People who value historic shipwrecks have often wanted to raise them for preservation and display in museums. Charlie Beeker has a better idea: bring the museum to the wreck.
Beeker, director of Indiana University’s Office of Underwater Science in Bloomington, started diving in 1963, a time when historic shipwrecks had no value beyond exploration and salvage. The dive magazines of that time, replete with tales of treasure hunting, glamorized the looting of shipwrecks. When Beeker took a diving instructor course in Key Largo, Fla., in the 1970s, divers had damaged most of the Florida Keys’ historic wrecks. Artifacts such as cannons and anchors became ornaments at marinas, hotels and restaurants along U.S. Highway 1.
Preservationists called for changes and began to float the concept of underwater museums as a way to protect wrecks and keep artifacts in place, but the idea didn’t gain real traction until the passage of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act in 1988. Beeker was on the committee that helped draft the legislation, which acknowledged the value of historic wrecks and clarified the ownership and management of them on federal, state and tribal submerged lands.
The following year, Beeker helped establish the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve in Florida, and he went on to play a role in creating 11 more underwater parks in Florida and California. By 2009, a national system of marine protected areas was established under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to preserve the shipwrecks, elevating them from plunder to historical treasures.
But that failed to deter some treasure hunters, who simply moved to the Caribbean, where the pickings are easy and plentiful. For instance, in the Dominican Republic, treasure hunters are allowed to plunder wrecks so long as they split the take with the government. So Beeker began to focus his efforts there as well.
Since 2008, Beeker and his colleagues have been collaborating with the government’s ministries of environment, culture and tourism and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Together they have established living museums of the sea, such as the Guadalupe Underwater Archaeological Preserve and the 1699 Captain Kidd Living Museum of the Sea, with several more in the works. The Captain Kidd shipwreck contains in situ archaeological material, while the others comprise artifacts that were raised from the sea in the past and subsequently returned there.
The museums feature mooring buoys for boats, historic-marker buoys and underwater plaques with interpretative information. Visitors are admonished to “take only photos, leave only bubbles.” The museums increase cultural heritage tourism, which, in turn, stimulates economic development, providing the Dominican Republic with a sustainable alternative to treasure hunting.
Beeker takes an expansive approach to shipwreck preservation. “We’re making an archaeological project an environmental project,” he says. “We have a holistic view of the resource.” That view entails preserving the ecosystem around the wreck as well as the wreck itself. Large artifacts, such as cannons and anchors, provide hard substrate and rugosity that create an ideal habitat for corals, fish and other biota.
Beeker’s success in the Dominican Republic hasn’t come easily, and he acknowledges there are plenty of people who want him to fail. Treasure hunters have sued him — one even confronted him in a bar. (Beer bottles were flung, and police were called.) Local fishermen complain that the underwater museums interfere with their business. Working with foreign governments can also be difficult, particularly those easily seduced by the promise of treasure hunters’ booty. But Beeker is quick to remind them, “You can only sell it once as a treasure hunt. I can sell it forever as a park.” And what parks they are.