Peace Time: Disturbing The Dead For Profit


July 24, 2011: The sunken (off the coast of Sri Lanka) HMS Hermes, a British World War II aircraft carrier, is being plundered by looters. And what is happening to the Hermes is not an isolated incident. Over the last century, undersea exploration technology has gotten better, and cheaper. This has allowed more people to visit more sunken ships. But this has made it possible for looters to plunder more underwater wrecks. For civilian wrecks, this only matters, if at all, to insurance companies and nations seeking a share (sometimes 100 percent) of valuable items taken. But for military wrecks, which are considered military cemeteries for the sailors who went down with the ship, the problem is more acute. The Hermes went down with over 300 sailors.

The looters can sell the recovered items to a black market that supplies unscrupulous collectors. The money is more attractive, and the risks less, for wrecks off poor countries. But Sri Lanka (formerly the British colony of Ceylon) took action once it became widely known that the Hermes was being plundered. But there are hundreds of these wrecks sitting in coastal waters. The Hermes is 50 meters (152 feet) down, and easy for looters to reach. Stopping the looting will be impossible, but reducing it is less difficult. Thus there is more attention paid to anyone diving near a military wreck, and more monitoring of the black market for artifacts from such ships.

The HMS Hermes was sunk by Japanese carrier aircraft in 1942. The Hermes was the first aircraft carrier built as such. It was a 13,000 ton ship that entered service in 1923. At the time it was sunk, it was armed with six 140mm (5.5 inch) guns (for use against ships) and three 102mm (4 inch) anti-aircraft guns. It carried up to twenty aircraft. But at the time of her sinking, her twelve bi-plane torpedo bombers were ashore.





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