• The Department of Transport warned people off exploring US shipwrecks in a notice Monday. 
  • All US shipwrecks are under MARAD’s authority, it said, no matter where or when they sunk. 
  • Looting of old wrecks, as well as dangerous adventure tourism, has caused public alarm in recent weeks.

The Department of Transport has warned off would-be adventurers and salvage operators from exploring shipwrecks that fall under the authority of the United States.

The notice, issued Monday, acts as a reminder that the US has custody and control over any shipwreck that was owned or under the charter of US maritime administrator MARAD at the time of its sinking. 

This also applies to its cargo, the notice said. “No disturbance or recovery from these shipwrecks or their cargoes may legally take place without the express permission of MARAD,” it said.

This is true regardless of location, it stated — whether in US, foreign, or international waters — or how much time has passed since the sinking.

It’s unclear exactly what prompted the notice, issued in the most recent edition of the Federal Register. 

But public interest in deep-sea wrecks has intensified since the Titan disaster in June, which saw five wealthy adventurers die in the implosion of their submersible on a doomed visit to view the wreck of the RMS Titanic.

Despite the disaster, interest in extreme tourism including deep-sea visits is unlikely to wane among the super-rich, experts told Insider.

At the same time, several governments have in recent weeks expressed alarm at what appears to be large-scale looting of WWII shipwrecks, which are regarded as war graves.

US underwater war graves, the DOT notice said, fall under MARAD’s protection. 

An undated image of the rusted wreck of the USS Spiegel Grove, showing a metal staircase and rail, in Key Largo, Florida

The shipwreck USS Spiegel Grove in Key Largo, Florida, USA.

Andre Seale/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images



The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the US has 20,000 shipwrecks in its waters, a figure that does not include vessels sunk internationally.

According to the DOT notice, shipwrecks are “highly vulnerable to illegal salvage.”

In May, authorities were alerted to a Chinese-flagged dredger attempting to pull up steel from a UK battleship and battle cruiser that had been sunk off the Malaysian coast a few days after Pearl Harbor, the US Naval Institute reported

The dredger was found to have recovered highly valuable steel and cannon shells, CNN reported.

Steel from that era is particularly valuable because it was made before the use of nuclear weapons and thus has low levels of background radiation, and is highly prized in manufacturing scientific equipment, per the naval institute.

Looting of wrecks is not uncommon.

A 2017 investigation by The Guardian found that dozens of WWII warships around the South China and Java Seas were being looted for valuable steel, despite being the final resting place of an estimated 4,500 sailors.