Carpark shipwrecks and Coral Sea treasure

Maddy Fowler measuring the anchor of the Royal Charlotte. Photo by Xanthe Rivett
Maddy Fowler measuring the anchor of the Royal Charlotte. Photo by Xanthe Rivett

A council carpark seems an unlikely place to hunt for shipwrecks, but for Flinders maritime archaeology students taking part in a summer field project in Western Australia, a site near Bunbury yielded the remnants of no less than three 19th century vessels.

Five metres beneath the carpark on Koombana Bay, timber and metal remnants of three wooden ships were found, including a possible American whaling ship. Historical maps pointed to the location, with further clues coming from ground penetrating radar and magnetometer surveys.

Nine students from Flinders joined other students from the University of Western Australia in the excavation and documentation of the ships, which was led by researchers from the WA Museum with support from the Bunbury Council.

Koombana Bay was the scene of numerous 19th century shipwrecks, although its shoreline has since been significantly altered by port and harbour development.

After the site was thoroughly excavated and recorded, the ships were backfilled with sand and left for future researchers to revisit.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, three PhD students from Flinders – Debra Shefi, James Hunter and Maddy Fowler – accompanied curators from the Australian National Maritime Museum, members of the Silent World Foundation and staff from James Cook University on a search for the wreck of Royal Charlotte.

The Australian Research Council-funded researchers left Gladstone, Queensland, on an 18-day expedition into the Coral Sea.

Royal Charlotte was a 471-tonne, three-masted wooden ship that was en route to India with a contingent of troops when it ran aground 450km off the coast of Queensland in 1825.

After wrecking most of Royal Charlotte’s crew, the soldiers and their families moved to a small sand cay more than a kilometre away, dispatching a small boat to Moreton Bay for help.

Living on salvaged supplies, the survivors remained on the cay for six weeks until their rescue by the government brig Amity.

Fieldwork for the research team consisted of swim line and diving surveys, with magnetometer and underwater metal detectors surveys.

Submerged items verified the location of the wreck after two days, and by the end of the expedition large portions of timber, metal rudder fittings, pulley sheaves, a lead scupper, copper fastenings, an iron staple knee, anchor chain, anchor and cannon were recovered.

“The shipwreck is significant to Australian maritime archaeology and maritime history, and I enjoyed being part of the search for, and subsequent documentation of, the wreck site,” James Hunter said.

“The Maritime Program is excited to see Flinders students take part in several significant shipwreck projects around the coast of Australia. The partnerships we forge with museums and agencies are a benefit to the university, the students and those organisations with which we work,” according to Dr Jennifer McKinnon, Lecturer in Maritime Archaeology.

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One thought on “Carpark shipwrecks and Coral Sea treasure

  1. this is great. i would love to see an interactive map with all the shipwrecks off the australian coast documented and photographed etc. what fascinating research.

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