Kenya lacks revenue from underwater tourists who want to delve into history and explore archaeological treasures. The looting of underwater cultural heritage in Kenya hinders the identification, promotion and conservation of cultural treasures.
Countries like Italy and Greece have opened the ocean to travelers who want to see underwater archaeological treasures. The National Museum of Kenya (NMK) has found more than 30 shipwrecks in the Indian Ocean, some dating back 500 years, but excavation costs are too high.
Athman Hussein, deputy director for antiquities, sites and monuments for the coastal region, also points to the lack of experts, including archaeologists, cultural and scientific researchers and institutions dealing with underwater cultural heritage.
Underwater heritage sites include shipwrecks, plane wrecks and sunken cities. These include the 17th-century Portuguese Santo Antonio de Tanna and her supply ship, which was wrecked off Mombasa’s Fort Jesus in 1697.
The Chinese merchant ship Zheng He was also wrecked in 1418 in the area of Pezali near Manda Bay (Manda Toto) off Lamu, while other Portuguese wrecks EL REL ran aground off Mombasa on March 8, 1500 and Nossa Senhora Da Graca, the ran aground off Malindi.
In 2015, the museum also identified Ras Ngomeni in Kilifi County as the home of the historic site where a Portuguese ship sank in 1516.
There are also sunken cities like the city of Ungwana at the mouth of the Tana River. “NMK alone cannot undertake the costly task of identifying, preserving and protecting underwater cultural heritage. We have few staff and experts to carry out such activities.
We are even afraid to do research and identify these underwater cultural heritages. We are aware that foreign treasure hunters, looters and commercial exploiters could invade these sites with their advanced technologies and rob us of this important underwater history,” says Mr. Hussein.
NMK has partnered with the Kenya Navy, the Kenya Coast Guard Services, the Marine Police and the Kenya Maritime Administration to assist in the identification and protection of underwater cultural heritage.
“We have trained some of the officers to help us identify areas that are potential underwater heritage sites. Officials have also been helpful in ensuring these sites are preserved and protected,” adds Mr. Hussein.