The  Kad'yak Shipwreck Saga

Kodiak considers its treasure-trove

SHIPWRECKS: Diving enthusiast touts island's untapped assets.

This article originally appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror on December 8, 2003
and in the Anchorage Daily News on December 9, 2003.
Copyright (c) 2003 by Kodiak Daily Mirror or Anchorage Daily News

KODIAK -- Disasters from Kodiak's past could turn into blessings for its future, according to a maritime lawyer and shipwreck diving enthusiast.

"You guys have a great resource in the maritime history of this island," Peter Hess told an audience Sunday at Kodiak College.

About 40 people attended the lecture by Hess, of Wilmington, Del., sponsored in part by the Kodiak Maritime Museum.

Audience members heard stories of silver, gold and jewels salvaged in recent years from wrecks dating to the days of the Spanish galleons. Hess recalled his excitement at seeing real treasure chests bursting with pieces of eight.

He said advances in scuba diving technology will make sunken ships around Kodiak more accessible. Hess foresees a time when diving could join fishing and hunting as a local economic asset.

"I think you have the beginnings of a new industry," he said.

Among the most interesting and accessible local wrecks is the Kadiak, a Russian-American merchant barque carrying a cargo of ice that sank in about 80 feet of water off Spruce Island in 1860, making it the oldest wreck found in Alaska.

Hess visited the Kadiak on Saturday and was able to touch one of the cannons it carried for protection.

"This is a world-class site that will bring people in from the East Coast and all over," he said.

Hess' underwater partners were Steve Lloyd of Anchorage, who discovered the wreck's exact location last summer, Josh Lewis of Kodiak and Andrey Nikolaev, a recreational diver from Sakhalin Island, Russia.

Out of the water, Hess spends much of his professional time navigating the maelstrom of competing claims, precedents and jurisdictions that result from discoveries.

"Once something is found, the first thing that's asked is 'Who owns it?' " he said.

Assuming that a ship's owners have abandoned a wreck, the basic principle of salvage law is simple: finders keepers. That still has validity in the maritime context, Hess said.

He participated in the historic salvage of Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a galleon that sank in 1622 in the Florida Keys and was discovered in 1985 by salvager Mel Fisher. After years of litigation, some investors in Fisher's operation earned a return of 6,000 percent.

Hess blames ill-conceived government regulation for endangering the salvage industry by restricting access. Noting that treasure hunters have a bad name, he said regulation should encourage salvagers to do the right thing by being responsible archaeologists.

Without the expectation of some compensation, historically significant wrecks will disintegrate in the harsh underwater environment or fall into the hands of looters, he said.

In the case of the Kadiak, Hess said, he hopes the people of Ouzinkie will have substantial say in its future because of their historical connection.

"They ought to be the ones deciding what the disposition of this wreck ought to be," he said.

He recommended the Kodiak Maritime Museum as an ideal repository.

"When you get involved with a project like this, you realize the real treasure is the history," he said.

Hess participated in dives on the wreck of the Monitor, the Union's iron-clad ship famous for its battle with the Virginia, more commonly known as the Merrimac, in the Civil War. He said his excitement at finding an ordinary dinner plate there at least equaled the thrill of lifting silver ingots out of a treasure ship.