Shipwreck finder gets honorary OAM

By Aaron Smith 4 November 2010
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The man who led the discovery of two Australian warships will receive an honorary Order of Australia.

A SHIPWRECK HUNTER WHO discovered two Australian World War II navy vessels will receive an honorary Medal of the Order of Australia, the Governor-General’s office announced this week. 

In an interesting twist, David Mearns, an American marine scientist who lives in the United Kingdom, first found out about the award when Australian Geographic contacted him for comment on the news. “It’s a double surprise to me. First that I am to receive the Order of Australia medal … Second, that anyone knows I am in Sydney,” says David, who is coincidentally in Australia this week for unrelated reasons.

In March 2008, David and his team discovered the HMAS Sydney II on the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Then in December 2009 they discovered the AHS (Australian Hospital Ship) Centaur off the coast of southern Queensland, solving two World War II mysteries.

Already in the Guinness Book of Records for discovering the deepest shipwreck ever found (the German Rio Grande at 5762 m) David says that finding the HMAS Sydney II was “bigger than the Titanic” for Australia. “It was the unfindable shipwreck and understanding its importance to Australia made it the ultimate challenge.”

The AHS Centaur (Photo: Australian War Museum)

“I stuck to my guns”

He funded the search himself for six years before the Australian government started footing the bill. “I reckon I put in two man-years of effort, and I was just one of many people involved. There were a couple of times I thought of giving it up. A lot of people said we were looking in the wrong area; I would receive 20 to 30 emails a day criticising my approach – but I stuck to my guns.”

With no survivors from the HMAS Sydney II, the mystery was solved only by looking at the ship’s log of Theodor Detmers, skipper of German warship Kormoran, which sunk the HMAS Sydney II, before it sank as well. “The focus of my research was to verify Detmers’ information,” David says. “Often previous attempts got over-complicated. A whole decade was lost trying to plot the drift of life boats – but it was a complete red herring.”

Working as a professional ship wreck hunter for more than 20 years, David laughs off the suggestion of being a big kid at heart. “I know how lucky I am that I love what I do. However, that privilege comes with responsibility,” he says. He will receive his award early next year.