Famous Australian shipwrecks

Famous shipwreck at Norfolk Island

HMS Sirius

Image: George Raper, The melancholy loss of H.M.S Sirius off Norfolk Island March 19th 1790, ink and watercolour, 1790 or 1791 (National Library of Australia)

At midday on 19 March 1790 HMS Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet, was wrecked on the coral reef off Slaughter Bay at Norfolk Island. She had led the fleet of eleven ships that set out from England in 1787 carrying the people who would start a new Nation on the other side of the world. She was a vitally important ship to their struggle for survival in a new, isolated home and the only real means of contact with the outside world. For the new settlements at Sydney Cove and Norfolk Island her loss was devastating.

One venue of the Norfolk Island Museum is entirely dedicated to the Sirius story and displaying her artefacts - the largest collection of First Fleet cultural heritage material in Australia. For details on the museum visit Norfolk Island Museum and follow the links to the Sirius Museum or visit the web site dedicated to the Sirius story at HMS Sirius.

In 2015 this venue will be the focus of a major week long celebration of the National Heritage listed and arguably Australia’s most important shipwreck, culminating on 19 March with the 225th anniversary of her wrecking. A special focus for the week will be the story of the maritime archeological expeditions to recover her artefacts through the 1980s Bicentenary ‘Sirius Project’. Four expeditions between 1983 and 1988 resulted in the raising of approximately 3,000 artefacts including a 1.7 tonne anchor, carronades, ballast, cannon balls, scientific equipment and fine pieces from the Officer’s Cabin. Our guest presenters will be Graham Henderson, Team Leader and Myra Stanbury, Registrar and curator for the Expeditions. Details on planned events can be found at Norfolk Island Events.

Famous shipwrecks in Qld

HMSC Mermaid

HMCS Mermaid

Australian National Maritime Museum team members recovering material from the HMCS Mermaid wreck site on Flora Reef. off the NQ coast, 09.01.2009 Source: Kieran Hosty, ANMM

The Mermaid was built in Howrah, India in 1816. The vessel was very small, of wood carvel construction, originally cutter rigged with a length overall of 17 meters, a beam of 5.6 metres and a draught of 2.7 metres. The Mermaid became famous when used by Lieutenant Philip Parker King RN to survey parts of the Australian coastline missed by Mathew Flinders.

The Mermaid was commissioned on 16 October 1817 and was used in three of the four voyages made by Parker King between December 1817 and April 1822 on his task of ‘Exploring and Surveying the Coast of Australia'. Philip Parker King was born on Norfolk Island in 1793 and has been described as one of the greatest early Australian marine surveyors. In HM Cutter Mermaid Parker King circumnavigated the Australian mainland and conducted the first reliable survey of the Great Barrier Reef Inner Route, opening it to commercial traffic. It was on this circumnavigation that Parker King named Careening Bay on the Kimberley coast, after bringing the HMC Mermaid in for repair. Parker King carved ‘H.M.C. Mermaid 1820' into the trunk of a conspicuous Boab tree in Careening Bay, in October of the year. The Boab is still there today.

On its last voyage, the then HM Colonial Schooner Mermaid was sailing to Fort Wellington, Raffles Bay in what is now the Northern Territory, under Captain Nolbrow. The HMCS Mermaid was wrecked on June 13, 1829 and subsequently sighted by HMS Crocodile in 1830 on a reef 6 nautical miles due east of Frankland Reefs. This location description formed the basis for the search area leading up to the shipwreck's discovery.

The site is in shallow water on the southern side of Flora Reef. The site is dispersed with significant amounts of iron and copper alloy components including an anchor chain clump, copper alloy pulley sheaths, bilge pump components, copper alloy keel staples, compass components and iron barrel rings. A dense layer of iron concretion lies under the coral rubble with scattered squarish clumps of iron concretion further to the north. The team also located a small kedging anchor in 8 meters of water about 150 meters directly south east of the wreck.

For more information about the Mermaid discovery, please visit the Australian National Maritime Museum blog website.

SS Yongala

The Yongala lies in the central section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, approximately 12 nautical miles east of Cape Bowling Green and 48 nautical miles south-east of Townsville.

The wreck sits intact and proud on the seabed, listing to starboard at an angle of 60 to 70 degrees. The upper sections of the wreck are approximately 16 metres below the surface with a site maximum depth of 30 meters.

