Department for Transport


Around the coast of the UK there are over 100 wreck sites that are designated as protected wrecks of one level or another. There are three main pieces of legislation under which wreck sites have been protected.

The Protection of Wrecks Act 1973
The Protection of Wrecks Act is in two sections.

Section 1

This section provides protection for designated wrecks which are deemed to be important by virtue of their historical, archaeological or artistic value. Approximately 56 wrecks around the coast of the UK have been designated under this section of the Act. Each wreck has an exclusion zone around it and it is an offence to tamper with, damage or remove any objects or part of the vessel or to carry out any diving or salvage operation within this exclusion zone. Any activities within this exclusion zone can only be carried out under a licence granted by the Secretary of State, who receives advice from the Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sites (ACHWS). There are four levels of licence: a visitor licence, a survey licence, a surface recovery licence and an excavation licence.

Administration of this Act and associated licenses is the responsibility of English Heritage in England, Historic Scotland in Scotland, Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments in Wales and the Environment and Heritage Service in Northern Ireland. Any of these organisations will be able to provide more in depth information (see useful addresses).

Section 2

This section of the Protection of Wrecks Act provides protection for wrecks that are designated as dangerous by virtue of their contents. Diving on these wrecks is strictly prohibited. Section 2 of the Act is administered by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency through the Receiver of Wreck.

The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986
This Act makes it an offence to interfere with the wreckage of any crashed, sunken or stranded military aircraft or designated vessel without a licence. This is irrespective of loss of life or whether the loss occurred during peacetime or wartime. All crashed military aircraft receive automatic protection, but vessels must be individually designated. Currently, there are 21 vessels protected under this Act, both in UK waters and abroad, and it is likely that the Ministry of Defence will designate more vessels in the future.

There are two levels of protection offered by this Act, designation as a Protected Place or as a Controlled Site.

Protected Places include the remains of any aircraft which crashed while in military service or any vessel designated (by name, not location) which sank or stranded in military service after 4th August 1914. Although crashed military aircraft receive automatic status as a Protected Place, vessels need to be specifically designated by name. The location of the vessel does not need to be known for it to be designated as a Protected Place.

Diving is not prohibited on an aircraft or vessel designated as a Protected Place. However, it is an offence to conduct unlicensed diving or salvage operations to tamper with, damage, remove or unearth any remains or enter any hatch or other opening. Essentially, diving is permitted on a ‘look but don’t touch’ basis only.

Controlled Sites are specifically designated areas which encompass the remains of a military aircraft or a vessel sunk or stranded in military service within the last two hundred years. Within the controlled site it is an offence to tamper with, damage, move or unearth any remains, enter any hatch or opening or conduct diving, salvage or excavation operations for the purposes of investigating or recording the remains, unless authorised by licence. The effectively makes diving operations prohibited on these sites without a specific licence.

For further information on this Act and its administration, contact the Ministry of Defence (see useful addresses section).

Ancient Monuments & Archaeological Areas Act 1979
This Act is primarily land based, but in recent years it has also been used to provide some level of protection for underwater sites.

The Act provides for the scheduling of ‘monuments’, which encompasses buildings, structures or work, cave or excavation, vehicle, vessel, aircraft or other movable structure. In order to be eligible for scheduling, a ‘monument’ must be of national importance.

In relation to maritime scheduled monuments, once a wreck has been scheduled, public access to it, ie diving on the site, is not currently restricted. However, it is an offence to demolish, destroy, alter or repair it without scheduled monument consent. Effectively, diving on maritime scheduled monuments is permitted on a ‘look but don’t touch’ basis.

For this reason, only suitably robust sites are likely to be scheduled, such as the remains of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow.

Other Types of Protection
Although the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 and the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 are the three main pieces of legislation that have been used to restrict activities on some wreck sites, it is important to note that other wrecks may also have restrictions placed on them, for example by harbour authorities or by Directives issued by the Secretary of State’s Representative for Salvage and Intervention (SoSREP).

To ensure you are viewing the most up to date list of protected wrecks, please contact the appropriate authority (Ministry of Defence, English Heritage etc.).

Artefacts recovered from protected wreck sites under licence to the Secretary of State must still be reported to the Receiver of Wreck.