As the sun rises over Bermuda's Hamilton Harbour on a clear May morning, the islands' Custodian of Historic Wrecks, Philippe Max Rouja, loads the day's dive boat. On it, a scuba tank, wetsuit and the camera he uses to document the more than 300 shipwrecks that litter the islands' waters.
written by Alexander Rosen
Rouja, in his mid-40s, lacks the appearance of a government official or scientist one might expect. He has long curly hair, the tan of a sailor and an impish look in his eyes that expresses his joie de vivre.
It's early but as we leave harbor Rouja appears energized, commenting that diving conditions are rarely so good. He jokes that with water so clear some divers get vertigo and feel like they're falling.
We cruise north, gaining speed across flat, glassy seas, Bermuda quickly becoming just a sliver on the horizon behind us. The water, gaining in depth, shifts from turquoise to midnight blue.
All the while, Rouja stands at attention, fixated on computer screens displaying the boat's underwater surroundings. Then, as if out of nowhere, the deep blue water explodes in color, as shallow reefs pop up all around.
Rouja takes to the bow to get a better look at the treacherous labyrinth ahead, shouting directions to the captain while scanning for the Caraquet, a British mail ship that sank in 1923. And then he spots her.
Located a little less than 600 miles east of the United States and 1,000 miles north of the Caribbean, Bermuda sits in the North Atlantic Ocean's Sargasso Sea – at nearly the same latitude as Savannah, Georgia.
The 20.6 square mile hook-shaped island chain is home to roughly 65,000 people, a far cry from the handful of castaways of the Sea Venture who first settled there in 1609.
The Sea Venture was a British ship tasked with resupplying the foundering American colony at Jamestown.
Separated from the six other ships in her fleet during a hurricane, the crew spent days bailing water by hand from her punctured hull, before purposefully running aground on a Bermudian reef.
Castaways from this wreck found sanctuary on the islands, and subsequently pillaged their vessel to build two smaller ones, which they sailed to the new world, leaving behind the original settlers of Bermuda.
Since the beginning of their history, Bermudians have been recycling shipwrecks, sourcing what the islands couldn't naturally provide.
"We essentially used shipwrecks as [a way to obtain] those elements we couldn't get any other way," says Rouja.
"Bermuda didn't have iron or steel or any of those things, so all the iron, and brass and bronze all had to come from somewhere. So, a shipwreck was like a major, kind of, boon to the economy every time it happened."
Pointing towards land from the boat, Rouja says it's accurate to conclude that Bermudians even encouraged shipwrecks.
"That's why this hill here is called ‘wreck hill' because they would put up fake lamps and guide people onto the reef, get them to sink their boats and then go out charge them a rate for rescuing them," he says. "And then go out and pillage and take what they needed from the ship."
Schoolchildren often ask Rouja if there are any pirate shipwrecks. He says he sometimes offers a tongue-in-cheek response: "Bermuda was the pirate ship. Like, Bermudians were the pirates and we actually were the smartest ones because we got all the ships to come to us. And so that seems to satisfy them, we're a pirate island."
In his official capacity, Rouja works to conserve the cultural and environmental heritage of Bermuda. His training as an anthropologist colors his work.
"In essence, this job reduces itself in a very sincere way to telling stories," he says.
"And telling the best stories we can, not just about Bermuda, but about human beings."
Rouja was mentored by one of Bermuda's most famous shipwreck explorers, Teddy Tucker, who discovered the majority of the islands' wrecks. Tucker's most famous discovery was the 22-karat-gold Tucker Cross, stolen before it could be gifted to Queen Elizabeth II of England.
The cross is reputed to be the most valuable piece of sunken treasure ever discovered.
"He exposed the marine environment around Bermuda to Bermudians and to the world in a way that nobody else ever has, or will probably," Rouja reflects. "He had an absolute naturalist's eye for the environment and the world around him, and he knew more about the ocean around Bermuda than anybody I've ever met."
Rouja still uses an old shipwreck-hunting technique passed down from Tucker.
Donning a snorkel and mask and grabbing hold of a rope fixed to the stern of a motorboat, Rouja searches the sea floor for clues while being towed behind it.
Sometimes computers are no substitute for eyes in the water.
After spotting the Caraquet's enormous anchor and the boilers once used to drive her steam engine, Rouja gives the order to drop anchor.
Now moored 14 meters above the Caraquet, Rouja and I begin assembling our scuba equipment before descending below.
Underwater the noise of the world disappears, replaced with a feeling of calm.
The visibility is high as Rouja and I swim among the remains of the Caraquet. She appears massive and out of place; covered in coral growths that wave in the current.
