Diver Exploits: Sarah Takes the Helm of Underwater Artifact Exploration | Water Welders | Guide to underwater welding salary and careers

Diver Exploits: Sarah Takes the Helm of Underwater Artifact Exploration


The Valiant Wreck, Palm Beach, Sydney, Credit: Michaela Skovrnova, Mishku

Give a basic overview of your educational background and what drew you into the maritime field.

I have to start by saying, I’m not your usual archaeologist. I have a Bachelor of Commerce and an MBA (Master of Business Administration) as well as a Master of Arts in Maritime Archaeology (with distinction), a Diploma of Foreshore and Underwater Archaeology and UK HSE/Australian ADAS commercial dive qualifications.

What got me started? Well, as a little girl, I was obsessed with the ocean. I idolized Jacque Cousteau and imagined my life underwater as I thought his life was. I learned to scuba dive on the Tangalooma wrecks when I was twelve and – having grown up on boats – I was always on, in and around the water. I was drawn to it and still am.

Who or what influenced your decision to go into maritime archaeology?

There was a bit of a tragedy in my family and I realized that I couldn’t go on doing something that I didn’t really enjoy. Life was too short. My path was diverted back to doing what I love and for that I’m really grateful.



Sarah monitoring in-water divers at TWI, The Welding Institute; Middlesborough UK. Credit: Colin McKewan, Nautical Archaeology Society

Please highlight two maritime projects you’ve worked on in your field, including associated challenges and what you learned.

Scottish Settlement

Early in my career, I was lucky enough to work on a 17th century Scottish settlement on the Isthmus of Panama.

Scotland had established a trading company in an attempt to rival that of the English and Dutch East India companies. Unfortunately, within two years of arriving in Panama, the Darien Venture soon failed. Two thousand lives were lost, along with the majority of the Scottish purse. This was of the most harrowing disasters in Scotland’s history and resulted in the union of the crown – with England – in 1707.

The expedition was a joint BBC/Bristol University expedition led by Mark Horton, and I was a contributing archaeologist. The project objectives were to locate, survey and excavate the settlement and the associated wreck of the Olive Branch with the intention of finding out what went wrong and why the colony failed.

There were many challenges on this dig, the remote location, difficult working conditions, security issues, confined spaces, strong personalities and the list goes on. Key lesson learned – a strong team is everything!

Ancient Australian Maritime Infrastructure

Last week, I finished a commercial project in Sydney, an archaeological assessment designed to inform a proposed seabed development. The project area was adjacent to some of the earliest colonial maritime and industrial infrastructure in Australia.

The historic maritime infrastructure is assessed to be of State significance and is now the site of Australia’s largest (AUD $6 billion) foreshore development. We were in the middle of a busy port and with potentially contaminated water and sediments.

I was the client manager, project manager and principal investigator, managing a team of commercial surface-supplied divers and a range of other stakeholders. This time, the key challenges were timeframes and resources: coordinating over a dozen stakeholders simply to get on site; managing to time the work in such a way as to not interrupt a variety of port users while still delivering for the client.

Lessons learned here – real-time communication is key!


Most of your experience is scuba – have you ever done any surface supplied work?

Yes, that’s correct; most of my experience has been on scuba. The primary reason for this is the majority of diving operations I have been involved in are research based.

Most research projects are conducted on scuba for two reasons:

  1. Allow for maximum accessibility (participation of avocational maritime archaeologists, recreational divers and volunteers).
  2. Research budgets are small and the setup costs of surface supply are prohibitive. It is generally out of financial reach for most research projects.

That said, commercial maritime archaeology projects are very different. These are – more often than not – run are on surface supply for a whole host of reasons such as safety, enhanced bottom times and difficult in water conditions.

All diving operations that I’ve operated or been involved in since I’ve consulted have been on surface supply, I just tend not to talk about them as they are generally subject to confidentiality agreements.

How long have you been diving? How deep are most of your artifacts located, and how do you find them?

