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Many mysteries of the past can be unlocked through the exploration of shipwrecks and their cargoes. These underwater museums have fascinated divers ever since the first boats set sail. From the earliest sponge divers to the latest high-tech submersibles, vivid underwater photographs show a unique glimpse into the past.

Ask anyone what a shipwreck is and they will probably say that it is the sinking or destruction of a [vessel. Or perhaps you will hear salty yarns of thrilling escapes and daring rescues, of castaways and sunken treasure and of unsolved maritime mysteries. It is a dangerous life to lead when you live with the sea. You never know when a rock may punch holes in a ships hull, ice may crush it, surf can break up a ship or fire can burn it to the water line. If any of these events occur and shipwreck comes the ocean quickly drowns those unlucky sailors who are unable to reach a lifeboat. When the British naval ship Lichfield was wrecked in 1758 only 60 sailors out of a crew of 350 could swim. Often nobody on board could swim. One crew, who’s vessel ran aground, tied a rescue rope to the ships pig and let it swim them to safety. No wonder that only half of all sailors died of old age. The sea and countless other maritime hazards consumed the rest.

The sailors who crossed the Mediterranean Sea more than 3,400 years ago set sail from at least seven great civilisations on it’s shores and islands. But whether these sailors spoke the language of Egypt, Cyprus, Greece or some other country the word shipwreck had the same meaning for all of them. Rocks and storms sent many of their creaking craft to the seabed. These Mediterranean wrecks are the oldest ever discovered. These ships have supplied us with information about ancient cultures and the ships that supplied them. When the Ulrburun wreck sank in about 1316 BC it was carrying enough copper and tin to make 11.18 tonnes of bronze. This find, together with glass, perfumed resin and golden valuables suggest that the ships cargo may have been a gift for a Bronze Age king or pharaoh.

One summer’s day in 1545, England’s King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) stood watching his navy in the Solent, a sheltered channel on the South coast of Britain. The fleet, which included the second largest ship in the navy –the Mary Rose –, was sailing to fight invading French ships. It should have been a simple, well-rehearsed routine but it was not. A breeze filled the sails before they were in place and the Mary Rose tilted. When the lowest row of gunports dipped below the water the ship was doomed. The sea rushed in, sinking the Mary Rose and drowning more than 650 sailors and soldiers. Within minutes only the ships mast tops were visible above the water.

Shipwrecks have always fascinated writers, painters and dramatists but the first shipwreck yarns were myths. These traditional stories often featured gods and heroes. Through myths ancient people tried to explain and understand natural forces that governed there lives. In later ages shipwreck stories enthralled people because they were a terrifying experience. Ships were the fastest way to travel and ocean voyages were more dangerous than today. It is not hard to see why shipwrecks still catch the imagination of modern storytellers. Survival on a raft or island brings out the best, and worst, in everybody and a rescue always provides a happy ending.

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