Shipwrecks

Many thousands of shipwrecks lie off our coast. Shipwrecks have been likened to archaeological time capsules, capable of revealing information about life, technology, trade and warfare at the specific moment they were lost. This ability to inform us about many aspects of our history makes them of interest to archaeologists and part of our shared heritage. A number of our historic shipwrecks are also important tourist assets attracting recreational divers and bringing additional benefits to local economies.

Database of shipwreck incidents

A database of shipwreck incidents based on historical sources, UK Hydrographic Office data, Sports Diver information and marine geophysical surveys has been developed to support marine spatial planning; enhancement of these records is ongoing. This database is of benefit to a wide range of stakeholders, and links in to Historic Environment Division’s work on regionally important but undesignated sites on land, where enhancement of the record is an important part of our wider offer to the public.

Designated wreck zones, historic wrecks and a density map of documented marine losses can be viewed on the Department for Communities’s (DfC) Historic Environment Map Viewer:

Information for divers

If you are visiting a shipwreck site, the Department asks that you take notice of established codes of conduct such as the Respect Our Wrecks (BSAC) code of practice.

If you find an underwater archaeological site that you think might be of importance the Department would ask that you:

  • record the position and details of the site
  • do not disturb the site
  • report your discovery to the Receiver of Wreck and the Marine and Fisheries Division

If you do intend to recover any objects of historic interest from the seabed using a vessel, vehicle, structure or floating container (including lifting bags), you should enquire with Marine and Fisheries Division’s Licensing team as to whether a Marine Licence is required.

Under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, all wreck material found in the sea or on the shore must be reported to the Receiver of Wreck based in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

For more information on this subject see the Guidance note prepared by the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee and others:

Marine Antiquities Scheme

The Marine Antiquities Scheme (MAS), an initiative created to improve knowledge of our underwater heritage through the recording of marine finds, was launched in Northern Ireland in February 2018. The scheme aims to enhance awareness of Northern Ireland’s marine heritage by helping record archaeological finds in the marine environment. Through its website and mobile app, MAS enables users to record archaeological material discovered anywhere from the Mean Low Water Level. 

To learn more about MAS, go to:

Protected wrecks

Northern Ireland's most famous wreck site is the Spanish Armada vessel, La Girona, which sank at Lacada Point on the north Antrim coast in 1588. Finds recovered from La Girona are displayed in the Ulster Museum.

The designation order on this site (under The Protection of Wrecks Act, 1973) requires that any diver wishing to visit it must apply for a license.

Application forms are available on request from:

Your application will be considered by our marine archaeologist who will recommend to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, whether or not a license should be granted.

In 2017 the First World War armoured cruiser HMS Drake was scheduled for protection under the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. This is the first time scheduling has been used in Northern Ireland to protect a historic shipwreck situated on the seabed.

This scheduling is in line with the UK Marine Policy Statement and also helps to deliver international obligations under the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (the ‘Valetta Convention’); it accords with the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which deems WW1 Military remains to be of cultural, historical or archaeological interest; and, importantly the Drake scheduling has the support of key local stakeholders.

Once a monument has been scheduled, it is an offence to execute, cause or permit to be executed any works which affect a scheduled monument without scheduled monument consent. Public access, i.e., diving on the site is permitted on a ‘look but do not touch’ basis. Anyone who does visit the wreck is encouraged to provide a brief report about their visit to the Historic Environment Division to assist in monitoring the wreck. The wreck will be managed through the joint-working of Historic Environment Division (DfC) and Marine and Fisheries Division (DAERA).

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