SHIPWRECK DIVING  Shipwreck Excavation
The complete Diver's guide to the skills, and techniques of excavating shipwrecks.




   Capt. Dan Berg's Wreck Valley Collection   


By Capt. Dan Berg

Many artifacts lie buried under sand or mud. These can be found through excavation. Here are a few affordable methods that sport divers can use to work a site.

The first is my favorite method because it's cheap, easy to make, can be carried on every dive and without too much effort produces fine results. It's a hand digger or hand fan. Divers can use any number of designs from a ping pong paddle that was first used by treasure hunter, Teddy Tucker, in the 1950's to my own design. My digger is made from a curved piece of 1/8 plate steel, stainless if it's available. Then a piece of 1 inch pipe has a hack saw slot cut through one side. The steel, which can be curved by bending it around a 4 inch diameter pipe, is pressed into the slot. A spot weld assures security between the two components but is not necessary. The finished item can be clipped onto a BC weight belt or carried in a mesh bag. It's held in the palm and can be used to dig or gently fan silt or sand. By always digging in the same direction the current will usually carry any sediment away, leaving decent visibility in the hole. The curvature of the digger's blade allows more material to be moved with less effort and reduces drag on the back swing.


An Air Lift is one of the nicest excavation tools. It can be made with pvc, stainless or aluminum pipe and hooked to a suitable compressor will move large volumes of sand with minimal loss of visibility, that is, of course, if it's set up and used correctly. The components of an air lift are simple: a high volume air compressor, a length of pipe, a nuzzle and a hose. The unit is built so that a hose connected to the compressor is connected to the bottom of a twenty foot long 6 inch diameter pipe. Other pipe diameters and lengths can also be used, but the example used would require 75 psi and 100 cfm of air to work efficiently at 65 feet. A valve is usually located at the bottom of the pipe and allows the operator to control the volume or air being pushed into the pipe. The air lift works because air is forced through a hose to the lower end of the pipe. This air then rushes up the pipe towards the surface, causing a vacuum effect which causes sand, mud or small rocks to be sucked up the pipe. If the lift is set up correctly, the debris will fall down current and heavy objects will not fall on top of the diver working the lift. To better avoid the dumping of lifted materials back onto the divers, a long horizontal pipe can be floated at the surface. Depending on its length, a water jet may have to be used to facilitate the movement of material.
Above Photo: Teddy Tucker uses a air lift to salvage the San Pedro shipwreck


Photos: Treasure Hunter Carl Fismer uses a air lift in the Bahamas

Water dredge image courtesy

A water dredge can be useful if an airlift is not available. It's made from a high volume water pump, a length of tubing, and hose. The design is similar to an airlift except water is forced into the bottom and directed back up the pipe, thus causing the suction needed to vacuum the bottom. The water dredge may not be quite as effective as an air lift, but, in shallow water up to 35 feet, it works quite well and is easily controllable. Treasure hunter, Carl Fismer, recommends facing into the current when working a water dredge, this way the current carries suspended particles away and allows good visibility for the diver.



Photos: Pump used to power Capt. Dan Bergs water dredge. Fred Belise with engine room bell recovered from the Lizzie D with a water dredge.

Using the same pump as a water dredge and just changing the underwater attachment to blow rather then vacuum. This type of unit works well when its balanced properly. This means that the force of the water jet will not turn into a propulsion vehicle and push the diver. The benefit of using a water jet is for clay and other hard bottoms that are just not easy to suck up with a dredge. The down side is visibility is often reduced greatly and therefore its much harder to find small items. We will often did through the hard clay with a jet and then switch to a dredge for the majority of artifact recovery. Enrique Alverez from made both my jet and water dredge. He makes a great product for anyone who is serious about underwater excavation.

Using an underwater propulsion vehicle as a excavation tool is not exactly a scientific or manufacturer approved method, but since these devices have become affordable, they have not only helped divers to get to where they want to go but also fan away the sand in order to search for artifacts. By turning a propulsion device away from you while holding its front end against your chest and the propeller pointed down, a diver or team of divers can dig a large hole very rapidly. I prefer to use a model with an adjustable pitch propeller. This way I can run on a low speed. Otherwise, as learned from experience, instead of digging a hole, the diver is simply propelled backwards. Two divers working as a team is the best way to use this method. As a word of caution, this equipment was never designed for this function. Mud, sand and dirt could get caught in the trigger mechanism, causing the unit to stay on. Install a pin that can be used to pull the trigger out in case of binding. If the unit does jam in the on position, you can aim it downward so that it runs itself into the bottom, allowing time to pull the trigger to the off position. Another good idea is to secure the propulsion unit to the wreck, so it can't swim away if the trigger does get stuck. If the unit is secured correctly, it will also reduce the effort of holding it in place and, therefore, reduce your air consumption.


The Mail Box or Prop Wash method of excavation is best left to professional salvage divers. Home built units used on small boats will work in shallow water of ten to 20feet or so, but the time and effort of construction matched with immobility usually make other methods more appealing to the average wreck diver. If, however, you are doing a large excavation on a shallow site, a prop wash can be built by constructing a large tube with a 90 degree elbow. This tube has to be firmly mounted to the dive boat to capture her prop wash and divert the force downward. The boat is usually anchored or moored at four points to assure location integrity. The two stern anchors take the most strain. When the engine is put into forward, the bottom is dusted away. According to treasure hunter, Carl Fismer, a safety cage can be mounted to the Prop Wash to allow divers to work while the unit is being used. Divers should stay clear of the boat when a Mail Box is in operation. According to THE UNDERWATER DIG by Robert Marx, a simple but ingenious signal system was achieved by using a weighted line attached to a horn on the boat. Divers could then quickly signal the surface to turn off or start up the Mail Box.

Photo: Treasure Hunter Carl Fismers air lift for shipwreck salvage.


The Shipwreck Diving E-Book  Instant Downloadable E-Book 

Shipwreck Diving, by Capt. Dan Berg is a complete how to book about the sport of wreck diving. This book is packed with information and heavily illustrated with over 80 sensational color photographs.



Shipwreck Diving ebook
The complete diver's guide to mastering the skills of shipwreck diving.

Buy Now   only $9.95
6 MB instant download, printable  PDF file

Shipwreck Diving is a complete how to ebook about the sport of wreck diving. This downloadable PDF e-book is packed with information and heavily illustrated with over 80 sensational color photographs. Daniel Berg, a noted wreck diver, instructor and author of ten shipwrecks related books, describes all the basics of wreck diving. Topics include everything from equipment modifications, communication, and wreck penetration to artifact preservation. Dan also tells how to navigate on a wreck and be able to return to the anchor line after the dive. Why some divers find more artifacts and explains how to catch lobsters. Shipwreck Diving also covers such diverse topics as shipwreck research, photography, spear fishing and how to use an underwater metal detector. This exciting book tells all the tricks of the trade that until now have only been learned through years of experience. Shipwreck divers of all caliber will find Shipwreck Diving informative, rewarding and entertaining

Check out Capt. Dan's other shipwreck and Diving eBooks



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Copyright Capt. Dan Berg / Aqua Explorers Inc

2745 Cheshire Dr
Baldwin NY 11510


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