Malaysian authorities have nabbed a foreign vessel wanted for plundering World War 2-era shipwrecks in the region, including the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales that sank in Malaysian waters in 1941.
On Sunday, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) caught up with the barge when it anchored illegally at 20.1 nautical miles east of Tanjung Siang off the coast of Johor.
The barge was found carrying metals and armaments believed to be from sunken British ships when MMEA officers boarded the vessel.
Johor MMEA director First Admiral (Maritime) Nurul Hizam Zakaria said the authorities were investigating whether there was a “mothership” anchored outside Malaysian waters.
“We are studying the possibility that the vessel may have gone back and forth to a mothership to offload the stolen items. This is a distinct possibility.”
He said the Tanjung Sedili maritime zone initially detained the ship at 12.45pm for anchoring illegally.
When the vessel was boarded by the MMEA patrol team, the crew members failed to present any anchoring permission from the marine director-general.
He said the vessel had a crew complement of 32, including Chinese nationals, Bangladeshis and a Malaysian.
“Further checks led to the discovery of scrap metal and artillery shells that we believe are linked to the discovery of unexploded ordnance in Tanjung Belungkor on May 19.”
He said the vessel’s captain had been taken into custody.
“We never stopped looking for the vessel. We have been combing our waters round the clock, hunting them down. They went off the radar by switching off their GPS and WiFi systems.”
The case is being investigated under Section 491B(1)(L) of the Merchant Shipping Ordinance 1952, which provides for a fine of up to RM100,000 or up to two years’ jail, or both.
On May 22, the New Straits Times reported about scavengers returning after an eight-year hiatus to plunder battlecruiser HMS Repulse and battleship HMS Prince of Wales.
Sources had claimed that the Chinese vessel was also responsible for looting 90 per cent of other World War 2 shipwrecks in the region.
The grab dredger is allegedly wanted by the Indonesian authorities for plundering the remains of Dutch warships HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java and HNLMS Kortenaer in the Java Sea.
The vessel is also known to have plundered World War 2 shipwrecks in Singaporean, Cambodian and Vietnamese waters.
Experts were quoted as saying that the scavengers specialised in looting World War 2 vessels to get low background steel, copper and brass, which can fetch millions as the metals are not radioactive.
The NST learnt that the vessel went by a different name when it illegally salvaged Dutch shipwrecks in Indonesian waters.
It changed its registration details when it entered Malaysia in February via Pasir Gudang, Johor.
The vessel had applied for a permit from the Marine Department to salvage a Chinese ship that sank in Kuantan waters.
But the vessel turned its attention to sunken British warships instead.
Its activities came to light when the operator of a scrapyard in Tanjung Belungkor shared a video allegedly showing the vessel unloading artefacts from looted warships, including a cannon.
The video shared on TikTok alerted the National Heritage Department, whose officers raided the private jetty and scrapyard.
There, they found relics and scrap metal believed to be from the HMS Prince of Wales.
Investigators also found 46 unexploded ordnances comprising 135mm and 40mm artillery shells, believed to be from the warship.
The Chinese ship had fled the scene.
The British government had condemned the salvaging, saying it desecrated the resting place of those who served on the once-proud warships.
Nurul Hizam said the agency would work with its Indonesian counterparts on the Chinese vessel and its crew.
He said the National Heritage Department would verify whether the seized artillery shells and metals were indeed from the World War 2 shipwrecks.