Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Sub to remain untouched

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The Sydney Morning Herald
By Bob Wurth
December 27, 2006

The Japanese midget submarine lying five kilometres off Long Reef is almost certain to be left in its underwater grave.

Although a final decision has not been made, compelling arguments against raising the M24 have emerged less than a month after its discovery.

These include the danger of explosives that might still be on board, the potential cost, and the possibility of the wreck disintegrating. As well, it is internationally accepted that battle wrecks should remain untouched on the ocean floor.

Australian authorities say there is also unlikely to be an attempt to recover any remains of the two-man Japanese crew, Sub-Lieutenant Katsuhisa Ban and his navigator, Petty Officer Mamoru Ashibe.

Comments by Itsuo Ashibe, who initially held out hopes that his brother's remains would be recovered, are making the decision to leave the submarine where it is much easier.

Mr Ashibe admitted this week that his wish for a recovery was an impossible dream. His aim now is to sprinkle sake over the sea off Long Reef - possibly on May 31, the 65th anniversary of the submarine attack on Sydney Harbour.

Japan has not called for the M24 to be raised or any remains to be recovered and is interested primarily in securing the wreck site, which is now covered by a Commonwealth protection order under which illegal divers face fines of up to $10,000 or five years' jail.

The project manager for the wreck, Tim Smith, a maritime archaeologist with the NSW Heritage Office, says the final decision will be shared by Japanese and Australian authorities. "Based on international experience, the raising of wrecks is a very complicated and difficult proposition and would cost tens of millions of dollars," he said.

A decision to raise the submarine would be considered only on the basis of a special research angle or a threat to the site. "But no such angle or threat exists at the moment."

Mr Smith said the M24 now lay where it finished its battle, which was an important archaeological consideration. "Leaving a wreck in situ is the first rule of the UNESCO convention [on the protection of underwater heritage]," he said.

Water police are patrolling the 500 square metre protected area and it is hoped that, by the end of January, it will be further secured though the use of remote surveillance devices.

Preparations are under way for a scientific survey of the wreck in a few weeks. An initial survey, based on footage from a navy submersible, said the sub was in generally good condition, bar a large tear behind the conning tower. Its batteries could be seen through the tear and a large section of the front of the conning tower had been ripped away.

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