As we explore the wreck, shoals of Blue Striped Grunts and Sergeant Majors swim nearby. The Blue Striped Grunts have a purple stain around their lower bodies and tails, a sign they're in spawning mode, Rouja later explains.
Rouja is at ease underwater, seemingly weightless as he snaps photos of the wreck.
Diving with a camera, Rouja documents the current state of Bermuda's wrecks, using photography to create 3-D maps and models in a partnership with the University of California San Diego for a project called the Bermuda 100 Challenge.
The models provide a snapshot-in-time and comparing them tells a story about the evolution of both Bermuda's wrecks and the environment.
The Bermuda 100 Challenge also allows anyone on the internet to take a virtual dive and experience Bermuda's cultural and environmental heritage. "Aside from its scientific importance, there's a connectivity importance, that people can connect to a period of history, a shipwreck, the ocean," says Rouja.
"And that's what shipwrecks do. They are actually a great segue for people into the marine environment that might otherwise not get there. So, when you're out looking at a shipwreck, because you care about the history or you think shipwrecks are cool, suddenly you're also learning about the rock fish that lives on that shipwreck or the particular spawning aggregation that's next door. Giving shipwrecks that work to do is actually a big part of the work I do."
The Caraquet, like many of her sister-wrecks, represents not just the islands' cultural heritage but also environmental heritage, since wrecks act like a reef by providing protection to spawning fish populations.
"As good as we can be as scientists, we are not the guys who are living in it 24 hours a day, who will have perceptions that go beyond the couple of hours or even the months or years you might attend to something as a scientist," says Rouja.
Combining scientific research with local knowledge is the cornerstone of his strategy for conserving Bermuda's shipwrecks.
He admits that it's often too easy for scientists to get caught up in data, but "the wholeness of a story that includes a local perspective resonates across a much broader spectrum than a purely professional or a purely academic one."
As a prime example of this, Rouja pulls out a weathered scroll of paper from his office.
It's a map, hand-drawn by Teddy Tucker and annotated with notes on fish populations.
Most notably, it highlights the stark changes in the marine environment over the last half-century.
"Teddy's talking about fish that I know I've never seen, but he's also talking about sharks," laments Rouja.
"I think these were things that were just a common feature of the marine environment around Bermuda, and, you know, they're just not here. You don't see sharks. You just don't see them, and so it's obvious that things have changed dramatically when something that's that ubiquitous to a reef area is just absent."
This type of local knowledge has informed Bermuda's efforts to revive numerous fish species and promote healthy reef ecology.
By protecting the shipwrecks and restricting fishing nearby, the government has simultaneously created ideal conditions for depleted fish populations to recover.
One such species is the Stoplight Parrotfish.
"The shipwreck led us to focus on its spawning aggregation," says Rouja, referring to when a species of fish gathers together in greater densities than normal with the specific purpose of reproducing.
"And the cool part is that the protection we afforded to the shipwreck included this aggregation, which essentially created the circumstances or helped support the circumstances for that aggregation to flourish."
As Rouja continues, it becomes even clearer that everything is connected.
"Parrotfish are very important for grazing on the reef and the rocks and they graze down the algae. And algae, if it's not controlled, overtakes our reef," he says.
"The loss of those algae controlling fish has been very significant. So suddenly I'm on a shipwreck where I can catalog the history, we can look at growth over time of reef on that shipwreck because that shipwreck sets a date and time that allows us to look at coral reef growth, and at the same time, it has accidentally protected the spawning aggregation of Parrotfish."
In this way, Bermuda stands on the forefront of an innovative new trend in environmental conservation by including shipwrecks in marine protected areas.
With its relatively small landmass, limited natural resources and a population accustomed to the luxuries of western society, Bermuda presents a microcosm of the environmental challenges faced by much of the world.
"Whatever we import we have to dispose of," Rouja remarks. "It doesn't go to some other county a couple hundred miles away. You know if we discover a source of pollution we can't just sort of isolate it and push it to an area we don't have to deal with it. It's always here."
Bermuda's integration of cultural and environmental heritage preservation by embracing local knowledge is an example of one way governments can tackle conservation issues like these.
As Rouja puts it, "the more I can integrate shipwreck conservation with environmental conservation, the stronger the case will be for both."
For a place that cares so deeply for its culture and traditions, Bermuda's willingness to adopt new and creative solutions to maintain its identity in an ever-changing world sets it apart.
There is a sense of hope on the islands, a place where even castaways forced to pillage from a sunken ship can endure.
produced by Digital Labs
video produced by Alexander Rosen and Joseph Coleman
music by Temujin Doran
web design by Stephany Cardet
visual design by Damian Prado