Divers uncover historical treasure trove in waters off Sai Kung
A group of local divers are on an underwater mission to find historical treasures they believe may have been resting on the sea bed off Sai Kung for centuries.
The seven members of the Hong Kong Underwater Heritage Group will complete their 13-day expedition today, retracing their 2010 search in the same area off High Island Reservoir, which turned up some promising finds.
"We identified 313 artefacts [in 2010], mostly porcelain, in a small area of 30 metres by 30 metres," said group member Marco Li Li-hen, 42.
"Twenty-two of them were intact blue-and-white porcelain bowls and plates.
"That surprised us. Why were there so many artefacts there?"
The group of divers are mentored by Dr Bill Jeffery, an Australian maritime archaeologist who lives in Hong Kong. Jeffery said the artefacts could date back to the Ming (1368-1644) or early Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, and could have ended up on the ocean floor after a shipwreck.
"Trading was going on in this general area, but how much was going on and are there other shipwrecks there? Quite possibly," Jeffery said, adding that it was too early to say what else might be found at the site.
"We need to do the excavation, then to get ceramic experts to look at what we have found to see the significance of the materials."
The group is hoping to find the source of the artefacts found in 2010.
Cheng Kai-ming, former chairman of the Archaeological Society, said it was an unusual undertaking for a group of amateurs.
"It's certainly rare to see [people] like them using their spare time for underwater archaeology … which is much riskier than on dry land, especially working with shipwrecks."
Both Cheng and Jeffery are keeping their expectations low about the likelihood of finding anything significant but that has not dampened their enthusiasm.
"I'm not worried about being disappointed. I really want to dive down there - I'm keen to know what happened, where this stuff came from," said Li, a mechanical engineer. "Even if it turns out to be rubbish dumped from a leisure boat, at least we'll have figured it out."
The divers may have disparate backgrounds - maritime archaeology, mechanical engineering, editing, marketing, heritage and tourism - but they share a desire to promote and preserve the city's underwater heritage.
Li noted there were no maritime archaeologists with the Antiquities and Monuments Office.
The group formed in 2009, inspired by Jeffery, who trained them in the basics of maritime archaeology, based on a programme offered by the British Nautical Archaeology Society.
Then the search was on for potential sites. They secured funding from the Lord Wilson Heritage Trust, which was set up in 1992 to preserve the city's heritage.
After scouring the Marine Department's database of 300 sites in the region and gathering information from elderly villagers in Sai Kung and other divers, they trained their sights on the Sai Kung site.
They don't want to reveal its exact location, for now.
"Hong Kong has long been a major hub for sea trading. There's so much heritage on land, so we believe there could be many treasures under the sea waiting to be found," Li said.
The group hopes to release preliminary results from the latest dive in October or November.
In the meantime, it will continue working on a database of likely underwater historical sites around Hong Kong.
"Archaeology can be romantic, but most of the time it's boring and academic. But we're used to that. It's not like an Indiana Jones movie.
"We've dropped any romanticism about what we're doing - it's very practical," Li said.