The Yongala was an early 20th century interstate coastal steamer sunk during cyclonic weather in March 1911. It supplies a snapshot of Edwardian life in Australia and is now one of Australia's most highly regarded and popular wreck dives. It is a site of national significance and a substantial artificial reef that supports a great diversity of fish life with 122 recorded fish species in an established community around the wreck. The wreck is also the final resting place of the 122 passengers and crew who were aboard the Yongala on her 99th and final journey.

Management of the Yongala wreck site is the responsibility of the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Resource Mangement.

AHS Centaur

AHS Centaur

Unknown Maker Work, save, fight and so avenge the nurses! Photolithograph, coloured inks on paper 50.2 x 63 cm Source: Australian War Memorial (ARTV09088).

In 1941 survivors from the HSK Kormoran were picked up from the Indian Ocean by the then merchant vessel Centaur. Australian Hospital Ship (AHS) Centaur was one of many merchant ships taken over for war service during World War II and was converted to a hospital ship in 1943. It was crewed by merchant marine personnel and carried Army doctors and nursing staff. While on its first medical voyage to collect casualties from New Guinea, AHS Centaur was torpedoed on the 14 May 1943 by the Japanese submarine I-177. It sank within three minutes with the loss of 268 of the total crew of 332.

Famous shipwrecks in NSW

Hive (1820–1836)

Driven ashore by her Master Captain Nutting in 1835, the Hive represents the only convict transport wrecked on mainland Australia whilst actually delivering convicts. The wreck lies buried under sand in the surf zone of Wreck Bay, south of Jervis Bay, and was discovered by the Heritage Branch in 1994. The work will involve Asia-Pacific region Maritime Archaeologists under a fellowship program administered by Flinders University, SA, through an AusAid program.

A report produced by the NSW Department of Urban Affairs and Planning Underwater Heritage Program about the Hive is available for download:

Convict Transport Hive (1820–1863) and the Schooner Blackbird (1828–1836) (PDF - 458.75 KB)

M24 (1942)

The discovery by recreational divers, No Frills Divers, of the Japanese midget submarine M24  off Sydney's Northern Beaches in November 2006 closed one of Australia's great naval mysteries. For 65 years, the question had been asked: what happened to the Japanese submarine and its crew after it left Sydney following the 31 May / 1 June 1942 attack? With the discovery of the wreck came a range of other questions - why is it located north of Sydney when the agreed final rendezvous was off southern Port Hacking, what condition is it in and why, are the two crew aboard, what of the two unexploded scuttling charges? The Heritage Office, NSW Department of Planning, in conjunction with the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, has been ensuring the internationally significant wreck site has the full protection of Federal and State heritage legislation and monitored through both in-water and shore based surveillance systems. The 2007 archaeological surveys of the site provides clues to some of these important questions. The site is protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and NSW Heritage Act 1977.

HMAS Australia

In March 2007 the deepest ever remote operated shipwreck survey was undertaken some fifty kilometres off Sydney. The target was the wreck of Australia's first flagship, the heavy battle cruiser HMAS Australia . The survey was a joint venture between the Royal Australian Navy, Defence Maritime Services and the Heritage Office, NSW Department of Planning. The visiting US Navy submersible Curv descended 380 metres down to the 180-metre long, 19, 000 ton shipwreck - the largest in Australian waters. Australia served throughout World War One and was ceremoniously scuttled off Sydney in 1924, a result of the Washington Arms Treaty which aimed at reducing global tonnage of warships after the Great War. The site is protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.

Iron Knight (1943)

A shipwreck detected by fishermen off Bermagui on the NSW south coast was first dived by deep wreck recreational diving group The Sydney Project  in May 2006. Lying at 125 metres depth, the wreck was found to be an armed iron or steel freighter. The location matched some accounts of the loss in 1942 of the BHP iron ore carrier Iron Knight . 36 crew were killed when the Japanese submarine I-21 struck the vessel with torpedoes. Subsequent dives by the team raised questions on their initial identification, but gathering details of the very deep wreck has proved elusive. No other armed cargo vessels are thought to have been lost in the general area. The dangers of diving these deep sites was realised in late 2007 when one of the teams' divers drowned whilst attempting to revisit the site.

