Mysterious New Shipwrecks Found In Australian Waters

Researchers have discovered four new 19th century shipwrecks in the Coral Sea.

When a team of explorers set out from Bundaberg two weeks ago, they were pretty sure they’d find something interesting in the Coral Sea. The area is notorious for wrecking many 19th century ships on the jagged underwater cliffs—and many of the wrecks are yet to be found.

Last week the joint expedition by researchers from Australian National Maritime Museum (ANNM) and the Silentworld Foundation yielded a whopping four discoveries—previously unknown remains of ships thought to be at least 150 years old.

The team discovered the four sites on the Kenn Reefs, some 520 kilometres off the eastern coast of Australia. According to the archaeologists, at least one of the ships carried convicts and free settlers to Australia, thus we might glimpse new insights into early Australian history.

A cluster of mid-nineteenth century Admiralty Pattern

A cluster of mid-nineteenth century Admiralty Pattern anchors found at one of the shipwreck sites discovered at Kenn Reefs.
IMAGE COURTESY JULIA SUMERLING
/SILENTWORLD FOUNDATION

“The team had seven days on the reef to conduct the survey and recording of the shipwreck sites,” says maritime archaeologist Paul Hundley, director of the Silentworld Foundation.

“The expedition was about a year in the planning stage. This included historical research into the ships known to have been lost on Kenn Reefs and the accounts provided by the shipwreck survivors.”

Even though the explorers had a pretty good idea where to look thanks to previous surveys and historical records, it was still exciting to dive to the seabed and see the remains of ships that had been missing for over a hundred years.

Maritime archaeologists Renee Malliaros (left) and Pete Illidge (right)

Maritime archaeologists Renee Malliaros (left) and Pete Illidge (right) work with team member Lee Graham (centre) to document a cannon at one of the shipwreck sites discovered at Kenn Reefs.
IMAGE COURTESYJULIA SUMERLING
/SILENTWORLD FOUNDATION

Apart from getting their feet wet, the researchers also used a magnetometer to detect changes in the Earth’s magnetic field due to large iron objects underwater, such as cannons and anchors. This helped them to accurately map the wreck sites.

“The 1850s, when the majority of shipwrecks occurred at Kenn Reefs, were a period of increased migration to Australia,” explains Dr James Hunter, curator at the ANNM who took part in the expedition.

“Ships were the lifeblood of these activities, but for the most part get scant mention in archival sources. Archaeology provides a unique opportunity to significantly expand our knowledge of these vessels—how they were designed and built, who operated them, and what they were carrying.”

The team had to receive special permits to explore these marine archaeological sites, since any shipwrecks older than 75 years—including the ones at Kenn Reefs—are protected under the Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976). It’s illegal to disturb them or remove any items without authorisation.

“These sites are fragile and irreplaceable, and in most instances have become embedded within their surrounding coral reef and sand cay ecosystems,” says Hunter. “Consequently, they should be left undisturbed.”

Australian National Maritime Museum maritime archaeologist Dr James Hunter

Australian National Maritime Museum maritime archaeologist Dr James Hunter photogrammetrically records an anchor on one of the shipwreck sites discovered at Kenn Reefs.
IMAGE COURTESY JULIA SUMERLING/SILENTWORLD FOUNDATION

Armed with all the new data collected on this year’s expedition, the researchers now have detective work ahead of them to identify the individual ships that met their untimely end on the coral atoll.

“This work is complicated by the fact that these ships wreck physically very close to one another,” says Hundley. But the researchers do have plenty of historical records to go by.

“Because the majority of these wrecks occurred in the mid-19th century, we have very good records of the vessels, their captains and their construction, as well as written accounts of the circumstances of their wrecking and subsequent survival activities afterward.”

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