State defends dive restrictions on wreck

Gregg Bemis: Claims his work isobstructed.

The Government department responsible for safeguarding the wreck of the Lusitania has launched a robust defence of its management of the site over the last two decades.

The Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht said the conditions it has imposed on dive licences issued to the wreck’s American owner, Gregg Bemis, are not “overly onerous” and should not impede his exploration work. They are designed to protect one of the world’s best-known ship wrecks, a spokesman said.

“It is also the final resting place of over 1,000 individuals who lost their lives during the tragic event of May 1915 and therefore deserves due respect as the gravesite of those unfortunate passengers,” he added.

“The conditions attached to Mr Bemis’ current dive licence, which runs to the end of 2015, are largely the same as earlier licenses he has obtained from the department.

“The previous five-year licence issued to Mr Bemis in 2007 facilitated both the successful Discovery Channel documentary on the Lusitania in 2008 and the 2011 National Geographic expedition to the wreck site.

“It also covered the subsequent recovery of a number of key artefacts from the vessel. There is no evident reason, therefore, why the conditions as they stand should be regarded as overly onerous or as an impediment to any future dive project on the wreck of the Lusitania, assuming the intention was to adhere to the same general standards as the 2008 and 2011 projects.”

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The department was reacting to stinging criticism from Mr Bemis, who accused the State of obstructing his work for the last 20 years as he strives to establish beyond doubt the cause of the mysterious second explosion.

When he bought the wreck in 1967, it lay in international waters. However, a change in the International Law of the Sea in 1987 extended national control of local waters from three to 12 nautical miles.

Because the Lusitania lies about 11.5 nautical miles off Cork, the State acquired the right to control all activities in the waters surrounding the ship wreck.

In 1995, former arts minister Michael D Higgins then placed a Underwater Heritage Order on the wreck, which designated the wreck and its debris field a restricted area and prohibited fishing. Mr Bemis said this order triggered the “saga of impeded exploration” with onerous conditions being attached to his dive licences.

However, the department hit back and said the conditions are entirely consistent with a formal memorandum of understanding drawn up between Mr Bemis and the department in 2013.

The department said it appreciates that Mr Bemis needs to plan well in advance for any expedition and that “certain flexibilities” have been built in to the conditions to facilitate this.

However, the spokesman rejected Mr Bemis’s suggestion that the Government is doing nothing to protect the wreck from damage by fishing nets, and said a marine notice was issued in 2011 to highlight the presence of an exclusion zone around the Lusitania site, and another marine notice in 1995 drew attention to the existence of the underwater heritage order.

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