[WATCH] Malta can be the ‘mecca’ of shipwreck technical diving, marine archeologist says

Marine archeologist Timmy Gambin said on Xtra that Malta’s underwater heritage was unique for its high concentration of archeological artefacts and the vast span of centuries they date back to

Marine archeologist Timmy Gambin was a guest on Xtra last Thursday
Marine archeologist Timmy Gambin was a guest on Xtra last Thursday

Malta is engaging in a drive to become the number one hot spot for shipwreck technical diving, attracting local and foreign divers to the island’s seabed to view the immense cultural heritage lying below its waters, marine archeologist Timmy Gambin said.

Gambin, who was a guest on Xtra last Thursday, said that Malta’s underwater cultural heritage was unique, both because there was a large concentration of archeological artefacts, and due to the wide span of time which these dated back to.

In March, Heritage Malta launched an Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit, which will be focusing on underwater artefacts of archeological importance.

“As a country, we have both local and international obligations - namely under the 2001 UNESCO Convention - to protect our underwater cultural heritage and to safeguard the right of individuals to access it,” Gambin said, “This gives rise to a number of problems, since while it is easy to provide access to a cultural site on land, and to keep this secure, it is more difficult to do so for an underwater site. The specific Heritage Malta unit was established to facilitate this.”

The unit will be opening a number of extensively studied underwater sites for local and foreign divers, Gambin announced. The system will operate via online ticket sales, similar to the process works for historical sites on land, thus regulating such access for the first time.

However, since only a small percentage of people dive underwater and can see these artefacts first hand, Heritage Malta, in collaboration with the University of Malta, will also be creating a virtual museum depicting the island’s underwater cultural heritage, he said.

Anything which has been submerged for over 50 years is considered to constitute cultural heritage, Gambin underscored.

Asked by presenter Saviour Balzan about the issue of looting of, or vandalism on, historical artefacts from underwater sites, the archeologist said this problem was being address via a two-pronged approach involving increased education and more surveillance.

“There is always the threat that [looting and vandalism] will happen”, he said, “…But we’ve managed to impart on dive schools a sense of the importance of preserving the value [of such artefacts]. We are trying to use education to send the message [that underwater cultural heritage has to be protected].”

Furthermore, the surveillance aspect involves in-house monitoring by the Heritage Malta unit and observations carried out by drones and  a CCTV system.

The CCTVs won’t be underwater, Gambin explained, since this would have been prohibitively expensive and complex - instead, cameras will be positioned at certain lookout location, such as Xlendi Tower. Transport Malta, the Armed Forces of Malta and the police would also be helping in this effort, he said.

War graves should be respected

Gambin said that a few of the sites containing historical artefacts which are deep underwater are also home to extensive black corals, which are very rare in Malta. This adds a level of environmental importance to the historical and commercial value of such sites.

Moreover, some of the shipwreck sites are also war graves, with sailors having met their deaths there, he pointed out, emphasising the importance that divers show respect when they visit these locations.

“I have nothing against people going to places where people had lost their lives, but this must be done with respect. The respect shown towards dead people in cemeteries should also be shown towards underwater war graves,” he stressed.

Gambin mentioned the HMS Olympus submarine - which was sunk by a mine in 1942 off Malta, killing 89 sailors - and the HMS Russel - sunk by two mines laid by a German U-boat in 1916, killing 125 sailors, including a number of Maltese - as being amongst the most major submerged war graves in Maltese waters.

In addition, there are also wrecks of crashed planes, the pilots of which died when their aircrafts dived into the sea, he said.

Heritage spanning centuries

Gambin said Malta’s seabed was home to a large concentration of cultural heritage from across the centuries, ranging from the oldest shipwrecked sailing ship in the Mediterranean - dating back to the Phoenicians - to airplanes which crashed into the sea during the Cold War.

“There might be other islands which have, for instance, more ancient Roman artefacts than Malta, but they usually won’t also have artefacts dating to the First and Second World War, like Malta has.”

Moreover, artefacts from different centuries are all located within a relatively short distance of each other, and do not necessitate long travels and multiple diving schools to access, contrary to the reality in places like Sicily, he said.

“In Malta, you can join a single dive school and see all the sites across a ten-day period,” Gambin added.

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