The Ones that Got Away

Bermuda Promotional Display, Abercrombie & Fitch, New York, 1960

Bermuda Promotional Display, Abercrombie & Fitch, New York, 1960

During the 1950s and 60s, hundreds of wrecks were found in Bermuda’s waters; it led the world in underwater archaeology, academics visited to learn from the local divers and museums and hotels displayed their discoveries. The mystique surrounding the wrecks, fueled by the emerging myth of the Bermuda Triangle, played to the exotic appeal of the island, attracting celebrities and film crews. For a time Bermuda was the centre of the wreck hunting world but by the late 1980s it was coming under pressure, from within.

Arrangements were being made by some academics on the island to insert their authority over the process of wreck exploration. Whether this was due to a sense of responsibility or a case of professional insecurity is open to debate. Peter Benchley clearly felt it was the latter when he wrote:


Teddy Tucker, Billy McCallan and other lay experts like Harry Cox, who found a splendid treasure in the late 1960's - not a ship, just a treasure: what is known in the trade as a ''dump'' -keep looking for lost vessels from the distant past. With eyes that see the seemingly invisible, with a sixth sense that reads a reef line and makes assumptions about where ships might likely have faced their doom, they scour the shoals and analyze the bottom in search of clues. What they find technically belongs to the government, but under the terms of one of the most enlightened shipwreck acts in the world (The Bermuda Wreck and Salvage Act of 1959), the government must buy the artifacts from the salvors.

A move is afoot by what I consider to be a misguided band of overzealous academics to amend the 1959 Act in such a way as effectively to shut down wreck diving in Bermuda, or rather, to make it their private province. Their theory is that any old shipwreck is of historical value and should either be excavated only by folks who append the alphabet to their surnames, or left to rot in her grave. I think the theory is arrant bushwa. Every old wreck is no more of historical value than every old car in a junkyard is a Duesenberg. Each one must be judged individually, and Bermuda's expert laymen are eminently qualified judges.’

New York Times, 1989. A Diver's Map of Bermuda: Here There Be Treasures.


When Benchley wrote this the ‘expert laymen’ still enjoyed a successful working relationship with the Government of Bermuda due, to a large extent, the mutually beneficial Bermuda Wreck and Salvage Act 1959:


An individual who discovered a wreck would be granted a government license to work on the site. One was then required to submit a detailed report of the findings to Government on an annual basis. At the end of the operation, an inventory of the recovered objects would in turn be submitted to Government and a purchase price would be agreed upon, for whatever artefacts they wanted to acquire from among those recovered. Any artefacts declined by the Government would be released to the finder. Thus Government prior entitlement was respected, the finder was compensated accordingly, and all concerned were satisfied.

The law was a ‘friendly law’, one that respected the rights of the Government on behalf of the people of Bermuda and the integrity of divers as being responsible citizens acting in good faith. The law was one that a diver could trust and by which one would abide.

Most divers would gladly lend artefacts to museums for display purpose and many of the larger hotels would build exhibit cases in their lobbies or in one of their prominent rooms for the benefit of our visitors.’

Teddy Tucker: Treasure! A Diver’s Life



The ‘friendly law’, that was the model for much of the world’s most successful heritage protection legislation, was replaced by a new Act in 2001. The Historic Wrecks Act 2001 requires that any work on historic shipwrecks must be done following recognised archaeological methods and under license issued by the Government of Bermuda.

Applicants for license need to provide an archaeological plan, outlining scientific methods, report and publish findings and demonstrate relevant training and qualifications of personnel. The 2001 Act has pulled wreck exploration away from the diving community and towards the realm of academic research.

The intention, to set high standards has clear merits with respect to protecting the site, artefacts and information but its implication is that divers can not be trusted to work a shipwreck site; that they are at best clumsy amateurs, at worst, aquatic tomb raiders.

Unfortunately, the world of academic archaeology suffers for being a bit behind the curve; an opinion persists that practical, hands-on knowledge is no equal to academic learning. That view was widespread thirty years ago but most scientific disciplines now see the benefits of embracing the knowledge and contributions of the self-taught enthusiasts. In engineering, conservation science, computing, anthropology, astro-physics and even microbiology and genetics, innovators without formal qualifications are in high demand with academic and corporate institutions.

Rather than engage with the local innovators the consensus in the diving community is that those within academic circles, unable or unwilling to search for wrecks, would rather close down exploration activities than see so-called amateurs doing it. The irony is, of course, that ‘amateurs’ like Teddy Tucker were the ones who developed the very scientific disciplines that the Act now demands.

Proponents of the Act argue that the biggest threat to Bermuda’s shipwrecks and their artefacts is illegal looting and treasure hunting. The Bermuda Government’s Custodian of Historic Wrecks, Dr Philippe Rouja, is of the opinion that the greatest threat to both known wrecks and those yet to be discovered is, in fact, from the sea itself, specifically massive wave action and erosion of the sea floor during storms. And he’s not alone:

Sand loss from Bermuda's reef platform after a recent storm

Sand loss from Bermuda's reef platform after a recent storm

It had always been obvious to divers that storms would remove sand and uncover shipwrecks on the reef platform. The assumption, however, was that sand would move around within the reef platform and that in a short space of time would resettle over a wreck, protecting the fabric and integrity of the site. This belief was challenged on September 5th, 2003 when the category three hurricane Fabian hit Bermuda. In the aftermath of the storm, the first satellite images of the island showed a plume of sand 40 miles long extending off into the deep ocean. These images capture millions of tons of sand lost from the platform forever, leaving wrecks exposed and vulnerable.

