Adopt-a-wreck initiative gains pace


Stern end engine room access

By Kim Triegaardt

As the old saying goes, if we each do a little, we can all do a lot; it’s the driving idea behind a PhD project of Australian maritime archaeologist Andrew Viduka who is the Assistant Director Maritime and Commonwealth Heritage with the Australian Government. Andy is bringing his diving experience and expertise to a new project, Gathering Information by Recreational and Technical Scientific Divers, or GIRT.

This is a citizen science project piloted in South Australia in 2018 to observe shipwreck heritage using systematic observation and measurement, with volunteer divers doing the data collection.

As Andy says, “There are not enough maritime archaeologists globally, let alone in Australasia, to monitor the number of wrecks around our coastline and at the bottom of our oceans.”

Conservators absent

The situation is even worse when it comes to the specialist maritime archaeological conservators who know about looking after wet archaeological artefacts from the marine environment. “It is harrowingly low,” Andy says. “In Australia there are around 10 individuals with significant experience in this specialist field, while New Zealand has three people. In New Zealand, I know of only one very small dedicated conservation lab for wet maritime archaeological materials run by the Maritime Archaeological Association of New Zealand.”

Monitoring the 9,500 known wrecks around Australia and New Zealand is a mammoth undertaking, and impossible for the small number of maritime archaeologists available. So Andy says, it’s time to rethink the model.

“We need to do more with less,” he says. The obvious answer? Crowd sourced data collection which will meet divers’ desire to dive with a purpose and get them to take a more active role in maritime archaeology.

No impact citizen science

Citizen Science as a concept is increasingly popular. Collaborations between scientists and volunteers are presenting opportunities for collecting scientific data around the world. As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes it, “these are projects in which volunteers partner with scientists to answer real-world questions.”

Under Andy’s GIRT programme, divers can sign up to “adopt-awreck” they are interested in, and monitor what is happening to its physical condition in its environment once a year, using the GIRT methodology.

“This is absolutely no-impact citizen science. It is observational only,” he says. “Divers are shown how to systematically document the physical condition of a shipwreck or submerged aircraft and monitor the movement of sediment over or near the site. We’re not asking people to do anything to the wreck apart from take photos and make observations.”

Andy says “the best person to understand and lead the preservation and monitoring of local heritage is a local!”


Divers who want to participate in the study receive a one day workshop training in the GIRT method which covers survey methods, creating mud maps of sites, condition photography, photogrammetry and collecting subjective and objective data. GIRT members are also encouraged to undertake the two-day Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology/Nautical Archaeology Society’s (AIMA/ NAS) Introduction to Foreshore and Underwater Archaeology course.

Archaeology kit

Andy supplies a kit list for divers to create a really basic GIRT survey kit, and tips on how to use it. Scales for photography/photogrammetry, a 30M tape, slate and pencil, and a camera in an underwater housing. GIRT members draw a basic sketch or mud-map of their site and identify up to 10 locations on the mud-map to use as longitudinal monitoring points. These locations are selected to show the condition of the wreck and movement of sediment on the site. Photo scales are laid on the sea floor near any wreck. Photos are always taken from the same position. The diver answers a series of questions that include observations about sediment build up, any evidence of structural collapse, storm exposure, how to take lots and lots of photos, and doing 3D photogrammetry of sites or features.

“The more photos the better,” says Viduka who will help GIRT divers put the photos through photogrammetry software to create 3D images of the site.

Sharing the data

GIRT members agree to share the data they collect with other divers and can choose to attach their data to the Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage. By getting members to provide the information in these databases, everyone will be able to see what is physically happening to our unique non-renewable underwater heritage, not just those few individuals tasked with managing sites.

Craig Johnston from Paihia Dive records measurements from the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior in Matauri Bay[/caption

Once a year

“If a diver dives on their ‘adopted’ wreck once a year and feeds back information on its condition, then archaeologists and underwater cultural heritage resource managers are in a position to make more informed science-based decisions on the wreck,” Andy says. “The data collected by GIRT members allows that member to allocate a threat-risk rating to their site that in turn will inform what actions need to be prioritised by archaeologists.

“The threat-risk rating uses a typical risk analysis approach and is moderated prior to being loaded onto the GIRT website.”

People know about wreck sites such as HMS Pandora, HMSC Mermaid or the Mikhail Lermontov because of the stories around them. Andy says citizen science divers can play a huge role in telling the stories of their adopted sites. Doing this will ensure other people understand the site’s value. More attention helps drive funding that can be used to better conserve and to protect the wrecks.

Tracking motivation

As part of his ethics approved PhD research at the University of New England, Andy will be tracking the motivation of divers through the project. “It’s important to understand divers’ attitudes and thoughts on the benefit, or not, of protecting shipwrecks and maritime heritage and participating in citizen science,” he says.

More information is at

The next GIRT training sessions are:

  • 15-16 February at Toitu – Otago Settlers Museum (includes AIMA NAS Part 1 training)
  • 22 February at Heritage New Zealand Christchurch (64 Gloucester St)

For more information on courses see

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