Protecting underwater cultural heritage

The 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage:

The general public has always been instrumental in discovering and recording new underwater sites, and over the years has played a crucial role in creating public awareness and appreciation for underwater heritage. As divers get to experience this heritage first-hand, they are also among those most invested in protecting and preserving our shared heritage for future generations.

The UNESCO 2001 Convention strongly encourages collaboration with members of the public, and advocates responsible public access to underwater cultural heritage including shipwrecks and all other traces of human existence with a cultural, historical or archaeological character. However, such access should always go hand in hand with site protection and preservation; under no circumstance should the nation’s common heritage be disturbed or removed for personal or commercial gain.

The UK is not currently a signatory to the Convention, but has adopted the principles set out in the Annex as UK heritage policy. Divers are encouraged to follow UNESCO’s Code of Ethics for Diving on Underwater Cultural Heritage Sites and the BSAC, PADI and SSA’s Respect Our Wrecks Code of Practice for Wreck Divers. The Marine Antiquities Scheme (MAS) encourages finds to be recorded if they have been discovered in a marine context, but left in situ on the seabed where possible.

While the MAS supports voluntary recording of archaeological material, there is also legislation relating to the underwater environment which must be adhered to. There are three main laws which apply to shipwrecks in the UK:

  • Merchant Shipping Act 1995
  • Protection of Wrecks Act 1973
  • Protection of Military Remains Act 1986

The Ancient Monuments & Archaeological Areas Act 1979 may also apply depending on the location of the wreck site.