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How to Use Nautical Charts to Find Ship Wrecks

Updated on August 21, 2016
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Lela earned a B.A. degree in Journalism from Sam Houston University in Huntsville, TX. She has been writing for the online world for years.

Example Cuban Nautical Map

Also found on Google search with advanced filters for free to use, modify even commercial use.
Also found on Google search with advanced filters for free to use, modify even commercial use. | Source

Nautical Charts and Maps

If you have ever used a road map, then you are already familiar with how a map works. But how does a map work out on the ocean? Every marker you need is covered in water! How do you even know where you are exactly?

Nautical maps and charts are underwater maps. They have a number imposed all over them to show how deep the water is at any particular location.

Location is found by two numbers, Latitude and Longitude. These two numbers are represented by lines on a map or on a nautical chart.

Latitude - the angular distance of a place north or south of the earth's equator, or of a celestial object north or south of the celestial equator, usually expressed in degrees and minutes."at a latitude of 51° N" (online dictionary)

Longitude - the angular distance of a place east or west of the meridian at Greenwich, England, or west of the standard meridian of a celestial object, usually expressed in degrees and minutes."at a longitude of 2° W" (online dictionary)

Nautical Charts also have symbols to indicate what is beneath the water. Over the years, ocean travelers have charted millions of bits of information about what is underneath the water. All of this information has been converted to electronic data and it is easy enough to buy a GPS (Global Positioning System) and computerized navigation system.

Understanding the various symbols for common items is beneficial to marine travelers. One should be able to recognize the symbols and colors for sandbars, reefs, shoals, and sunken wrecks or other obstacles in the water.

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration collects and distributes products and information regarding the world's oceans.

Short Video on How to Use a Nautical Chart

Shipwreck Above the Water


An Underwater Wreck


Learning to Dive on Wrecks (Wreck Diving)

First things first. You must be certified as a SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) diver. There is a couple of well known certifying agencies and some that are not so well known. There are several specialty diving courses available after you certification school.

The Professional Association of Diving Instructors, PADI, offers Open Water Certifications, Instructor level certifications and many specialty certifications. Their specialty certifications often lead to lucrative careers in the diving world.

Wreck Diving Specialty

If you find ship wrecks fascinating, this is the course for you. You may also choose to further specialize in the types of wrecks you want to dive on and what tasks you can perform as a wreck diver.

And it's not just ships! There are all sorts of wrecks under the water. Airplanes, cars, trains, you name it. If a man made item has tried to cross a body of water, there is probably a wreck of it somewhere.

To sign up for the PADI Wreck Divers course, you must be 15 years old and hold an Open Water Certification or higher. Some people even apply dive courses toward college credit in the Oceanography fields. It's a good idea to apply this course toward a Master Diver certification.

You will need:

  • Basic SCUBA gear
  • Dive lights with extra batteries
  • Slates for writing messages under water
  • Underwater compass and GPS navigation skills
  • Lines and reels for tieing off lead lines
  • Extra tanks
  • Very sharp knives to use for untangling yourself if needed
  • Any other wreck specific appropriate gear.

As with any and all diving - Be sure to plan your dive and dive your plan!

PADI Wreck Diving

Cuba is a Treasure Trove of Shipwrecks!

It is estimated that there are 100s, if not 1,000s of wrecked ships around the coast of Cuba.

Cuban Shipwrecks

The port city of Havana, Cuba was the gathering place for hundreds of Spanish 'Flotas'. These 'Flotas' were armed armadas of Spanish treasure fleets staging their return from the Spanish Main back to Spain.

The 16th century fort at the entrance to Havana harbour is now a museum. It features jewelry, emeralds, gold, silver, plates, mugs, and other treasure from some of the wrecks that have been salvaged. But these items are only the tip of the iceberg.

Even though Cuba is a relatively safe harbour, this region of the Caribbean is cursed by storms and hurricanes. During the 16th through 17th century, the Spanish ships were often preyed upon by pirates. They ran aground on shifting sand bars. They encountered tortuous reefs. Many of these ships were sunk for one reason or another. It is estimated that as much as 88% of lost Spanish treasure lies on the bottom in Cuban waters.

Some of these wrecks have been salvaged and their treasure was divided according to Cuban laws, as well as international maritime laws. Even Fidel Casto himself was a scuba diver during his younger years.

More wrecks are to be found in deeper water. These wrecks must be salvaged using expensive equipment and trained specialist divers. They must also gain permission from the Cuban government, something that is difficult at best.

A special ship using side scan sonar is the best and practically only way to find deep water ship wrecks. Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) can be sent down to investigate suspicious anomalies on the sea bottom. Special underwater cameras and lights are used to send photos back for analysis.

Ballast stones and ship's planking show up quite easily. These are the best indications of a wreck. Pottery can sometimes be spotted on photographs.

When a wreck is located, divers go down with metal detectors looking for gold and silver, or other metals. Millions of pounds of treasure are still waiting to be found!

Just Out of Curiosity, Are You Interested in Cuba's Treasure?

Do you think there is a lot of undiscovered Spanish treasure in Cuban waters?

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© 2014 Lela


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    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 2 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Thanks, I wish I still had my old scuba gear!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 2 years ago from south Florida

      Hi, Lela. This almost makes me want to dig out my scuba equipment from storage and head for Cuba. Almost!

    • E Hyland Maze profile image

      Eugene Hyland Maze 3 years ago from Santa Clarita

      Great article! Great use of "how to use" and "where to use." Concise, informative, interesting. thanks.