Divers look for signs of sailors' lives in sunk frigate

Divers look for signs of sailors' lives in sunk frigate

KUSHIMOTO, Wakayama - A private team of Japanese and Turkish researchers has conducted its first underwater survey in five years of the Ottoman Navy frigate that sank off the coast here in 1890.

The Ertugrul visited Japan in 1890 to express thanks for a decoration Emperor Meiji had sent to the Ottoman sultan. Shortly after the ship left Yokohama Port to return home, it encountered a storm and sank off Wakayama Prefecture on Sept. 16. More than 500 sailors were killed, while 69 were rescued by local residents.

On the morning of Feb. 10, I boarded a ship at Kashino fishing port on Kii-Oshima island in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture. About 10 minutes later, we arrived at an area called Funagora. The Ertugrul is said to have struck a reef there, about 100 meters off the coast.

The currents are strong near Shionomisaki cape, the southernmost cape of Honshu. Only around this time of year are the currents said to be calm enough to conduct an underwater survey. I put on a dry suit and headed to the ocean bed 13 meters below the surface.

Research team members, including Turkish marine archaeologist Tufan Turanli and Japanese divers, began measuring ballast that has become fixed to the seafloor. Reflecting the fact that it was a navy ship that sank, a cannonball could also be seen.

After the measurement, we moved to "the cave," an area of about 10 square meters that resembles a cave. Entering an about 80-centimeter-high space, we found a square metal plate about 13 centimeters on each side that already seemed to be part of the seafloor. There was also a metal piece that may have been part of the ship's keel.

I shone my flashlight and wiped sand away with a brush the research members gave me. When mud flew up, the team members sucked it away with a dredge.

In addition to bullets and nails, we found metal pieces we could not identify. That reminded me of Tufan's statement that "Researchers identify things in the laboratory, not at the place they're found." The research team identifies items after removing rust and painstakingly comparing them with the parts of a ship.

The water temperature was 16 C that day. I was freezing after about an hour of diving and could see how hard the work is.

7,500 items found

Tufan and the other team members began their research in 2004 and collected about 7,500 items from the sea from 2007 to 2010. With the help of his wife, who is also an archaeologist, the team is treating the items to preserve them at a laboratory established in a former school building in Kushimoto, as well as in Turkey.

They decided to resume their underwater research, as the end of the preservation work is in sight.

Over eight days of underwater searching from late January to mid-February, the team collected about 300 items, including coins used in Japan at the time of the sinking and a nail more than 30 centimeters long. The square metal plate we saw may have been a decoration on the lid of a box buried under the seafloor.

The aim of the research was to find remnants that provide a sense of the lives of the sailors on the Ertugrul, rather than to analyse the cause of the wreck. Discovered items included a cooking pot 75 centimeters in diameter and a glass perfume bottle. If there actually is a box under the lid on the seafloor, the researchers think it may contain letters and other documents.

Tufan plans to dive at the site again a year later, and said he wants to find something new about the sailors who lost their lives in a foreign sea.

The sinking of the Ertugrul is well-known in Turkey, and an exhibition on the research findings so far will be held at the Naval Museum in Istanbul in April. Although it stemmed from a tragic accident, the research began in the hope of deepening ties between Kushimoto and Turkey.

Underwater ruins

According to the Cultural Affairs Agency, there were 512 designated underwater ruins as of fiscal 2012, including a sunken ship and a port that sank into the water due to crustal movement. The figure is far lower than that of ruins on land, of which there are about 465,000.

The Ertugrul wreck has not been designated an underwater ruin, for reasons including the fact that it has not been subject to sufficient research by the agency.

However, in 2011, the remains of a vessel thought to have sunk during the attempted Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century were found near Takashima island in Nagasaki Prefecture. This prompted the agency to set up an exploratory committee in 2013.

We recently heard of the discovery of the Musashi, a battleship of the Imperial Japanese Navy, on a seabed in the Philippines.

I hope there is further progress in the Ertugrul research, and that this lends momentum to Japan's own examination of undersea ruins.

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