SHIPWRECKS IN THE MODERN ERA
A New Sunken Treasure: The Modern Value of Shipwrecks to Caribbean Business
Shipwrecks have the power to capture the imagination like few other pieces of history. Old ships, lying at the bottom of the sea, that are today sailed over by newer vessels, careening over the waters where the fallen found their end. The wrecks may reside down deep, unmoving and often untouched, but they are not forgotten, and are so often the source of passionate interest: the historians who research their stories, treasure hunters who seek their riches, and even diving groups who want to see in the depths something from our world topside that once crested along the waves.
For many years shipwrecks held interest but engagement with them was limited by the existing technology. Now, in an era of digital and global economy, there is a totally new dynamic when it comes to the world of shipwrecks. New gadgets, new communications, new financing opportunities and, ultimately, a whole new era in which the world above can engage with what lies below.
So what is the state of the shipwreck community today? And how may Caribbean businesses maximise their opportunities in this space? Let’s look now in depth.
LOOKING UP ON LOOKING DOWN
As discussed previously in The STAR Businessweek, the Caribbean has not only benefitted from the emergence of advances in maritime technology on Earth, but also satellite technology from above.
Before his death in 2004, the work of American NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper, in mapping Caribbean waters while he was in orbit, was ultimately credited with the discovery of a shipwreck off the Bahamas in the middle of this year. This event was a vivid representation of the accuracy, precision and advances of technology seen within the world of imagery, satellite technology and mapping.
As an astronaut, Cooper had access to technology that would be elusive to those of us on Earth. But even today, armchair explorers sit at home and use Google Earth as they seek to find, in a hint across the waves shown via digital imagery, what may lie beneath.
Despite the trite idea of this popular hobby, real discoveries have been found around the world in all sorts of areas, thanks to amateuer sleuths. So, too, the digital communities that have popped up around them, ensuring that productive and proactive discussion of shipwrecks is no longer confined to an annual convention at a local conference centre, but instead can be done perpetually and globally.
‘WHO OWNS THIS SUNKEN SHIP?’
While there is much promise in this space, the many complications that are also involved when it comes to shipwrecks today, need to be recognized. These are seen across many facets of the community.
Unquestionably, it is terrific for ship hunters to discover a shipwreck that has been long lost, especially if it comes with the promise of new riches, whether owed to the ship’s onboard treasure or simply the prestige and media coverage that can come with having found a historic relic. Yet this clear run through to great fortunes from the seafloor really only comes in the absence of a competing claim to the shipwreck. Unsurprisingly, this happens for ships of value.
After all, just because someone has lost something, that doesn’t mean that it is, by default, the property of another, once found. Many governments may give a cursory pat on the back to those who find a ship long lost from the ports, but then ultimately they lay claim to the ship. Even the most well-funded treasure hunters can quickly find themselves fundamentally outpaced in legal firepower by a sovereign government making its claim.
TEETHING PAINS OF NEW TECHNOLOGY
It is also in the area of funding that we have seen the more contentious elements of the crypto world on full parade.
Understandably, the business model that says to would-be crypto investors, “Invest in our shipwreck crypto now, and then when we find sunken riches, you’ll be rewarded!” appeals to many, doubtless enticed by not only the prospect of financial returns, but the excitement and romance of the adventure.
Sometimes there have even been claims that the enterprise knows where a ship is, and its value, and just needs an initial upfront round of funding to organise a recovery. The fallout from the investigation of the Shinjin Group—a South Korean crypto venture that alleged it had found a sunken warship, before it was revealed to be a scam operation— was illustrative of the downside of a new digital potential in this arena.
While the rise of the digital economy and our global reach in communications has made the world smaller (and so often for the better when it comes to researching and recovering shipwrecks), it’s also given rise to the potential for new exploitation and scams. This is not confined to shipwrecks but it does mean that its lure, even as a source of ‘fool’s gold’, can be packaged in a way that is very deceptive.
For aspiring Caribbean businesses the advances in technology represent a new opportunity here. While the region’s longstanding links to pirate history— most notably seen in recent years with the success of the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean franchise—show there is certainly a marketability here, it is also an era that is ripe for a new form of business.
Encouraging the serious endeavours in this space, such as devoted explorers and researchers, needs to reconcile with the reality that there is a new momentum in this community owing to the power and possibilities of emerging technology.
While amatuer sleuths may chiefly sit at home searching Google Earth for a shipwreck, enticing them to the region for an annual event where they can sail the waters of shipwreck valleys for real, offers a great potential growth avenue.
Even if local entrepreneurs wanted to, applying a hard and fast rule to the merits of a particular technology would be hard; the scandal of the Shinjin Group showed the potential for abuses. Just the same, if in future there was a new business in this space, entrepreneurs may find that acquiring funding from investors could be difficult via traditional channels such as banks. Seeking it via non-traditional financing channels, like a crypto Initial Coin Offering (ICO), could offer a path.
Should these enterprising shipwreck enthusiasts have legitimate expertise, decrying all shipwreck ICOs by default would be wrong. What is certain is that the Caribbean’s history, coastal features and strong supporting industries (chiefly in banking and tourism) make it a natural domain to entice the shipwreck community to build here.
CLEAR SAILING AHEAD
Ultimately, the most exciting consideration of the future potential of the shipwreck community and its business operations in the region is the ability for local entrepreneurs to project globally.
With an estimated 3 million shipwrecks located around the world—and around less than 1% of them having being explored— local expertise and businesses built here could find a customer base not only locally, but globally. That’s why local entrepreneurs who seek a new engagement with the shipwreck community must recognise that embracing the future with precision is the best way to derive new value from the past, on land and in water.
The Lesleen M shipwreck off the coast of Soufriere, Saint Lucia. Sunk in 1985, the wreck acts as an artificial reef to support the underwater ecosystem while doubling as a tourism attraction for divers
The Daini Koyomaru wreck, located one mile further offshore from the Lesleen M wreck, is a Japanese dredger that was sunk in 1996 in close proximity to an existing reef patch in hopes of spurring further reef growth while also acting as a dive site for advanced scuba divers