How Thieves Are Stealing 6500-Ton Ships Off the Sea Floor

The U.S.S. Houston (with President Franklin Roosevelt standing under the big guns in 1938) is being stolen by pirates off the sea floor, piece by piece. (AP Photo/George Skadding)

At Outside, Kathryn Miles reports on how pirates are diving down to wrecks on the sea floor in search of scrap and are stealing 6500-ton ships in their entirety, leaving only the imprint of the massive hulls on the sea floor.

What these divers should have found was a 6,440-ton cruiser, complete with tower, turrets, and catapult—a ship long and large enough to launch a seaplane. Instead, they found only the impression of a hull on an empty seafloor. The vessel that had once lain there had first been discovered in 2001. It was surveyed a year later. Since then, recreational divers had visited. And sure, ocean currents can drag debris from a downed plane or even cause a renaissance galleon to resurface. But this was a massive steel ship. The only way it was going to go anywhere was if someone—or lots of someones—had moved it.

The team’s search for other battle casualties in the area was no less haunting. HMAS Perch, a 300-foot-long Australian submarine, was gone. So were two British ships—the 329-foot HMS Encounter and the 574-foot Exeter. Another, the 329-foot HMS Electra, had been gutted. A huge section of the Kortenaer, another 322-foot Dutch warship, was also missing. Seven ships in all—either lost without a trace or grossly scavenged. An eighth, the USS Houston, was mostly intact, but it was clear pirates had begun gutting it as well.

Sunken warships remain the property of their country of origin regardless of where they are found. Laws regarding their stewardship vary a little from nation to nation, but in general, the ships—and everything on or in them—belong to that country’s navy. There are even more specific rules, both stated and understood, for vessels containing human remains. It’s a code of conduct among divers: Let deceased sailors rest undisturbed.

But even for all this disturbance, the vessels and the lost souls they carried remained mostly intact. Until they disappeared altogether.

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