William Dawes (1942)

Wartime secrecy meant that the public knew little of the impact on merchant vessels by enemy submarines during WWII. But Japanese (and to a lesser extent German) submarines had significant successes operating along the east coast of Australia. The steel 'Liberty' ship William Dawes  was one of approximately nineteen victims in NSW coastal waters. A Japanese Imperial Navy submarine I-11 attacked and sank the 127 metre long 7000-ton vessel on 22 July 1942 off Tathra on the NSW south coast. Five of the crew were killed. Divers from the recreational diving group, The Sydney Project , conducted the first visits to the 135-metre deep site in October 2004. The dive constitutes the deepest shipwreck dive ever undertaken in NSW and the second deepest in Australia to date. The dive team have completed AIMA/NAS training through the Heritage Office, NSW Department of Planning, and have been active in mapping and identifying deep wrecks throughout the State. The site is protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.

Famous shipwrecks in WA

Sydney and Kormoran Declarations

Tom Goddard - pistol finder

Finder, Tom Goddard, with Red Bluff pistol. Source: Jon Carpenter, Western Australia Museum.

HMAS Sydney II and the German raider HSK Kormoran both sank after a battle on 19 November 1941. It was Australia's worst naval disaster with the loss of the Sydney and all 645 crew. Around 80 German sailors also died.

On 28 February 2008 the HMAS Sydney Search Pty Ltd commenced searching for both shipwrecks. The HSK Kormoran was found on 12 March 2008 and HMAS Sydney was found on 16 March 2008. The Australian Government contributed $4.2 million to the search.

Even though these shipwrecks are less than 75 years old, due to their significance they were provisionally declared as Historic Shipwrecks on 17 March 2008. Following consideration of the archaeological evidence and an assessment of significance, on 11 November 2008 the wrecks were declared to be Historic Shipwrecks. Both shipwrecks have declared protected zones around them that control access into and activities in these declared waters.

Kormoran Pistol (Red Bluff Pistol)

In 2007 a pistol from one of the survivors of the Kormoranwas found by Tom Goddard, a nineteen year old surfer, at Red Bluff, Quobba Station 130 km north of Carnarvon, Western Australia. The pistol is protected as a relic under the Historic Shipwreck Act and has been donated to the Western Australian Museum  which has undertaken conservation of the object.

Famous shipwrecks in VIC

Loch Ard (1878)

The Loch Ard bell

The Loch Ard bell. Source: Heritage Victoria.

The iron clipper Loch Ard is significant as one of Victoria's and Australia's most tragic and famous shipwrecks. Carrying a range of luxury and household commercial goods from the United Kingdom, and 54 passengers and crew, the Loch Ard set sail from Gravesend, London on 1st March 2878, bound for Melbourne. Just days from its destination, the Loch Ard entered Bass Strait and Captain Gibb was waiting for the welcoming flash of the Cape Otway light. With fog and sea mist hindering the view, on 1 June 1878 cliffs and breakers were sighted ahead. Attempts to alter course failed, and despite turning the bow out to sea, the Loch Ard struck Mutton Bird Island and quickly sank, leaving just two 18 year old survivors, passenger Eva Carmichael, and crewman Tom Pearce.

Contemporary salvage by local consortium Howarth, Miller and Matthews of Geelong took place on the site following the wreck, and many items also drifted ashore amongst the salvaged items was the famous Minton Potters' Loch Ard Peacock (now housed at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum in Warrnambool).

The Loch Ard rests in almost 30m of water at the base of Mutton Bird Island in the Twelve Apostles Marine National Park near Port Campbell. Artefacts from the site are on display at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, the Port Campbell Visitor Information Centre, and Glenample Homestead near Port Campbell. Many items are held at Heritage Victoria's Conservation Laboratory, and some are in the care of private custodians.

The site is notoriously difficult to dive due to the dynamic and treacherous conditions on the Shipwreck Coast. Patient divers will enjoy a most spectacular shipwreck experience if the weather is in their favour.

Falls of Halladale (1908)

The coastal waters of Victoria are home to a collection of international cargo vessels that were lost in the treacherous conditions of Bass Strait. The ‘Eye of the Needle’ was the final leg of a long voyage that commenced on the other side of the globe. Threading this needle – the task of sailing a ship through the narrow passage between the Bass Strait islands, then into the 3km wide entrance to Port Phillip, was one of the most dangerous and dreaded segments of the voyage, and ultimately the trap for many ships.

