Sunday, January 01, 2006

Lake Mead's sunken treasures to be protected from scuba diving thieves

By Chuck Frederick
November 16, 2005

Archaeologists and historial preservation groups worldwide are struggling to protect wrecks from infamous shipwreck looters such as Brad Sheard and Leigh Bishop who boast about their private collections of artifacts they claim to have "legally" stolen from shipwrecks around the world.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The National Park Service is drafting a plan to protect cultural resources submerged below Lake Mead and public access to the often hidden treasures.
"We're talking about hundreds of sites that might be of interest to someone," said Dan Lenihan, who helped found the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center in Santa Fe, N.M.

As water levels receded in recent years because of drought, some sites swallowed when Hoover Dam was constructed six decades ago are now in shallow water - or soon could be.

Others are above the surface, including an old cement tank in the Boulder Basin left over from the construction of the dam, and the abandoned St. Thomas town site near the lake's northern tip.

The cockpit of the B-29 bomber at the bottom of Lake Mead.
Divers in the area who want to see the wreck protected are
concerned it could be further damaged by scuba diving looters
who steal artifacts for private collections, bragging rights and
profits from eBay sales.

"They're physical touchstones to the past," said Lenihan, who retired in 2000 but still works part time with the Park Service's archaeological dive team.

Of the three options being considered for Lake Mead, park officials prefer the one that calls for managed recreational use and access to submerged sites.

The other options are unrestricted access to all sites, or making all sites off-limits to underwater explorers unless they are accompanied by a Park Service employee.

Dive shop owner Jay Gundy said he thinks most local divers will agree with the agency's preference.

"We certainly don't want to see them closed, but if you don't have managed access, the sites will be gone. It's been proven time and time again," Gundy said. "We like having that stuff down there. It's a reason to get in the lake."

The management plan evolved from a legal battle over a B-29 bomber that crashed and sank in Lake Mead's Overton Arm in 1948.

A federal court awarded the Park Service custody of the wreckage earlier this year, but the bomber has been looted and damaged in the five years since it was found, even though it is too deep to be reached by all but a small fraction of divers.

Inspecting engine #1, the only one still
attached to the plane.

Gundy, who has conducted about 350 dives in Lake Mead over the past 12 years, said many of the lake's sunken treasures can only be reached by "technical divers" who are trained and equipped to use mixed gases that allow them to descend below 130 feet.

"A lot of the history that's at the bottom of Lake Mead is along the old channel of the Colorado River, and those are the deepest parts of the lake," he said. "They're at 200 feet or better, well below the reach of a recreational diver."

Eventually, though, some of those sites could be within the reach of even the most casual divers, should the lake continue to shrink, Gundy said.

Public comments on the Park Service proposal will be accepted through Dec. 15. Officials said they hope to have a final management strategy in place by next spring.



Anonymous said...

I would like to volunteer my assistance to the preservation of items in Lake Mead thru my company. Who can I contact ?

8:14 PM  

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