Until this point, some believed that the most sensible management of Bermuda’s wrecks was 'preservation in situ', i.e. the best way to preserve a site was to leave it alone, covered by sand. This is now widely accepted to be an inadequate approach with the vulnerability of buried sites perhaps best illustrated by the loss, after hurricane Fabian, of ancient cedar stumps in Castle Harbour. 30 to 40 huge submerged stumps, discovered by Teddy in 1949, each with an extensive root system and too heavy to be lifted intact with a boat's winch capable of lifting cannon and ships beams. After hurricane Fabian, Teddy returned to the area and the stumps had vanished. Not to be found in Castle Harbor or the adjacent reef, they had gone, swept off the edge of the platform in the deep ocean.

With each passing year the chances of the loss of as yet undiscovered wrecks increases; the sea is not a protective layer but a turbulent, degrading environment. Hidden wrecks, their artifacts and their archaeological integrity are on borrowed time.

But the ability of Bermuda’s traditional wreck hunters to identify and investigate new sites was dealt another blow. As well as the introduction of strict operational conditions, a crucial incentive for the divers was also removed. During the drafting of the new Act there had been huge stakeholder support for maintaining the allowance to compensate divers for anything of value that they recovered. During the consultation phase, the stakeholders approved provision for compensation, policy analysts from the UK approved it and the Ministry approved it but at the last moment, while the Act was being debated and ratified at Cabinet level, it was dropped. Elite academic interests had harnessed the political support of one or two individuals to kill it. The most important component that would encourage the involvement of the local diving community was blocked.



‘The Bermuda ship wreck law was changed, for whatever reason, and provision for compensation was removed. The finder of a wreck might or might not receive a permit to work on the wreck site. If one did receive a permit and the recovery was successful, the government would take sole ownership of the entire retrieval without paying any compensation. (The diver) must accept that whatever his exploration, risks and expenses may have been, he will not be compensated for his efforts in the end and the Government will requisition all the proceeds.

Accordingly it should come as no surprise to anyone that no historic shipwreck has been reported since the implementation of this new law several years ago. I firmly believe and strongly maintain that any law concerning shipwrecks should be written with due respect and consideration for the diving public. Whether amateur or professional, this is a community with a responsive awareness and concern for our historic heritage. Were its expert knowledge and depth of experience better appreciated by those who frame our laws, that heritage would more readily become a matter of pubic knowledge and enjoyment.’

Teddy Tucker: Treasure! A Diver’s Life

Teddy and Mendel Peterson prepare timbers for shipping to the Smithsonian Institution

Teddy and Mendel Peterson prepare timbers for shipping to the Smithsonian Institution

The Historic Wrecks Act 2001 leans on the UNESCO directive to protect underwater marine heritage and at the same time ignores the UNESCO directive to protect local traditions. Bermuda moved from a position where it was a leader in the world of underwater archaeology to an era of alienating the local practitioners. The desired outcome from the new Act, of merging the many local experts and academics to work together, was lost.

A missed opportunity to create something like the Portable Antiquities Scheme in the UK. There, rather than policing out metal detectorists the UK government embraced them and significant finds went up from two per year to more than 40,000. The British Museum now employs more archaeologists than ever before – from a handful to hundreds, museums are full of British heritage finds and the public, detectorists and archaeologists all benefit.

The UK’s Portable Antiquities Scheme is built around compensation for the finder based on independent valuation. If this sounds familiar it is because it is based on The Bermuda Wreck and Salvage Act of 1959.

The author of a recent masters degree study in Bermuda, on just this subject, was astounded by the level of hurt that persists, revealing how deeply upset people were for being alienated from their own tradition. In the end, it boils down to trust. Academics, who had proclaimed themselves the highest authority regarding shipwrecks, chose not to trust the ability or motivations of local enthusiasts.



‘Wreck hunters did it because they love it, because they care. We recorded and documented everything and made everything available, we were keen to share what we found. Museums don’t have the finances or the energy to look for wrecks so why not work together. It should be symbiotic.’ Wendy Tucker



Today, the same few sites are revisited by university field courses – rerunning the same processes and principles that Teddy, Mendel and their colleagues perfected years before. The archaeological integrity of the initial work is corroborated by the fact that recent academic studies can not fault the work that preceded them.

The change in law effectively ended Bermuda’s fabled shipwreck hunting scene; it functions more as a deterrent than a guide. Since the introduction of the Historic Wrecks Act 2001, not a single new historic wreck has been found here. But for those who were involved before, there is no doubt that many lie waiting to be discovered. Teddy left at least three particular ‘targets’ out there. Wrecks that he was excited to find. The ones that got away…


ben watson