When Elisha Linder and his wife Pnina joined Kibbutz Ma’agan Micha’el in 1955, trawler fishing was a major source of livelihood for the kibbutz. Quite often, pottery vessels of various shapes and sizes were hauled up in the nets along with the catch. Most of these pottery vessels were completely intact, “decorated” by sea encrustation. The kibbutz fishermen would collect them and make small private exhibits in their homes.

Because of his background in ancient Near Eastern studies, Linder naturally took a strong interest in these finds. With a little persuasion he convinced the fishermen to “tithe” their collections in order to create a local museum to house and exhibit some of the outstanding specimens. This led to the establishment of the country’s first marine archaeological museum—and thus began the study of marine archaeology in Israel.

The next step called for the initiation of methodical underwater search-and-survey operations to discover shipwrecks and submerged ancient harbor sites. In those days, diving was exclusively a military operation. It was not difficult, however, to recruit some ex-Navy frogmen who were members of various kibbutzim and who still loved the sea and were interested in the history of Israel. They made an ideal group of volunteers, eager to contribute their time, skills and enthusiasm to the new field of marine archaeology.

The Undersea Exploration Society of Israel (UESI) was established in 1960, and for over a decade, the coastal and offshore regions of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Sea of Galilee were explored by its volunteers under the direction of a few archaeologists and geologists who had turned to the sea as their new area of specialization.

Harbor sites like Akko, Athlit and Caesarea were partially excavated, and this paved the way for the founding of the Center for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa.

Today, research continues in the framework of an academic institution, with the students and faculty from the unique graduate program in the History of Maritime Civilizations at the University of Haifa expanding the earlier achievements of the UESI.

The fascinating story of the UESI has been recorded by Alexander Flinder in Secrets of the Bible Seas: An Underwater Archaeologist in the Holy Landc (London: Severn House, 1985).