The Scottish-built four-masted barque Falls of Halladale was one of the great vessels to fail the final challenge of its journey. The international trader was 102 days out from New York with £50,000 of industrial and domestic cargo including slate, sewing machines and railway iron when it ran ashore at Peterborough on 14 November 1908.

A mist over the land had created an optical illusion of a distant horizon, and the crew thought the ship was 10 miles off the coast when it was less than one mile away, heading for the rocks. When the danger was discovered, it was too late. The anchors could not be let go in time, and the ship had no headway to change tack. The Falls of Halladale struck heavily amidships, about 200 yards from shore.

A contemporary photograph of the wreck shows picnickers on the nearby cliffs viewing the spectacular sight of the 2000 ton iron ship stuck fast with its sails set.

2008 marks the 100-year anniversary of the wrecking of the Falls of Halladale. Local residents organised a commemorative event on the weekend following the 14th of November to remember and celebrate the occasion.


Diver at the Clonmel

Clonmel. Source: Heritage Victoria.

The luxury paddle steamer Clonmel was one of the first steamships to operate in Australian waters. It was also one of the last wooden steamships to be built before iron became the more popular construction material.

The Clonmel was built especially for the Australian intercolonial passenger trade, intending to ply the sea-route between Sydney, Melbourne and Launceston in the early 1840s. In an era of slow, uncomfortable, unreliable and dangerous travel between the colonies, the imminent arrival of the luxurious steamer was welcome news for the isolated colonists.

On just its second inter-colonial voyage, en route from Sydney to Port Phillip (Melbourne) with 80 passengers and crew, the Clonmel stuck a sandbar on the east coast of Victoria. Despite frantic attempts to clear the vessel by jettisoning cargo and letting go the anchors, the stern settled heavily into the sandbank.

The passengers were transferred to the shore, where a makeshift survivors camp was established. The following day a complement of five crew members and a passenger, Mr Edwards, under the command of passenger and experienced seamen Mr DC Simpson, set out in one of the Clonmel's whaleboats for Port Phillip, taking 60 hours to battle the wind and waves and finally arrive exhausted in Williamstown. Nine days after the wrecking, two rescue vessels we despatched to the Clonmel's survivors camp and the remaining passengers were transferred to their destination.

Favourable descriptions of the arable land and ‘welcoming bay’ near the wrecksite were seized upon with great enthusiasm by the press and shortly thereafter the Gipps Land Company was formed. The wreck of the Clonmel was consequently instrumental in opening up East Gippsland for trade and pastoral settlement, and throughout the 1850s and 1860s was the centre of trade for south eastern Victoria.

Famous Australian shipwrecks overseas

AE2 (1915)

AE2 submarine

AE2 submarine. Source: Mark Spencer.

When Lieutenant Stoker and his Australian and part British crew entered the Turkish Dardanelles Strait on 25 April 1915, they were making history. By the following day they had successfully penetrated the heavily mined and fortified passage as the Anzac troops battled to keep a foothold on the peninsula. The AE2  became the first submarine to breach the Strait and harass its Turkish defenders. By 30 April however, AE2 was caught on the surface by Turkish warships and forced to scuttle, the crew becoming POWs for the rest of the war. In September 2007 a joint Australian-Turkish archaeological team , under the direction of the AE2 Commemorative Foundation Ltd. undertook a detailed archaeological survey of the wreck site which had first been located and inspected in 1998. Preliminary survey results are available online. The team will meet in Istanbul in April 2008 to present a range of short - long term management options for the important submarine shipwreck.

Historic Diving in Australasia- The Niagara Gold Salvage

The recovery of eight tons of gold from the RMS Niagara during World War Two is considered the greatest gold salvage in history. The Niagara was sailing from Australia to Canada carrying the British gold when it hit a German mine and sank in deep water off the coast of New Zealand. Captain John Williams, who ran a stevedoring company in Melbourne, was asked to attempt to recover the gold. He put together a team that included the leading deep-sea diver of the era, John Johnstone. Then he designed an underwater observation chamber that could be lowered to depths of 200 metres with a man inside it. Williams was unable to find a suitable salvage vessel during the War so he refloated a rusting hulk he found abandoned in Auckland Harbour. Over a period of a year he, Johnstone and the team of 16 men found the Niagara and using their observation chamber and explosives, blasted a hole in the side of the ship. They encountered German mines, official red tape, bad weather and a host of problems, but still managed to recover over 90% of the gold, which they returned to the Bank of England.