NEWS

Diving is to be allowed everywhere, in principle

According to the law in force until recently, amateur and professional divers were allowed to dive without a license only in specific areas that had been previously inspected and approved by the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities. These areas covered 1,400 kilometers of coastline. Anywhere else, divers had to apply to the local port authority, who in turn referred the request to the ephorate for a license. «The same applied on land. Anywhere there was any indication of the presence of antiquities, we have to know what people are doing. It is not a general ban, which is the mistaken impression. Licenses are granted under certain conditions. There are bans on very few areas compared to the number of ancient treasures in existence,» said a Culture Ministry official. The new bill allows diving everywhere, in principle, apart from areas that the Culture Ministry and Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities have hastened to classify as «archaeological» and therefore off limits. Officials who contributed to drafting the new law pointed out that responsibility lies first of all with the ephorate, whose members have nevertheless shown a tendency to idleness until now – when they will have to show greater diligence and protect only those areas that are of major archaeological interest. The Culture Ministry has a map showing areas in the Aegean and Ionian seas where the existence of ancient wrecks is either known or suspected. However, for these areas to be defined and then exempted, the map will have to include details such as seabed morphology, coordinates and the descriptions of shipwrecks. This process, carried out in cooperation with the Greek Center for Marine Research, could be completed within a year as long as the necessary funds are made available, something that presupposes the existence of political will on the part of the Culture Ministry. For and against Meanwhile, the abolition of the Foreign Ministry’s Sea Exploration Licensing Committee, comprising eight organizations including the army’s hydrographic service, the Greek Center for Marine Research and the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, has also caused controversy. It was the committee’s job to grant permits to foreign groups wanting to explore Greece’s seabed. Set up in 1970, the committee’s constituent bodies did not expect it to be abolished. According to sources, private individuals will from now on be able to dive anywhere they like, even with the aid of underwater robots (ROV) and crane equipment, though the port authorities will not have the right to check what they are doing. So foreign exchange from tourism is being used as an excuse to allow ships equipped with state-of-the-art equipment to engage in unrestricted and unmonitored exploration of Greece’s territorial waters. Everyone seems to be in agreement, however, that the new bill creates a clear framework for Greek amateur and professional divers and that divers themselves have an interest in protecting underwater antiquities. There is the impression that if Greece shows off its sunken treasures, things will be more difficult for antiquities smugglers. This argument is only partly convincing since it seems to ignore the reality in this country. For the first time, the new law introduces European prototypes for the operation of private diving centers. «The implementation of minimum safety procedures is now compulsory and from now on, all centers are obliged to adapt to that,» said Merchant Marine Ministry sources. At the same time, accreditation of these businesses is made according to regulations set by the Development Ministry’s Greek Standardization Organization. For the first time, a register is to be established, and licenses are to be issued every five years. «So we will know who to look for if there is a problem,» said the ministry sources. Meanwhile, the ministry eventually wants to declare the country’s underwater archaeological sites underwater museums, monitored by marine archaeologists. Provisions in the existing law (2742/1999) included in the new bill mention «the classification of Regions for Organized Diving Parks for recreational diving, training and scientific research.» In order to set up one of these parks, applications must be made to the Environment and Public Works Ministry accompanied by an environmental effects study. According to the Merchant Marine Ministry, these parks will be sited in areas of natural beauty or which include features such as shipwrecks or underwater caves.