Sunday, January 01, 2006

Thailand dive shop owners deny they want to rob US war grave


10 July 2005

KOH TAO, Thailand -- Thailand dive shop owners who promote and sell wreck diving tours and technical diving courses deny they intend to exploit the USS Lagarto for tourist diving profits or steal artifacts to sell on the internet.

Instead they claim they just want to "study" the wreck.

But the WWII submarine which sank off Thailand in May 1945 just three months before the end of the war is a US war grave, the final resting place of 86 crew who went down with the ship, and US officials have unequivocally denied permission to local dive shop owners to dive the wreck.

Given the callous disrepect by Thailand's dive industry for the dead and their bereaved relatives immediately after the boxer day tsunami, US officials may have to anchor a US Navy ship over the wreck to protect the war grave from Thailand's dive shop owners.

The USS Lagarto was found in the Gulf of Thailand off the east coast of Songkhla province by Koh Tao dive shop owner Jamie MacLeod originally from the UK where theft of underwater artifacts and destruction of historical shipwreck sites is rampant among technical divers such as Leigh Bishop who compete for dive industry notoriety, bragging rights and eBay sales.

Over the past decade, protecting underwater war graves and historical shipwreck sites from scuba diving thieves has become increasingly difficult throughout the world as advances in technical diving put deeper shipwrecks within reach of more and more divers.

Recently, federal agents busted ringleaders of a scuba diving group called the Boston Sea Rovers for robbing underwater grave sites and stealing shipwreck artifacts from a protected historical shipwreck site off the northeast coast of the United States.Despite being warned by the U.S. Coast Guard not to disrupt or remove anything from the wreck of the Lightship Nantucket, the divers repeatedly pillaged artifacts from the shipwreck over a period of six years including the ship's huge 1,200 pound bronze bell, considered the ultimate prize by scuba diving thieves.

While Thai dive industry kingpin MacLeod, 43, claims he and other dive shop owners in the area who promote and sell wreck diving tours just want to "study" the wreck, and do not want to disrespect a war grave, many are skeptical given the failure of Thailand's diving industry to protect local reefs and their callous business-as-usual response to the horror of tsunami damage and deaths.

Just days after the tsunami slammed into southern Thailand's resort areas off the west coast killing thousands of locals and tourists, Phuket dive industry maestros Jeroen Deknatel and Alistair Beveridge launched a "ignore the dead and go diving" tourism campaign even as bereaved local Thais and foreigners desperately searched for missing family members amidst the wreckage and debris of Phuket's ruined resorts.

Some tourism experts cite that strident, ill-advised and widely criticized business-as-usual campaign as one of the primary reasons tourists have not returned to Thailand, but are going back to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and other tsunami-hit areas where media coverage in the aftermath of the tragedy was exactly the same, but where tourist resort owners and dive operators responded with significantly more understanding, intelligence, common sense and sensitivity to the reality and horror of the death and destruction.



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