Virtual reality reveals secrets of WWII wreck

80 years since the first sinking of a Japanese submarine by a Royal Australian Navy warship during World War II, a new virtual reality experience developed by maritime archaeologists is offering unprecedented access to a vessel sunk while on a secret mission in northern Australian waters.

80 Japanese crew members died aboard submarine I-124 in 1942 when it was sunk by Allied forces 65 kilometres off the coast of Darwin Harbour.

The historic wreck is a war grave, protected by Commonwealth legislation with diving near the site strictly controlled, so this new virtual reality experience is the only way the Australian and Japanese public can see the submarine.

In anticipation of the anniversary, the Northern Territory Government Heritage Branch undertook a joint project with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) from the AIMS research vessel Solander to map the wreck using state-of-the-art remote sensing equipment in October 2021.

Dr John McCarthy, a maritime archaeologist at Flinders University was then commissioned to create a virtual dive experience to show how this data is being used to understand and monitor this site, one of Australia’s most important wrecks.

“Drawing on our data, and historic ship plans and photographs, we’ve created a virtual dive experience in which the video takes the viewer through the data gathering process, and then takes you down into the deep, to experience the wreck first-hand,” says Dr McCarthy, Maritime Archaeology Lecturer in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University.

“The archaeological survey shows that the wreck is in good condition, but with some signs of degradation of the outer hull that require further investigation. Our aim was to create a realistic virtual experience with an accurate digital reconstruction of the submarine given the historical significance of the wreck in Australia and Japan.”

The wreckage is considered a highly significant site of shared heritage between Australia and Japan and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended a 2018 memorial service in Darwin honouring the Japanese  sailors who died.

Dr McCarthy says developments in virtual technology are making it possible to finally explore wrecks and submerged landscapes previously hidden to the wider public.

The wreck is protected by the Commonwealth Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018, which is administered by the Northern Territory Government’s Heritage Branch in Commonwealth Waters off the Northern Territory coast. This project was undertaken with funding assistance from the Commonwealth.

The ‘virtual experience’ is published through YouTube in both English and Japanese and is available to anyone with a VR headset, smart phone, or tablet.

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