I’ve been diving recreationally for 15 years and commercially for 10 years, which has been predominately archaeological and scientific diving.

Recreationally I’m trained to 60 meters and commercially to 30 meters. In Australia, under the workplace health and safety regulations, and within the commercial regulations, the max scuba depth is 30 meters and 50 meters on surface supply.

Historical Sites: A Range of Depth

In terms of how deep are most artifacts located, it’s impossible to answer as we don’t have a complete inventory of sites globally from which to make an assessment. I can tell you that the deepest site I’ve dived for work was at 50 meters (a Roman shipwreck in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey) and the shallowest is a bronze-age lake dwelling (Crannog) Scotland.

I’ve worked on much deeper sites, but in these instances we have used remote sensing equipment (remotely and/or autonomously operated vehicles) in replace of divers. In the Sydney area, where my consultancy is based, most of the “found” shipwreck sites are located between 10 – 100 meters water depth. These are mostly from the historical and modern periods, since European arrival.

Underwater Discovery through Surface Preparation


An artificial reef, Pittwater, Sydney, AU. Credit: Michaela Skovrnova, Mishku

How do we find them? Often, it is through as process of desk-based assessment, including historical research, followed by a geophysical or diver-based survey. It may also be an accidental or unexpected find, wherein a recreational diver finds a shipwreck site during a dive for something else, or a developer locates a site during the course of a development.

That said, it is rare these days that, archaeologically, divers would get in the water without having done some homework to narrow down a search area or locate a site through geophysical assessment, which would then be ground-trothed prior to a research/project design being developed.

Do you usually dive with teams, or go solo?

This will depend on the nature of the project/dive. Commercially, we tend to work in teams of four, with one diver in the water.

When diving mixed teams and recreationally trained volunteers, we always follow the recreational training guidelines. The least qualified member of the team dives within the limits of his or her qualifications and competence. In this case, you will have divers working in buddy pairs with two divers in the water.

What types of equipment do you take with you on your dive?

Again, this will depend on the nature of the project/dive. Like construction diving and civil contracting, the tools and equipment used will vary greatly from job to job.

The dive spread aside, for a pre-disturbance survey (or ground-truthing geophysical data), the equipment could be a simple as a camera, recording board and tape measure. In more complex scenarios, we may use an acoustic positioning system during a pre-disturbance survey.

For excavation, we may require an airlift or water dredge and lifting gear, such as lift bags. If people are interested to learn more about the tools and techniques of maritime archaeology, the Nautical Archaeology Society has published a useful book entitled ‘Underwater Archaeology’ which provides a sound introduction to the subject.

Looking Back…and Forward


High Pasture Cave, Isle of Skye, Scotland. Credit: Dave Hodgson, High Pasture Cave Archaeological Project

What are some of the highlights of your career as a whole?

There are so many highlights, it is difficult to narrow it down. In addition to the examples I’ve already given, the list would have to include the following;

  • Recording finds during the last Mary Rose excavations off Portsmouth, England.
  • Teaching at the inaugural maritime archaeology training program at Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan.
  • Being one of only a small handful of western academics invited to present at academic symposium on the Zheng He voyages, in Nanjing, China.
  • Being invited by UNESCO to present to the UNESCO permanent delegation in Paris in support of the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

What aspects of your work do you enjoy most?

I enjoy the rare combination of the practical and intellectual aspects of being a maritime archaeology. I also like the variety, being in the archive one day, the field the next along with the opportunities to travel to off the beaten track in an attempt to find traces of those who have come before us.

What would you recommend to those who are going into commercial diving – specifically, how can they expand their career with new skillsets and experience?

The most concise advice I can give is look, listen and learn.

Train in the most difficult conditions available to you and with the most experienced crew you can find.

Give everything you do 100%, respect the work, respect your team and understand that in diving, safety is paramount to success.


Sarah Ward is a professional Maritime Archaeologist passionate about education, outreach and access. She has more than 15 years of experience working internationally across UK, Europe, Australia, Asia and the Pacific.