Mentawai Islands, Indonesia. Mamat Evendi straps on his primitive breathing device — a garden hose attached to a compressor on the back of his wooden fishing boat. Pulling down his goggles, he splashes flippers-first into the crystal blue water.
A few minutes later he’s flashing a ‘thumbs up,’ pointing first to a massive, coral-encrusted anchor, then a bronze cannon and finally, peeking up from the sand, the buried deck of a 17th century European ship. Nearby are pieces of blue-and-white ceramics. A tiny perfume bottle. A sword handle. Broken wine flasks, one still sealed with a wooden cork.
The wreck is just 6 meters underwater, one of four pushed into view after a tsunami slammed into the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia just over a year ago. They are among possibly 10,000 vessels littering the ocean floor of what for more than a millennium has been a crossroads for world trade.
For historians, the wrecks are time capsules, a chance to peer directly into a single day, from the habits of the crew and the early arrival of religion to contemporary tastes in ceramics.
But for Evendi and other fishermen involved in the new discoveries, it’s not the past they see. It’s the future. A chance, maybe, to strike it rich.
“They keep telling me, ‘Let’s just break them open, get the stuff out,’” said Hardimansyah, a local maritime official who has taken it upon himself to protect the wrecks as the government wrangles over a new policy on underwater heritage.
“To be honest, I’m getting frustrated, too,” he says, noting he’s already given the best artifacts pulled from the coral and sand to military and political officials who stop by his office from time to time to see what’s been found.
“Gifts,” he calls them, or “offerings.”
“It’s hard to say no if they ask.”
Indonesia — a sprawling archipelago nation straddling the equator — remains desperately poor despite its vast oil, coal and gold reserves. Its graveyard of ships from Asia, Europe and the Middle East — one of the biggest in the world with nearly 500 wrecks identified so far — has long been coveted as yet another resource to exploit.
The most valuable, packed with everything from 9th century ceramics and imperial-quality gold boxes to exquisite jewels, funeral urns and inkwells, can bring in tens of millions of dollars.
That has created a small, lively industry for fishermen, who are often the discoverers of the wrecks. Those that aren’t immediately looted have been sold to commercial salvage companies, which pull up the cargo as quickly as possible and then sell it off piece by piece at international auctions.
The government, which gets 50 percent of all proceeds and half the cargo, decided to wrest greater control over the riches of the sea after being left empty-handed following one of the most significant hauls, a 9th century Arab sailing vessel whose presence pointed to previously unknown trading links between China and the Middle East.
“It’s frustrating,” said Horst Liebner, an expert on Indonesia’s maritime history, who has helped catalog artifacts and shipbuilding techniques for both the government and salvage crews. “Because in the end, this isn’t about the odd treasure chest guarded by an octopus. It’s about the knowledge we can gain from proper excavation.”
With tens of thousands of artifacts already handed over, Indonesian museums should by now be richly stocked. Instead, shelves are all but bare. The most exquisite pieces have “disappeared.” And those of little or no monetary value are in musty warehouses, closed to the public.
Pictures remain on disk drives and painstaking research goes unpublished.
“In the end, all the artifacts, everything you put into data-basing,” said Liebner, “it’s just for nothing in this country, it seems. No one cares.”
For-profit excavations in the sea are legal in several countries, including Indonesia, that have yet to sign a 2001 UN convention on protecting underwater cultural heritage. But they rarely spark the outrage they would if carried out on land.
That’s in part because maritime archaeology is a relatively new discipline, developed only after World War II, and neither lawmakers nor the public have kept pace with the technological advances that have turned it from a romantic hobby into a thriving business.
Historians, however, abhor the practice.
“They are recovering only things that are monetarily valuable, and that might represent just 1 or 2 percent of the entire artifact assemblage,” said Paul F. Johnston of the National Museum of American History in Washington.
“Sometimes they blast through, dynamite, or pull apart artifacts that are historically or archaeologically far more important.”
International auction houses have also played a part by creating markets for the artifacts, he and others say, as have governments and museums that buy them and put them on display.
Slowly, however, attitudes are changing.
After a chorus of criticism, the Smithsonian Institution announced in December it was canceling a planned exhibition of cargo from the Arab vessel, which was found in 1998.
The German company involved in the excavations pulled up more than 60,000 pieces of China’s Tang Dynasty ceramics in just a few months, and then sold it to Singapore for $40 million.
Indonesia got $2.8 million — a mere fraction of what it was owed under its own law — and thousands of artifacts.
Privately, officials were furious.
But no one protested, presumably because the deal was linked to under-the-table “gifts” to high-ranking officials, as was common during and immediately after the collapse of Gen. Suharto’s dictatorship.
“I don’t think anyone will ever know exactly what happened,” said Helmi Suriya, director of the Underwater Heritage from the Education and Culture Ministry, with a laugh.
“Even when I asked, I didn’t get an answer,” he said. “But that was a different era. We didn’t even have an anti-corruption commission then.”
Indonesia has embraced democracy since Suharto’s ouster, and in 2010 it passed a law protecting underwater cultural heritage. But guidelines for implementation have been stalled by infighting.
Some officials, including Suriya, argue artifacts should stay inside the country, either beneath the water, as favored by UNESCO, or auctioned off locally.
“We should only allow underwater excavation for research and knowledge purposes, not for commercial,” he said.
Others say, in a graft-ridden country of some 18,000 islands and more than 50,000 kilometers (30,000 miles) of coastline, that’s unrealistic.
Wrecks left where they are will be immediately looted. And no one, least of all the government, will assume the cost or risk excavations without the promise of a big payoff, they say.
So for now, all excavations are on hold.
Fred Dobberphul, a German diver, who has been involved numerous salvage projects in the last two decades, says that’s causing its own problems.
“Those of us who are legal, who have a legal company, we are not allowed to work,” he said.
“But everyone else is going out and looting — the fishermen too,” he said. “They bring it up to the antique shops and go to the collectors and it’s gone. All the information is gone.”
So far 463 wrecks have been discovered off Indonesia, according to the National Committee of Underwater Heritage, made up of representatives from 15 ministries and government bodies, but up to 10,000 more are believed to be on the ocean floor, according to documents from China and other countries about ships that headed here never to return.
Almost all have been found in the waters between Indonesia and the Asian mainland. Only around a dozen have ever been found in the Mentawais, a string of tiny islands on the western side of the country, where the open seas were riskier.
But that doesn’t mean those westerly isles don’t have a story to tell, said Liebner, the maritime expert.
They doomed ships may have been visiting ports or naval bases along Sumatra island’s western coast, he said, or dodging hefty taxes or pirate-infested waters.
But there’s little chance of finding out, he said, noting that looters will probably get there first.
Hardimansyah, who has just spent four days with his crew at the site of the 17th century ‘luxury’ ship, is starting to believe that too.
His teams of fishermen jump back into the water to cover the deck with sand and coral and then prepare for their 16-hour overnight voyage home.
As they pull the hoses back onto the deck and wrap them into a tight coils, the sun dips beneath the horizon, streaking the ash sky with heavy strokes of orange.
The captain cranks up the engine and, as it settles into a low murmur, a group of dolphins arrive, swimming alongside the blue-and-red boat.
The romance, however, has worn off for Evendi and the other men.
“I’m really getting tired of waiting,” says the 40-year-old father of three as one diver pulls out a guitar and another prepares a meal of fresh lobster.
Normally, he spends his days scouring the reefs for Nemos and other marine life for saltwater aquarium.
But now, he says with a smile, he has the treasure hunting bug as well.
“I don’t want to be a fisherman for the rest of my life.”