Marine archaeologists have been working for years to identify and tell the stories of ships that sank in Mexican waters.

"When you go in the water, you know that what you are seeing, if it was a maritime accident, many lives were lost," marine archaeologist Helena Barba Meinecke told Efe.

Barba is in charge of the marine archaeology unit of the National Anthropology and History Institute, or INAH, in the Yucatan Peninsula, overseeing research and conservation of maritime heritage sites.

The marine archaeologist has worked in the region for nearly 10 years, helping find 338 wrecks from the 16th to the 21st centuries, of which 60 have been fully identified.

"We can put a name on them and a surname," Barba said.

The most recent wreck located was that of the 19th-century British ship HMS Forth, which sank off the Yucatan Peninsula's Alacranes reef 164 years ago.

"This is archival work, detective work, because the archaeological part is as important as the historical part in connecting all the items found with the documents," Barba said.

The Alacranes reef was long a danger to navigation, causing many shipwrecks since the 16th century due to its sharp coral, sandbars and islets that suddently form in the sea.

Marine archaeologists identify wrecks, conduct dives and catalog the artifacts, often leaving items in place until they can be brought to the surface and preserved.

"When we go to a sunken ship, what we work most to preserve is the artillery, the cannons. Also, metallic items related to navigation, such as anchors, or related to the structure of the ship," Barba said.

Mexican marine archaeologists mostly focus on the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, but some projects have been carried out off the Baja California Peninsula and in the lakes around the Nevado de Toluca volcano.

INAH officials have developed plans to create a marine archaeology museum to display items recovered from wrecks, Barba said.

Wrecks can be visited by the public, but divers must obtain a permit from the INAH, be accompanied by a specialist and cover the costs of the expedition, Barba said. 

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