By Rebecca Black, PA
A warning has been issued following reports of potential artefacts being removed from a Spanish Armada shipwreck off the coast of Northern Ireland.
An increase in the number of people diving to visit wrecks was noted last month during a period of warm weather, the Norths Department for Communities said.
It has launched an investigation into reports that items have been removed from the wreck of La Girona off the coast of Co Antrim.
A patrol vessel was to undertake inspections of both La Girona and the wreck of the HMS Drake off the coast of Rathlin Island.
La Girona, a warship of the Spanish Armada, sank close to Portballintrae in 1588, and HMS Drake, a First World War cruiser was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in 1917 and sank in Rathlin Bay.
In a statement the department said the recent combination of sun and calm seas saw an increase in people diving towards historic wrecks.
There are 340 known ship and plane wrecks off the coast of the North.
Two of this number, La Girona and HMS Drake, have special protection.
Access to the site of La Girona is restricted under the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973) and any person diving in the restricted area without a licence may be prosecuted.
While diving to visit the HMS Drake wreck does not require any permission, the removal of any artefacts may constitute an offence under the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.
“Over the July holiday period the department received a report of diving activity within the restricted area around La Girona and the removal of potential artefacts from the site,” the Department for Communities said in a statement.
“The Department for Communities and Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs work in partnership to manage and protect the marine historic environment.
“In response to this report, a DAERA patrol vessel will be undertaking regular inspections of both La Girona and HMS Drake over the summer months.”
A number of artefacts, including silver coins, jewellery and armaments from La Girona, are on permanent display at the Ulster Museum in Belfast.