21 historic shipwrecks around Australia

By Aaron Smith 17 March 2011
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There are more than 8000 shipwrecks off the coast of Australia, but only a quarter of those have been found.

THOUGH SHIPWRECKS RARELY HAPPEN these days, historically, many have met their treacherous end in Australian waters.

In fact, surrounding our island continent are nearly 8000 registered wrecks, ranging in age from the 1600s to present day. Of these wrecks, only 2000 have ever been located.

The English vessel Trial, lost in 1622 on the northwest coast of Western Australia, is our nation’s oldest-recorded shipwreck. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Dutch East India Company dominated the seas, their ships the Batavia, Vergulde Draeck, Zuytdorp and Zeewijk also fell foul to the Western Australia coast.

Sharing this heritage with other countries, some Australian shipwrecks are associated with significant events in international history, such as the flagship of the 1788 first fleet, HMS Sirius, which was lost at Norfolk Island in 1790. Later in 1791, HMS Pandora, that was unsuccessfully despatched to find HMS Bounty and her mutinous crew in the Pacific, sank with all hands lost on the Great Barrier Reef near Cape York.

Then there were the World War II casualties, such as Kormoran, the German auxiliary cruiser and Australia’s HMAS Sydney that both sunk in 1941 after a mutually destructive battle off the coast of Western Australia. It took an American shipwreck hunter six years to discover the wrecks in 2008. Then there is also the USS Peary, a destroyer sunk in Darwin Harbour when the Japanese first bombed Australian soil on 19 February 1942. Later in that same year in Sydney Harbour, the Japanese midget submarine M24 also sunk during a raid, only to be discovered by amateur divers in 2006.

Historic shipwrecks with protected status

Any wreck 75 years or older is automatically protected under Commonwealth law by the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. At the time a world first, this act recognises the cultural significance historic shipwrecks have and protects them against commercial salvage. More than 6500 of our near 8000 wrecks are protected under this Act. This law also currently protects half a million historic shipwreck relics and artefacts in various public and private collections.

In 2001, UNESCO devised the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage status, to help countries effectively protect and preserve their wrecks. It is very similar to Australia’s Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.

Untouched sometimes for centuries, often buried in sand and not exposed to oxygen, these wrecks can become time capsules, preserved in their marine environments much better than if they were on land. Fragments of the 1629 wrecked Dutch Batavia, for example, have allowed archaeologists to understand how ships of this period were constructed.

As diving technology improves and as the numbers of enthusiasts taking up wreck diving increases, numbers of our wrecks have been declared protected zones to limit and regulate access. 


Protected shipwrecks in Australian waters View Large Map

List of protected shipwrecks in Australian waters

1. HMS Pandora

The Pandora sunk on 29 August 1791 on the outer Great Barrier Reef while on the return mission to locate the HMS Bounty and her mutinous crew in the Pacific Ocean. In all, 35 lives were lost.

2. HM Colonial Schooner Mermaid

Wrecked on 13 June 1829 on the Great Barrier Reef in north Queensland, it was discovered in 2009. This 21-metre, wooden vessel built in India, had circumnavigated the continent on a exploratory voyage and was used to supply the colonies at Port Macquarie, Moreton Bay and Norfolk Island.

3. Foam

In February 1893, this schooner was wrecked on Myrmidon Reef near Townsville in Queensland and discovered in 1982. One of over a hundred vessels used to transport 60,000 South Sea Islanders to work in Queensland’s cane fields, all aboard the Foam died, included the 84 Islanders returning to the Solomon Islands.

4. SS Yongala

Wrecked on 23 March 1911 during a cyclone on the Great Barrier Reef, 48 nautical miles south-east of Townsville, The Yongala is perhaps one of Australia’s best-known wrecks. It was discovered in 1958. For years after its disappearance, this 100 m-long passenger and steam freighter ship was rumoured to be seen as a ghost ship in the area. All 122 passengers and crew on the Yongala’s 99th and final journey died.

5. SS Gothenberg

The Gothenberg was wrecked on the night of 24 February 1875, in cyclonic conditions on the Great Barrier Reef near Holbourne Island. Captain James Pearce tried to free the steamship from the reef but it sank in the early hours of the morning. Considered one our worst maritime disasters, the ship’s sinking drowned 112 people; only 22 survived.

