Pirates, Stealing Whole Wrecks off the Seabed

Pirates still sail the seas looking for treasure.

Over the course of the Second World War, tens of thousands of ships went down in the world’s oceans. Navy ships, cargo ships, and submarines sank, either deliberately targeted or caught as collateral damage in the midst of fighting.

Off the coast of Great Britain alone, experts estimate there are thousands of shipwrecks resting on the seabed. Add to that count the many wrecks on the bottom of the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and other bodies of water – and the figure becomes almost impossible to estimate.

Metal Pirates

To those with a criminal bent, these shipwrecks represent a trove of valuable resources. They aren’t interested in antiquities and wartime artifacts. They’re interested in the metals that the ships are made of, and these wrecks are being plundered because of their value. One wreck alone, one marine archaeologist suggests, may be worth as much as $1 million (USD).

Battleship HMS Repulse
HMS Repulse is a war grave and has been damaged by metal pirates

Read More: HMS Edinburgh Shipwreck Had $222 Million Worth of Gold Onboard

These vessels were built prior to the war, some not long after the turn of the 20th century. Consequently, the metals contained therein have what experts call a “pre-nuclear signature,” meaning their purity is high because they contain no trace of radiation.

Most metals mined in the nuclear age, after the war, do indeed have traces of radiation, however minor, and it’s this that impacts their scrap value.  On the black market, wrecks’ metals are sold for medical and technological equipment, among other purposes. 

The term for this thievery is “metal piracy.” And while at first sight it may seem that there are easier, less expensive ways to steal metals, the wrecks are proverbial sitting ducks. Even tanks and planes are being removed from the seabed.

They are there for the plundering, if a salvage operator has the means to dive down into the deep that is. After all, there is no security guarding them; only a loose “gentleman’s agreement” between nations that they should not be exploited. And words have seldom been enough to deter felons of any type.

HMS Exeter battle damage, pirates have stolen the whole wreck
HMS Exeter damaged during the Battle of the River Plate. She too is now a victim of the metal pirates

Mysteries Of The Deep.

Last year, the Discovery Channel aired a documentary on the subject, on its series, “Mysteries Of The Deep.” Those quoted in the special say that the wrecks are disappearing at an alarming rate, either in whole or in part. And right now, nothing is being done to stop metal piracy.

Read More: Japanese Submarine her 80-man Crew Still Entombed

Wrecks lie unseen off coastlines and in very deep water, so it’s easy to ignore the problem. But many argue that these sites are not only important historically, they are, in essence, graveyards. The number of sailors who died when vessels sank number in the hundreds of thousands. Some say that disturbing their resting places is like violating graves.

3D image of the shipwreck HMS Exeter
3D rendition of the wreck of Exeter as it looked when discovered in 2007. Credit: Kevin Denlay CC BY-SA 4.0

It is unlikely that the criminal enterprises that pursue these wrecks will stop anytime soon. After all, the looting brings gold, bronze, copper and other precious and semiprecious metals to their coffers.

Several governments whose countries fought to defeat the Nazis have condemned the thievery, including the U.K, the United States, the Netherlands.

scan of the seabed where HMS Exeter once was, stolen by pirates
In 2016 an expedition to the wreck site (carrying TEC Flag 192) discovered all that remained of HMS Exeter was a hole left in the ocean bed by pirates that literally stole the once proud ship. Text and image credit: www.ww2wrecks.com

But no direct action has been taken to combat metal piracy – only verbal condemnations, then a quick change of subject to more pressing, and more visible, problems. In fairness, the issue is a complicated one.

Territorial Waters

Although the wrecks technically belong to the country under whose flag they sailed during the war, where they lie determines who has control of the site. In other words, if a  British ship went down in another country’s territorial waters, the wreck falls under that country’s jurisdiction.

Read More: USS Johnston the Deepest Shipwreck Ever Found

But inaction emboldens thieves. Marine archaeologist Beverly Goodman, who was interviewed in the documentary, says the problem is serious and deserves action. “There’s this really unusual situation happening,” she said, “…worldwide, shipwrecks are seemingly disappearing.” Sometimes an entire vessel is taken, while other times a wreck is cut in half and only part of it is hauled away.

It seems unlikely that metal piracy will warrant international action in the coming days, because the problem is a difficult one to police and the wrecks are virtually impossible to safeguard indefinitely. But the plundering means that hugely important military and marine sites are disappearing, to say nothing of the remains of so many who fought and died for their countries during the war.