Shipwrecks saved by seagrass

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Seagrass meadows have been likened to security vaults for underwater cultural heritage. (photo: Thanos Dailianis)
Seagrass meadows have been likened to security vaults for underwater cultural heritage. (photo: Thanos Dailianis)

Seagrass meadows shown to play an important role in preserving shipwreck sites.

The ecological significance of seagrass meadows is well-known but now it seems they also play another important role in Australian waters – preserving shipwrecks.

A recently-published study by researchers with Edith Cowan University (ECU) has found that areas of seagrass provide ideal conditions for shipwreck preservation with the researchers likening them to “security vaults” for priceless cultural artefacts.

“Seagrass meadows established in our shores up to 6,000 years ago accumulating several meter-thick sediments underneath their canopies, and recent disturbances and losses have exposed shipwrecks and archaeological artefacts that were embedded and preserved within seagrass sediments,” said Dr Oscar Serrano from ECU’s School of Science.

“Seagrass meadows trap sediment and particles within their canopy gradually building up the seafloor over decades and centuries by depositing those materials as they grow.”

“But once the protective cover of seagrass is gone, the ships begin to break down, which shows if you lose seagrass, you lose important cultural heritage.”

The key to the segrass's wreck-preserving qualities lies in the organic and chemical structure of its sedimentary deposits. The seagrass structure is very resistant to decay, which leads to thick sedimentary deposits that seal oxygen from the sites, preventing decomposition of timbers and other materials.

“This is why we suggest seagrass meadows can be regarded as security vaults for underwater cultural heritage and time capsules of the human past,” said Dr Serrano.

Around 7,000 shipwrecks exist in Australian coastal waters, including around 1,650 in waters off WA. However, seagrass meadows are increasingly coming under severe environmental stress due to climate change, weather events and human activity, and researchers say that unless these effects can be stemmed, the frequency of exposures is likely to increase.

This has already placed European archaeologists and marine scientists in a race against the clock, as seagrass meadow losses in the Mediterranean have exposed Phoenician, Greek and Roman ships and cargo, many of which are thousands of years old.

Seagrass meadow losses in the Mediterranean have exposed Phoenician, Greek and Roman ships and cargo. (photo: Julius Glampedakis)
Seagrass meadow losses in the Mediterranean have exposed Phoenician, Greek and Roman ships and cargo. (photo: Julius Glampedakis)

Dr Serrano says his research team, which includes scientists and archaeologists from Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Greece and Australia, is looking to match shipwreck data with seagrass meadow maps.

They believe new acoustic techniques for sub-bottom imaging can allow exploration of underwater sites without disturbing the overlying seagrass meadows. Where necessary, controlled archaeological excavation can then be undertaken to excavate, document and preserve sites and artefacts.

“The danger of not putting programs into place is evidenced by treasure hunters off the Florida coast, who have adopted a destructive technique called ‘mailboxing’ to search for gold in Spanish galleons,” said Dr Dorte Krause-Jensen from Aarhus University in Denmark.

“This involves punching holes into sediment to locate and then pillage wrecks, an action that damages seagrass meadows and archaeological remnants.”

Seagrass sedimentary deposits as security vaults and time capsules of the human past’ by Dorte Krause-Jensen, Oscar Serrano, Eugenia Apostolaki, David Gregory and Carlos Duarte is published in Ambio.

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