Scavengers, trophy hunters and “metal pirates” are looting the treasures under the seas – and there are fears Australia’s first submarine could be next.
The location of HMAS AE1’s wreck is a secret closely held by a small group of people, including relatives of the 35 men who were on board when the Royal Australian Navy vessel sank at the outbreak of the first world war.
The 726-tonne submarine was travelling in hazy weather off the coast of what is now Papua New Guinea when it disappeared, and it was declared lost at sea on 14 September 1914. For more than a century people searched for it, not knowing the fate of those sailors.
Australia’s oldest naval mystery was partly solved in 2017 when the wreck was found in 300m of water near PNG’s Duke of York Islands. Scans show a crumbling but recognisable submarine on the ocean floor, its helm askew.
Now there are fears people with ill intentions will also find it.
Many shipwrecks have already been pillaged. Ships from the second world war are particularly prized, because the thick steel hulls were forged in a time before nuclear weapons testing. That means they are made of “low background” steel, which is free of the radioactive pollution that spread around the world when the atomic age began.
Low background steel’s purity make it valuable for making MRI machines, gamma ray detectors, and the sort of ultra-sensitive equipment needed in the search for dark matter.
Propellers are valuable, too, and even a ship’s wiring can fetch a decent price. Some looters may be after weapons.
In some cases, all that’s left of a mighty warship is an imprint in the sea bed.
Rear Admiral Peter Briggs led the search for AE1, for which he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2020.
Briggs says salvage work is driven by the desire to get steel that hasn’t been irradiated, but as a first world war boat the AE1 is “not as attractive”.
“The decay has removed a lot of the iron, it’s flaky … it’s rusting. And it’s much deeper, while the WWII wrecks being scavenged are much shallower and easier to get,” he says. “And it’s much more remote.
“So trophy hunting is more of a risk than the scavengers.”
Briggs worries would-be thieves are already on the case.
“Probably the greatest threat is a rich man with his super duper yacht with his own submersible,” he says.
“There has been one rich man yacht that attended after we found it … so whether the helm’s still there – we’ll have to go back and see.”
The Guardian revealed in 2017 that dozens of Australian, British, American, Dutch and Japanese warships and thousands of unmarked, underwater graves were under threat.
Surveys have found the HMAS Perth has already been ransacked. The light cruiser was off the coast of Java when she was attacked by Japanese destroyers. During the Battle of Sunda Strait most of the crew tried to abandon ship while under torpedo fire, but it was too late for many of them. Perth was declared lost in action on 1 March 1942.
The wreck of the 6,830-tonne ship was found 35m down in the waters between Java and Sumatra in 1967. It was largely intact. Some parts were recovered and preserved. Then, in 2013, the first signs of illegal salvaging were spotted.
Dr James Hunter says that like Briggs he has concerns that the AE1 will be found, but it’s the condition of HMAS Perth that keeps him up at night.
Hunter, the curator of naval heritage and archaeology at the Australian National Maritime Museum, says an easily accessible wreck in shallow water might be plundered just for scrap metal.
Others are after valuable bronze parts, quality metals from the early 20th century – ad the low-background metals. He says it makes more sense to target those, which are “pretty rare and pretty valuable”.
Hunter says by the time the damage to the Perth was discovered, three of the ship’s four Parsons turbines (a steam-powered turbine used in Royal Australian Navy vessels) had already gone. “There was one left,” Hunter says.
A protected marine zone was put around the wreck in 2017.
“But in 2019 (the final turbine) was gone as well. We think that last bit of salvage occurred before the zone was erected. They probably got in there opportunistically.”
More than 350 of HMAS Perth’s 680 crew went down with the ship.
“Their remains are still in there, at least some of them,” Hunter says.
“That was the gut punch for me, that is a grave site. It’s like someone got an excavator and ran it through a cemetery. At the end of the day for me it’s about honouring people who sacrificed their lives in wartime.”
Part of the problem is that wreck sites are not technically war graves, unlike land sites.
Hunter says the AE1 submarine is not as vulnerable as the HMAS Perth. Its coordinates are hidden, it’s smaller, and it’s deeper.
“As long as the coordinates are safe. You’d have to have the kit to find it and you’d have to have sophisticated and substantial kit to pull it off.”
A complicated web of national, international, and local laws are meant to offer some protection.
Dr Kim Browne uses the phrase “metal pirates” for those who plunder military vessels. The lawyer and lecturer in international law at Charles Sturt University says the existing Unesco convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage “doesn’t really cover WWII” because in general shipwrecks have to be a century old to qualify. Many countries haven’t signed it, while others – including Australia – have not yet ratified it.
Browne says there are loopholes and even vacuums in the law as it stands. Protection is further complicated because wrecks are often in international waters or the waters of another country. The Perth is in Indonesian waters, the AE1 in PNG.
“They become vulnerable to being looted because there may not be a willingness of states to protect them – the fate of these shipwrecks are in the hands of these foreign countries,” she says.
“HMAS Perth, although we legally own it, it’s in the waters of a foreign country.”
Browne says it not just lone criminals, though. There are international criminal syndicates and gangs, and even infrastructure to process the spoils.
“There seem to be illegal scrap yards in Bangladesh and the Philippines. They’re sitting in waters close to shore where there are legitimate ship-breaking industries … they launder it.” And there’s evidence that bones are disturbed, blown up, even smashed or tossed away.
Shipwrecks do not fall under the auspices of veterans’ affairs in Australia. Instead, they sit with the agriculture, water and environment department. The department registers, administers and protects those shipwrecks that sit around Australia’s coastline through a combination of legislation and protected zones.
Hunter says even if there was decent legislation that covered the underwater sites, it’s tricky to monitor them, particularly in international waters. “That’s cowboy town,” he says.
“Even if you have nations with decent legislation, the big issue is enforcement. It’s monitoring the wreck sites effectively and if someone’s been there damaging it, enforcing it.
“If the law doesn’t have teeth, is someone going to wag their fingers under your nose? Who cares? There are no repercussions for damaging the site.”
Hunter says land war graves are protected, and treated with reverence, but there’s an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality about those lost at sea.
“Even if their bones are no longer there,” he says. “That’s where they died.”