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Wreck Diving's Deep Frontier
At 220 feet, the S.S. Aleutian beckons anyone with $4,000 and technical creds—and archaeologists are worried. By Carl Hoffman


Photo: coral (underwater)
FINDERS KEEPERS: Recreational divers can now pay to scavenge artifacts from the S.S. Aleutian.

Traveling at 14 knots when it rammed a rock off Alaska's Kodiak Island in 1929, the S.S. Aleutian sank clean and fast. The 375-foot (114-meter) star of the Alaska Steamship Company disappeared in seven minutes, with only one soul lost. Despite rumors of an undocumented cargo of gold, however, it wasn't treasure in the usual sense that sent Steve Lloyd searching for the ship in the summer of 2002. A diver and the owner of Anchorage's Title Wave Books, the largest independent bookstore in Alaska, Lloyd was simply fascinated by Alaska maritime history and the challenge of finding a long-lost wreck. After a three-day side-scan sonar search, find it he did, resting upright in 220 feet (67 meters) of water. And in November 2003 he won salvage rights from the state of Alaska in U.S. District Court.

But precious metal or no, the ship may yet yield a new kind of riches. In a novel move that has the fast-growing ranks of certified technical divers salivating and underwater archaeologists worried, Lloyd will begin charging clients $4,000 for seven days to dive to the wreck and salvage the Aleutian's artifacts starting this May. They won't have long: At that depth they'll be limited to two dives a day and bottom times of 7 to 20 minutes. But a treasure trove of Alaska history circa 1929—brass spittoons in the smoking room, signature china in the pantry, porthole frames—will be there for the taking. And Lloyd estimates that he has explored just 10 percent of the Aleutian in 39 dives. "It's a virgin wreck," he gushes, "a time capsule."

Underwater archaeologists and historians aren't as thrilled. There are hundreds of shipwrecks in the 200-foot-deep (61-meter-deep) range that, like the Aleutian, lack cargoes of gold or precious stones but are prized by scholars. Up until now, the high expense and low potential payoff have preserved these sites from salvage operations. But if Lloyd's plan works, they could become profitable destinations for the swelling ranks of technical wreck divers willing to pay for a piece of history. "Not every ship or structure is worth preserving as an archaeological site, but where do you draw the line?" says George Bass, founder of the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University. "A wreck like the Aleutian is an underwater museum, and in ten years it'll be stripped," says Matt Russell, an archaeologist for the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center. "Wouldn't it be nice if your children and your children's children could undertake the same kinds of dives on the site?"

Lloyd sees things differently. "The ocean isn't a benign environment," he counters. "The deterioration will accelerate over the next 20 years and everything will just disappear." And in another first, every artifact a diver brings up will be photographed and cataloged before clients spirit them away. The "collection" will be available to scholars and the curious via an online museum. "We don't want to strip the wreck," says Lloyd, "but this is an opportunity for folks to come home with meaningful souvenirs, while preserving history, too."

Just 10 years ago, the argument couldn't have arisen. The Aleutian was too deep for all but a tiny handful of professional divers experienced in dry suits, decompression dives, and deep-wreck penetration. (Lloyd describes his own site's conditions as "cold, pitch black, and scarier than hell.") Indeed, most potential clients may be driven less by a love of history than by a thirst for adventure. The same force that has impelled record numbers of amateurs to reach the summit of Everest has caused the so-called technical-diving market to explode. Three years ago, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the world's largest scuba certification organization, introduced a technical deep-dive course that certifies already experienced sport divers to 165 feet (50 meters) and below. "There's a growing demand for it," says Karl Shreeves, vice president of technical development for Diving Science and Technology, PADI's corporate affiliate. "Many of the wrecks in shallower water have been stripped clean," he says, "and people want to go somewhere few have ever gone before."

Excerpts
From the print edition, March 2004

The Grand Canyon Tool Kit: Essential strategies for doing the canyon right
Hiking the Grand Canyon: Three ways to hoof the hole
Rafting the Grand Canyon: The best way to run the Colorado
Canyon Legends: Three unsolved mysteries
High Holy Days: Cleansing your karma on Tibet's Mount Kailas
The Adventures of Tim Cahill: Why a little bird is picking on a whale
Special Report: Wreck diving's deep frontier on the S.S. Aleutian

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Related Web Sites

Professional Association of Diving Instructors
For more dive news and information, check out the Professional Association of Diving Instructors' Web site at www.padi.com.

NAUI Worldwide
Get news, course details, and event information from the National Association of Underwater Instructors at www.naui.org.



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March 2004



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