Dressed in diving gear comprising a wetsuit, mask and flippers, Caesar Bita, 42, plunges into the Indian Ocean off the coast of Malindi.
Sometimes he’s gone for hours while other times, it’s just for a few minutes.
“I am an underwater archaeologist. I research and study human interactions with the sea, lakes and rivers through the study of remains of ships, maritime cultures, shore side facilities, cargo, human remains and submerged landscapes, “ he says.
The Bachelor of anthropology graduate from the University of Nairobi says that being an underwater archeologist was not one of his dreams when he was growing up.
He got into it by chance, but it turned out to be the best move in his career.
“I was working with the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) as a land archaeologist at the Fort Jesus Museum. Having been involved in land archaeological researches, NMK started looking into cultural heritage underwater and that’s how I got into underwater archaeology. I had worked as a land archaeologist for more than nine years. I enjoyed spending time with the Chinese underwater archaeologists and that’s what aroused my interest in the career. It is worth noting that Kenya is the first sub-Saharan African country to initiate an underwater archaeological expedition,” he says
The transition meant going back to school so in 2007, so he enrolled for a one-year diploma in underwater archaeology at the Underwater Archaeology Centre in Beijing, China, before proceeding to the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, between 2012 and 2013 for his Masters in archaeology. Then in 2014, he enrolled for a postgraduate diploma in the management of heritage and museum collections from the University of Nairobi.
“In total, it took me four years of post-graduate training to be a professional in this field. The course is not offered by Kenyan universities but it is available in many universities in countries such as Egypt, China and Australia,” he offers.
He says those who wish to join the profession must have a passion for history and the outdoors. In addition, they must be highly competent and certified divers.
“To be able to study the submerged shipwrecks, you have to go underwater. A diver needs to be physically fit and able to work in extreme conditions. The amount of time spent underwater depends on the depth. The deeper down, the less time taken, the shallower the depth, the more time one can take. This, depends on the amount in your diving tank. As the air in your diving tank depletes, you have to come back to the surface.”
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
He adds that attention to detail is another important necessary characteristic.
“After field work, we spend a lot of time in the office analysing data, writing and publishing reports. It is not diving and having fun in the water all the time. Out in the field our work is guided by the ocean tides. If the tides are okay, we get into the water, whether in the morning or afternoon.”
Caesar says the best part of his job is the adventure that comes with it: being able to make new discoveries either in the field or in the office during artifact or archival analysis.
“Underwater is fascinating. It’s totally amazing to see and experience the different ecosystems and contexts and the old ships that capsized many years ago. Seeing them lying underwater surrounded by marine creatures is simply captivating,” he enthuses.
To find underwater shipwrecks and other related wreckages, Caesar and his team liaises with fishermen, who tell them what they encounter while fishing. They also look into ancient literature or records that mention ships that got lost many years ago. Occasionally, they also do coastal shorelines surveys. Some of the shipwrecks date back to 1800s.
He says that his primary motivation is to see that underwater heritage is preserved for the future, and that the public appreciates the treasures and hopes that the country will see it as an economic resource.
“We find interesting artifacts under water. In one of the projects in Kilwa, Tanzania, in 2015, we discovered interesting new shipwreck sites with stone anchors. Some of the other exciting projects I have taken part in are the Sino-Kenya underwater archeology in Malindi and Lamu betweem 2010 and 2014 and underwater impact assessment studies along Tudor Creek in Mombasa.”
Although he derives satisfaction from his career, Caesar notes that it come with some challenges. These include the risk of attack by dangerous sea creatures, drowning, injury and the possibility of suffering health complications as a result of working underwater.
Regarding employment opportunities, he says underwater archeology is new in the region and that there are only a few professionals in the field at the moment. This means that there are still a lot of opportunities, both locally and internationally.
“Underwater archeology is an unexplored field in the country. Currently, I am the only professional in underwater archeology in the country. I urge the youth to seize the opportunity,” he say,
“Aside from my job, I am passionate about writing. I have published a number of articles in international professional journals and books. Some of his publications are on maritime and underwater archeology explorations in Kenya. As a family man, I also ensure that I spend a lot of time with my family