Sunken trea­sures give Al­ba­nia’s wa­ters a sense of his­tory

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

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.

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