[NPS Arrowhead] U.S. Dept. of Interior National Park Service Archeology Program
Quick Menu Features
* Sitemap * Home
common ground

Contested Waters
Fall/Winter 1996, vol. 1(3/4)

Online Archive

*  Deep Dilemma

(photo) Salvors search a ship in 1909.

"To make a discovery is the dream of most [sports divers]. A virgin wreck is a high-class trophy. It is also the first and last chance to record the scene in a pristine state."

John R. Halsey

by Tim Janaitis and Jeff Burns

Our company, Meridian Sciences, primarily supports U.S. Navy ocean programs. Occasionally we get involved in private ventures, but we were not prepared for the praise or the scorn that accompanied the discovery of the I-52 on May 2, 1995. We are neither archeologists nor treasure hunters, but this project kindled the passions of scientist and salvor alike.

For five decades the I-52 rested on the ocean bottom. In early 1995, we were hired to help find the submarine, now within the range of modern deep sea search equipment. Our client, Paul Tidwell of Virginia, had previously conducted shipwreck projects. Tidwell's quest was to find the I-52, promote the history of this famous ship, and if at all possible recover significant artifacts including the 146 gold bars originally destined to buy war material and technology. Meridian served as the technological facilitator with no financial interest in the venture.

The story of the I-52 begins in the closing days of WWII, when the Axis nations were surrounded. Faced with a tightening naval blockade, the Nazis and their Japanese allies built a series of cargo carrying submarines such as the I-52. The vessel was 357 feet long, weighed roughly 2,500 tons, and was manned by nearly a hundred sailors. In April of 1944, the I-52 left Kure Naval Yard for the west coast of France with a cargo of tin, medicine, rubber, and gold. The sub planned to meet a U-boat in mid-Atlantic to refuel and exchange supplies. Unaware that the Allies were decoding the Axis communications, the I-52 made her way to the rendezvous. On the other side of the world, the Allies, hoping to catch both submarines on the surface, dispatched a naval task force led by the aircraft carrier USS Bogue. On June 23, 1944, searching at night and in poor weather, Avenger torpedo bombers from the Bogue engaged and sank the I-52, which had completed transferring supplies and personnel from the U-530 earlier that evening.

The uproar began with the discovery of the I-52 some 50 years later. Questions of ownership, motive, ethics, science, plundering, and desecration of war graves were voiced publicly and privately. Some positions were staked out devoid of facts or any interest in ascertaining the facts. Others were based on people's experience with other organizations that recover artifacts solely for financial gain.

For Meridian, the rhetoric was a revelation and a cause for concern. We have no financial interest in the recovery and sale of artifacts. We are technologists with a strong interest in expanding our reputation as an ocean exploration firm. Our capabilities are based on technologies that are proven, available, and affordable. Mindful that ethics are open to interpretation, Meridian Sciences is committed to embracing an ethical approach to exploring the oceans of the world.

The experience surrounding the discovery of the I-52 presents a significant dilemma. On the one hand, Meridian has the opportunity and the capability to find artifacts in very deep water. On the other hand, the very act of pursuing shipwreck projects puts us at the center of an ethical debate within the archeological community. The former has the noble lure of contributing to mankind's understanding of his past while the latter may land us in hot water should the strict tenets of the archeological process be violated.

For us a course out of this dilemma is clear. Technologists like us develop and apply sensors and techniques. The challenge that we face is to develop new technologies that will result in higher standards for shipwreck exploration. Non-invasive sensor application, data fusion, and data visualization hold much promise. If these technologies are successfully applied to underwater archeological sites, the pre-disturbance survey will become truly pre-disturbance.

We are hopeful that the archeological community will commit to the possibility of jointly developing new and accepted techniques for deep water site exploration. Meridian is committed to forging cooperative relationships with the archeological, oceanographic, scientific, and entertainment communities in the hopes that together we can not only solve this dilemma, but pay for it too.

For more information please contact Meridian Sciences at 10015 Old Columbia Road, Suite A-200, Columbia, MD 21046 , (410) 381-2270, fax (410) 381-2167.

MJB/EJL