Sunken trea­sures off Al­ba­nia’s coast

An­cient ships rest­ing on the seabed off this rugged, rarely ex­plored shore of­fer a glimpse of his­tory

The Enterprise-Bulletin (Collingwood) - - TRAVEL - ELENA BE­CA­TOROS

SARANDA, AL­BA­NIA – De­scend­ing be­neath the waves, the cloudy first few me­tres quickly give way to clear wa­ters and an as­ton­ish­ing sight — dozens, per­haps hun­dreds, of tightly packed an­cient vases lie on the seabed, tes­ta­ment to some long- for­got­ten trader’s un­for­tu­nate voy­age more than 1,600 years ago.

A short boat ride away, the hulk­ing frame of an Ital­ian Sec­ond World War ship ap­pears through the gloom, sol­diers’ per­sonal items still scat­tered in the in­te­rior, its en­crusted rail­ings and pro­pel­ler now home to grow­ing colonies of fish and sponges.

Off the rugged shores of Al­ba­nia, one of the world’s least ex­plored un­der­wa­ter coast­lines, lies a wealth of trea­sures: an­cient am­phorae — long, nar­row ter­ra­cotta jugs — that car­ried olive oil and wine along trade routes be­tween North Africa and the Ro­man Em­pire, wrecks with hid­den tales of hero­ism and treach­ery from two world wars, and spec­tac­u­lar rock for­ma­tions and marine life.

“From what I’ve seen so far, you can’t swim more than a few me­tres with­out find­ing some­thing that’s amaz­ing, whether it’s on the cul­tural his­tory side or the nat­u­ral- his­tory side, here in Al­ba­nia,” said Derek Smith, a coastal and mar­itime ecol­o­gist and re­search as­so­ciate who has been work­ing with the non­profit RPM Nau­ti­cal Foun­da­tion to ex­plore the Al­ba­nian coast­line for the past decade.

Now Al­ba­nia’s Na­tional Coast­line Agency is ex­am­in­ing how best to study and pro­tect its sunken at­trac­tions while open­ing them up to vis­i­tors in a na­tion that is vir­gin ter­ri­tory for the lu­cra­tive scuba- div­ing in­dus­try.

“The idea of pre­sent­ing the Al­ba­nian un­der­wa­ter heritage is a new idea for the coun­try be­cause so far, there is very lit­tle known about the rich his­tory of the Al­ba­nian coast­line, and in par­tic­u­lar the ship­wrecks,” said agency head Auron Tare, who has been in­volved for the past 12 years with RPM Nau­ti­cal Foun­da­tion’s un­der­wa­ter re­search. “I be­lieve the time has come now that we should present to the world the wealth of this heritage that we have in our wa­ters.”

Once more iso­lated than even North Korea, Al­ba­nia has grad­u­ally opened up to in­ter­na­tional tourism and shrugged off its for­mer im­age as a her­mit state that briefly turned into law­less ban­dit ter­ri­tory in the late 1990s.

But coastal land de­vel­op­ment has been bur­geon­ing in an of­ten an­ar­chic fashion, and there are fears the more ac­ces­si­ble wrecks could be plun­dered un­less ad­e­quate pro­tec­tions are put into place.

Leg­is­la­tion is ex­pected to be passed soon to pro­tect the coun­try’s un­der­wa­ter heritage, while also grant­ing some ac­cess to vis­i­tors.

Neigh­bour­ing Greece, to Al­ba­nia’s south, has strug­gled with bal­anc­ing tourism while pro­tect­ing and pre­serv­ing its an­cient ar­ti­facts.

Greece was so fear­ful of los­ing its un­der­wa­ter an­tiq­ui­ties it banned div­ing out­right in all but a hand­ful of places. Even to­day, div­ing is for­bid­den on any wreck — ship or plane — built more than 50 years ago, re­gard­less of when it sank.

Al­ba­nia is go­ing for a more balanced ap­proach.

“I’d say that in the near fu­ture the an­cient wrecks should be open to schol­ars and re­search,” said Tare, who noted the coun­try has also lost some of its un­der­wa­ter heritage to plun­der­ing in the last 20 years.

“Where( as) some of the mod­ern wrecks, which do not have much to lose in the sense of loot­ing, might be opened up to the dive in­dus­try.”

He es­ti­mated that with ac­cess to the more mod­ern wrecks from the First or Sec­ond World War, div­ing could in­crease in Al­ba­nia in the next five years.

The RPM Nau­ti­cal Foun­da­tion, in co- op­er­a­tion with the coastal agency, has mapped out the seabed along about a third of the Al­ba­nian coast­line, from Saranda near the Greek bor­der to Vlora.

Us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of divers and high- tech equip­ment in­clud­ing sonar and a re­motely op­er­ated un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cle, or ROV, its re­search ves­sel has dis­cov­ered nearly 40 ship­wrecks.

“So far, RPM has doc­u­mented from about third- and fourth- cen­tury B. C. through to First World War and Sec­ond World War con­tem­po­rary ship­wrecks,” said Smith.

“So we’ve got quite a big range of maybe 2,300 years worth of cul­tural re­sources here on the Al­ba­nian coast­line that have re­ally largely been un­ex­plored.”

One of them is the tightly packed am­phora pile near the shore. Known as the Joni wreck, it was a mer­chant ves­sel es­ti­mated to have had about four crew mem­bers and a cargo of mainly North African am­phorae.

The fact that the pot­tery was North African “is re­ally im­por­tant be­cause it shows the trade con­nec­tions be­tween the Adri­atic and the North African coast,” said un­der­wa­ter arche­ol­o­gist Ma­teusz Po­lakowski, who has been work­ing with RPM.

Small fish peer out from the necks of the jugs, which have been made part of the seabed with the pas­sage of time.

The site hasn’t been ex­ca­vated and ar­chae­ol­o­gists be­lieve sev­eral more lay­ers of am­phorae, as well as the wooden hull of the ship, might still lie in­tact be­neath the seabed.

“A lot of these wrecks are very im­por­tant as na­tional heritage trea­sures,” said Po­lakowski. “Just as much as the bi­ol­ogy of it is, just as im­por­tant as the reefs and the fish pop­u­la­tions are, I think these ship­wrecks not only be­come ar­ti­fi­cial reefs, but they also in­stil a sense of cul­tural iden­tity.”

Al­ba­nia sits at a strate­gic point at the en­trance of the Adri­atic Sea and along an­cient trade routes from Italy to the Balkan Penin­sula, Po­lakowski said. Much more re­mains to be ex­plored.

“They have about 200 miles of coast­line here,” said Smith. “Even though we feel like we’ve cov­ered a tremen­dous amount of it ... there’s al­ways more to be dis­cov­ered.”


Marine life grows on an­cient ter­ra­cotta jugs at the site of a ship­wreck from more than 1,600 years ago off the coast of Al­ba­nia.


Mar­itime ecol­o­gist Derek Smith ex­am­ines sponge coral grow­ing on an Ital­ian Sec­ond World War ship.

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