Treasure, bounty, pirates – these words conjure up romantic adventures in peoples’ minds, none the more so than when they relate to historically important wrecks. An example of this is the HMS Victory which sank in 1744 in the Channel on its way back from a mission to relieve British ships blocked in the River Tagus, Portugal. For over 200 years its actual location remained unknown, until found in 2009 by Odyssey Marine Exploration, a US-based company. In September 2018 the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) ordered that the site be left in situand refused the granting of a licence to the Heritage Maritime Foundation (HMF), the charity responsible for monitoring and managing the wreck. On 6 February 2019 the Heritage Maritime Foundation issued an application for judicial review challenging this decision.
The laws and management concerning wrecks are complex. While the HMS Victory was gifted by deed by Odyssey to the HMF in 2012, and the HMF is responsible for its management and care, it cannot undertake any survey, excavation or salvage without a licence from the MoD and Maritime Management Organisation. This is partly because the HMS Victory is a gravesite: having been the British navy flagship of its day, it sunk with its entire crew of 1,100 men.
The letter of refusal stated that the wreck could be adequately monitored in its current location and salvaging it would likely cause greater damage. The HMF disagrees with this argument stating that the wreck is at risk from trawlers, fishermen and illegal salvage. However it seems this argument is being disputed, since HMF has never been able to produce evidence of its allegations. Nor has it applied to undertake any surveys since 2012, instead concentrating on the request to have it raised from the depths of the sea. This has raised concerns.
As reported, HMF appears to have ties with the company that had initially discovered the site, Odyssey, who apparently seek to monetise salvage operations. This goes against the principles of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (see in particular Article 2(7)), though it should be said that neither the UK nor the US are party to this Convention.
Several archaeologists have raised concerns that the HMF currently does not have the funds to raise the wreck nor any conservation plans for the wreck and all its associated objects. The immediate care of all marine waterlogged material is extremely expensive and intensive, and must be undertaken immediately to prevent rapid deterioration of the object. A museum must also be prepared to house the raised wreck. As yetthere is none designated.
No hearing date has yet been set, but the outcome will be most interesting.