Malta’s underwater heritage is set to receive an extra level of attention and protection with the setting-up of a dedicated unit within Heritage Malta.

The new Underwater Cultural Heritage unit will be headed by maritime archaeology professor Timmy Gambin and will aim to protect and increase public appreciation of underwater remains.

“Any nation has an obligation to share its cultural heritage. Heritage Malta has taken a bold step by taking underwater cultural heritage under its wing,” Prof. Gambin told Times of Malta at a launch event on Wednesday.

“Through the activities of this unit, we will be sharing this heritage not only with those who can access it, such as divers, but also with the general public.”

This goal, Prof. Gambin said, would initially be achieved through outreach programmes for the public using videos, imagery and virtual reality technology.

Describing the new unit as the product of a long process of continuing collaboration between the University of Malta and heritage, culture and tourism authorities, Prof. Gambin stressed the challenge of protecting and managing underwater sites.

“You cannot just build a wall and hire a watchman,” he said. “We believe in the power of educating the public on the importance of this unseen cultural heritage. We will have monitoring programmes but I believe the main thrust will be education.”

Culture minister Owen Bonnici said the setting-up of the new unit was a “historic” moment for Heritage Malta. “Until now, it has been as though we were ignoring one half of Malta’s cultural heritage,” he said.

Malta's seas are dotted with hundreds of wreckages of planes - many dating back to World War II - and ships from across the centuries.

One 2,700-year old Phoenician wreck discovered off Gozo is believed to be the oldest in the central Mediterranean, and explorations - led by Prof. Gambin - have yielded important historical artefacts including North African amphorae and grinding stones from Pantelleria. 

The new unit will be supported by legislative changes aimed to regulate access to wrecks, where divers have regularly complained of a free-for-all situation, including registration for diving schools and restricting irresponsible practices at sensitive sites. 

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