Shipwrecks yield artefacts

Piece of history: A diver removing an artefact from a wreck near Pedra Branca. — The Straits Times/ANN

AT an hour when most people are snugly in bed, five divers are already on board a vessel – and on their way to a spot a good 44km away from mainland Singapore.

Some bleary eyes are not unexpected in the pre-dawn hour, but a sense of mission pervades as they are on their way to a “treasure hunt” – a maritime excavation, to be precise.

They want to get to the site near Pedra Branca as soon as they can so that diving time in the day is maximised, when the light is good.

The site is where a historical shipwreck had been discovered in 2019 – the second one that was found in the area after the first was detected in 2016 – and the five are going back there to continue their work in Singapore’s first major maritime excavation exercise.

Two boatmen are taking them on the long journey, so the divers have time to brace themselves for a good day’s work – sipping a warm beverage, enjoying the morning breeze out at sea.

Even with the early departure and late return, the team has only

a few hours at the shipwreck site, according to maritime archaeologist Michael Flecker, the excavation’s project director,

There is also a limited window for excavation work to be done in a year as work is unsafe during some monsoon periods.

Even when it is safe to proceed, divers may still face strong currents and low visibility in the waters off Pedra Branca, so planning is critical, and the team uses the voyage to go over the details.

“Out there, the currents can be two-and-a-half knots. Divers can work quite well in one to one-and-a-half knots, but as soon as you get over that, it becomes very difficult... maintaining your position and not having your equipment swept away,” said Flecker, who has more than three decades of maritime archaeology experience.

“Some days, it’s like being in a swimming pool – it’s beautiful, we can see many metres while in the waters.

“On other days, we have to crawl our way back along our baseline to try to find our mooring line so that we can go back up to the vessel.

“It’s just completely pitch black,” the 58-year-old added, referring to a rope attached to a weight on the seabed. — The Straits Times/ANN

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