Sunken treasures give Albania’s waters a sense of history
SARANDA, Albania — Descending beneath the waves, the cloudy first few meters 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 longforgotten trader’s unfortunate voyage more than 1,600 years ago.
A short boat ride away, the hulking frame of an Italian World War II 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 vessels 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 meters without finding something that’s amazing, whether it’s on the cultural history side or the natural history side, here in Albania,” says Derek Smith, a coastal and maritime ecologist and research associate who has been working with the non-profit 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,” says 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.”
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 develop- ment 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.
Neighboring Greece, to Albania’s south, has struggled with balancing tourism with protecting its ancient artefacts. 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,” says 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 WWI or WWII, diving could pick up in Albania in the next five years.
The RPM Nautical Foundation, in cooperation 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 3rd and 4th century BC through to World War I and World War II contemporary shipwrecks,” says Smith. “So we’ve got quite a big range of maybe 2,500 years, 2,300 years’ worth of cultural resources here on the Albanian coastline that have really largely been unexplored.”
“A lot of these wrecks are very important as national heritage treasures,” says underwater araeologist Mateusz 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 instill a sense of cultural identity, cultural heritage.”
A fish swims through part of the Italian World War II shipwreck MVProbitas, with dive safety officer Howard Phoenix of the non-profit RPM Nautical Foundation in the background.