6. SS Llewellyn

Discovered in 1997, 35 km east of Mackay on the Great Barrier Reef, the American transport tanker disappeared during heavy gales on 17 July 1919 as it sailed from Rockhampton to Bowen. 

7.  HMS Porpoise

The Spanish-built sloop, the Porpoise, was a 10-gun store ship. Along with the companion ships the Cato and the Bridgewater, it left bound for India under the command of Lieutenant Robert Fowler in August 1803. The Porpoise and the Cato ran aground on a sandbank in the Coral Sea off Queensland on August 17, 1803, while the Bridgewater was able to avoid the disaster. It later reported that the other two ships were lost. The shipwrecked sailors salvaged timber from the Porpoise, build a cutter they called Hope and over the next nine days sailed more than 1200 kilometres to Sydney. Only three drowned. The wrecks were re-discovered in 1965

8. Cato

See above.

9. Florence D 

This US warship was sunk by Japanese bombers during the first air raid on Darwin in 19 February 1942. Four sailors died in the attack. The wreck was discovered in 2009.

10. Aarhus

This Danish barque was wrecked on 24 February 1894 off the southern Queensland coast whilst on route to New York. After three hours of rowing the 14 survivors reached nearby Moreton Island. It was discovered in 1979.

11. AHS Centaur

Sunk on 14 May 1943 by the Japanese submarine I-177, this Australian Hospital Ship was on its first medical voyage and was previously a merchant vessel. Of the 332 wounded soldiers, doctors and nurses, 268 died. It was discovered in 2008.

12. M24 Japanese submarine

The Japanese midget submarine, sunk in 1942 in the middle of World War II. Two of the three destroyed submarines were recovered from Sydney Harbour within a week, but the third, the M24, was found in November 2006 by weekend divers. It was the only Japanese submarine to fire its torpedoes and destroy a major target: the HMAS Kuttabul.

13. Lady Darling

This steamer sunk on an unchartered reef near Montague Island off the southern NSW coast on 21 November 1880. All on board survived. The wreck was discovered in 1996.

14. Bega

At about 7 pm on 5 April 1908, this 25-year-old steam freighting vessel began to lean increasingly. Captain Bishop suspected cargo had moved, destabilizing the vessel, which sank shortly after. It had been heading for Sydney and was discovered in 2004 off the southern NSW coast.

15. Clonmel

This vessel was one of the first luxury paddle streamers to operate in Australia. In 1841, on its second inter-colonial voyage en route from Sydney to Port Phillip, the Clonmel stuck a sandbar on the east coast of Victoria. All 80 passengers and crew survived.

16. SS Alert

Built for the gentle waters of Scottish lochs, the Alert was ill-equipped for seas of Bass Strait in which it worked. On 28 December 1893 she sank in rough seas and all but one of the 16 on board perished. It was discovered in 2007.

17. Zuytdorp

Meaning ‘south town’, the Dutch East India Company’s Zuytdorp left the Netherlands in 1712, bound for Indonesia with a load of silver coins. It was using the Roaring Forties trade winds to make a speedy journey across the Indian Ocean, but it never reached its destination, becoming wrecked on the coast of Western Australia. Some suspect survivors intermingled with local Aboriginal people.

18. HMAS Sydney (II)

This warship was lost in 1941, during World War II. On the afternoon of 19 November 1941, the light cruiser set sail from the Sunda Strait to Fremantle. During the journey, it encountered an unidentified vessel purporting to be the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka; Instead it was the disguised and heavily armed mercantile raider Kormoran. The ship was uncovered in 2008, 290 km off the coast of Western Australia and a study of it reveals that it was hit almost 90 times, including by a torpedo, from fire by the Kormoran. All 650 men were lost from the Sydney and about 20 men perished from the Kormoran. Both ships were awarded national heritage status in March 2011.

19. Kormoran

See above.

20. SMS Emden

This World War I German light cruiser ran aground after engaging more powerful HMAS Sydney (I) at the Battle of Coco on 9 November 1914. German losses were 131 dead and 65 wounded.

21. 1-124 Japanese submarine

This submarine was sunk on 20 January 1942, some 100km north-west of Darwin by American destroyers. There were no survivors.