Wrecks, Underwater Cultural Heritage and Trails in South Australia

Australia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018(UCH Act) became an act of parliament on 24 August 2018 and came into force 1 July 2019.

SDFSA is committed to the protection of South Australia’s underwater cultural heritage, and believes the Federation has an important role to play in informing the diving community of the rules surrounding designation, access and use of sites. For example, in July 2018, it was announced that the site of the 1837 wreck of the South Australian at Victor Harbour has been established and now has a 30m exclusion zone around it for protection.

Highlights of the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 for divers

1. The Act expands coverage from shipwrecks to submerged aircraft and other types of underwater cultural heritage along with their fragile natural environments.
2. The Act also guides actions by Australian divers in waters outside Australian jurisdiction, helping protect sunken Australian vessels and aircraft overseas.
3. The Act will now provide protection for associated human remains.
4. The Act improves the government’s ability to declare an area containing underwater cultural heritage to be a protected zone by allowing the size of the zone to be tailored to suit each individual siteand the prohibited conduct in each zone to be specific to the site’s need for protection or for environmental conditions.
5. The Act provides for a simple online process to apply for permits to access protected zones.
6. It will also be easier to transfer artifacts – once applicants have received a permit under the new Act. The new transferable permits system will reduce the burden on individuals in possession, custody and control of protected underwater cultural heritage artefacts and enable better regulation of their movement.
7. All six States and the NT have agreed to align their legislation with the Act: this will give clarity to obligations wherever divers are located in Australia.
8. The Act has been aligned with the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage to facilitate Australia participating in global responses to illegal salvaging, looting and trafficking of marine artifacts.

In South Australia, one initiative to promote its underwater heritage has been the development of underwater trails. The SDFSA sees these as important as land-based trails to help guide explorers through the history and natural environment of South Australia. For example, “the Adelaide Underwater Heritage Trail includes four shipwrecks off the Gulf of St Vincent – the Grecian, Zanoni, Star of Greece and Norma. The wrecks represent a variety of vessels associated with trade and development in South Australia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” [www.southaustraliantrails.com/activities/scuba-diving/].

Other trails include the 60+ shipwrecks around Kangaroo Island, the Port Noarlunga Reef Diver Trail(with markers) and the Ewens Ponds Conservation Park. The Trails SA website is supported by Recreation SA with funding through the Office for Recreation and Sport and includes 14 sites designated as underwater trails at the present time.

We note that the Trails Committee of Recreation SA encourages “the planning, design, management and use of recreational trails in a wide range of environments.” However, while the Committee’s 2016 Guidelines for the Planning, Design, Construction and Maintenance of Recreational trails in South Australia [Read the PDF] recognise water trails users (such as kayakers and scuba divers), they make little reference to how those trails should be developed and maintained. This may be an area of future work for the SDFSA.