The United Nations Scientific Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is currently holding a regional ministerial workshop on underwater archaeology in an effort to get the thirteen Eastern Africa nations to ratify the 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.
The convention is intended to help nation states protect and utilise their submerged heritage better, ensure better states cooperation and establish rules for the utilisation of these heritage.
It is only one country, Madagascar, in this region that has ratified the convention.
The keynote speaker, Mr. Sebastian Tusa, the councillor of Cultural Heritage for the government of Sicily and a renowned scholar in underwater archaeology, unfortunately, was on the ill-fated Ethiopian Airlines flight. May his soul and the souls of all who parted rest in peace. He was also an international champion for the 2001 convention, having worked on shipwrecks in a number of places in the world, including the Kenyan coast.
The choice of Kilifi as the host county for this discussion was not an accident as it thrives on tourism anchored on activities on the Indian Ocean waters. The county, however, has embarked on a diversification programme that will include underwater archaeology, which, if harnessed, can increase revenues, not just for the county, but also for the much-needed inflows for Kenya. Kilifi is also the location of the oldest shipwreck in the East African coast - Mgomeni Ship wreck.
Under water archaeology can contribute to blue economy as it is the best record of human interaction with the sea, part of regeneration of biodiversity and represents human connection and navigation for centuries. These record in which nations have a shared and interconnected culture is one of the best ways to sustainably use ocean resources to create jobs that improve livelihoods. The convention intends to ensure that this happens while ensuring a healthy ocean ecosystem.
The ocean has been demonised as a hostile entity due to the history of interaction with human beings over the centuries. Long before air travel was invented, it was the only option for humans to discover explore, which means in human memory the ocean is associated with slavery and slave trade, numerous ship wrecks and disease of deficiency that sailors developed.
After humans are done with overexploiting land and causing untold destruction, the next frontier of exploitation will be oceans. Under water heritage presents over three million years of shipwrecks, prehistoric submerged landscapes and hundreds of sunken cities and sites, which present untold opportunities to find treasures, develop new museums and gain millions of shillings in tourism inflows.
Namibia for example found a treasure Portuguese ship that wrecked at Oranjemund, along the Atlantic Coast more than five hundred years ago, when her journey to India was violently ended by the sea. In the ship was thousands of gold coins minted in the fifteenth century, tonnes of copper, bronze cannons and ivory tusks among other treasures. It was unique in that it had not been looted by treasure hunters. The government of Namibia hopes to open an underwater museum at this site.
Along Kenya’s Indian Ocean, a ship wreck found at Mngomeni was also identified to be Portuguese. It represents ancient ship technology and seafaring, but unfortunately did not have the kind of treasures that have been found in other shipwrecks. The area too is ideal for an underwater museum.
In the western world, blue economy generates millions of shillings in revenue based on under water heritage. In Sweden, the Vasa Museum, a 1638 ship wrecked in Stockholm, is the most visited Museum in Scandinavia and is reputed to be the best preserved shipwreck in the world.
Another famous museum based on underwater heritage is the Mary Rose, a sixteenth century Tudor navy ship. It is the largest English navy ship in history that presented one of the most complex and expensive projects in the history of maritime archaeology and thousands of artefacts of naval warfare.
But the blue economy is not only active in the technical world of underwater archaeology and maritime heritage. It generates millions of shillings as well in popular culture. It is difficult for movie goers to associate the famous academy award winning animation, Finding Nemo with the blue economy.
But, the American computer animated feature film is one of the best popular representation of the rich underwater world of archaeology. Though the diver who captures Nemo is not an archaeologist, Nemo’s epic maritime journey to the world-famous Sydney Opera House and back home, is one of the best presentations on business potential in this area.