Hi-tech spy tech harnessed to protect Royal Navy's 4,800 shipwrecks

Satellite imagery, radar and other technology is being used to protect the Royal Navy's most hallowed sites.

Naval historians have joined forces with intelligence agencies to use the latest technology to safeguard shipwrecks.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy - guardians of the Senior Service's centuries-long history - and the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust, who have charted every RN vessel ever lost around the globe, have linked up with the National Maritime Information Centre, which pools information and intelligence on activities in UK waters to deter and detect anyone threatening to disturb RN war graves.

They will use satellites, radar, sensors and the AIS identification system - every ship over 300 tonnes must broadcast details of its whereabouts, cargo and destination - plus other sources of information to track or monitor suspicious activity near wreck sites.

We need to be more proactive in protecting our wrecks

Professor Dominic Tweddle

Nearly 4,800 British warships have been lost over the past 500 years from the waters of Albania to Yemen at a cost of thousands of lives.

The wholesale plunder of the wrecks of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse in the South China Sea led to their remains - and other sunken RN vessels - being protected by UK law.

Enforcing such protection - especially in the many far-flung parts of the world where some of the 4,793 British warships lost went down - has proved to be tricky.

But unscrupulous divers and salvage firms have also targeted war graves closer to home.

The sacred sites of Jutland have not been left alone. Two thirds of the wrecks from the titanic clash between the British and German Fleets in May 1916 show signs of being attacked by salvagers and trophy hunters.

Propellers and boiler condensers are particularly valued as the metal can be melted down.

Most recently two divers were fined for removing items from the wreck of seaplane carrier HMS Hermes, sunk off Calais by a German submarine in the first months of the Great War.

"The Prince of Wales and Repulse are under attack, HMS Exeter in the Java Sea has already gone. Our heritage is being lost and people's graves are being disturbed," said Prof Dominic Tweddle, Director General

"We need to be more proactive in protecting our wrecks - all too often we've been on the back foot, prosecuting people. Let's stop the problem before the looting. That's why we've asked the National Maritime Information Centre to watch wreck sites and report what's happening around them."

As well as desecrating British and Commonwealth sailors' graves the robbers are also disturbing potentially-dangerous/environmentally harmful sites: there are unexploded shells and torpedoes, asbestos and other toxic substances such as fuel (there are believed to be 2½ tons left on the wrecks of the Prince of Wales and Repulse alone).

This fact, plus the increasing decay and disintegration of metal-hulled warships from the past 150 years, has also led to growing concerns over the state of the wrecks and the effects on the environment, prompting the National Museum and archaeological trust to use the latest technology and research to protecting the physical remains on the seabed.