time and the ravages of the sea if the states take away commercial incentives to find and explore sunken ships. "I have been through hell and high water in dealing with a real overzealous, vicious group of archeologists who defy common sense," said Barry Clifford, who discovered the pirate ship Whydah off Cape Cod, Mass., in 1982, reflecting upon a lifetime of treasure hunting. If he were starting out today, said Clifford, he would choose another vocation. But James Delgado, the former head of the federal Maritime Preservation Program, said he is haunted by the fear that artifacts from the Brother Jonathan and other historic wrecks will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. "If the decision in the Brother Jonathan case by the lower courts is allowed to stand, it will ... set the stage for an increased assault on historic shipwrecks," said Delgado, who now runs the Vancouver Maritime Museum in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Why should the law be different just because something is wet?" Such hidden treasures would be protected by stringent historic preservation statutes if found on land. But federal admiralty law historically has favored private salvage firms because of the risks and difficulties involved. Clifford and his partners, for example, were able to claim full title to the Whydah, though they have worked in partnership with state officials and archeologists. The Brother Jonathan, a three-masted, double side-wheeled paddle steamer left San Francisco on July 28, 1865, bound for British Columbia with 250 passengers and crew. After unloading cargo in Crescent City, Calif., the plodding 220-foot-long ship ran into a fierce storm and high seas. It struck an uncharted, submerged rock -- thereafter known as Jonathan Rock -- and sank within sight of land in 250 feet of water. …