Scanning for shipwrecks

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Maritime archaeologists plan to use irregularities in the earth’s magnetic field to try and find two of WA’s oldest shipwrecks which have been lost in the Southern Ocean for almost 200 years. 

Ross Anderson inspects a wreck [Credit: Lincoln Baker/The West Australian]

The Mountaineer, a wooden cutter, and the steam ship Rodondo sank in waters off the State’s south coast and their wrecks have never been found. 

WA Maritime Museum curator Ross Anderson said he hoped magnetometers, which can be used at great depths to detect the presence of metal, would reveal the wrecks. 

The waters off Esperance and the Recherche Archipelago, which consists of 105 islands and 1500 islets, have become a graveyard for ships over the last four centuries. 

During a recent expedition with heritage group Gabbie Kylie Foundation, Mr Anderson examined what are believed to be undocumented parts – a large section of mast and a bracket – of the Belinda shipwreck, which sank off Middle Island in May 1824. 

“When the colonies started, this was a shipping route to Adelaide. They did not go out to sea. They followed the coast like a handrail. This was quite a well-known spot,” Mr Anderson said. 

The British-built brig Belinda arrived in Tasmania in November 1823 and travelled to Sydney before embarking on its fateful voyage to the sealing grounds of the Recherche Archipelago. 

It was wrecked in Middle Island’s Goose Island Bay only a short distance from the shore. Only one side of the vessel, copper bolts and ballast stones are visible today. 

The Belinda, which is protected as a historic shipwreck, has national significance as the only example of a vessel from Australia’s sealing industry and is the third oldest post-Australian settlement site on the WA coast. 

Mr Anderson said the Mountaineer and the Rodondo were two of the lost shipwrecks that could be found with a magnetometer. 

“The Rodondo is thought to be wrecked on Pollock Reef, further out from Salisbury Island,” he said. 

“The Rodondo hit that submerged reef. We hope to see it with a magnetometer, which detects anomalies in the earth’s magnetic fields. The weather’s a bit funny and it’s hard to get to. We would look to lock it in as a major project and see how much it would cost.” 

The Mountaineer was wrecked in Thistle Cove on the Esperance coast during a gale on March 24 1835. A Perth Gazette article at the time reported that the Mountaineer’s commander Evanson Jansen arrived on Middle Island in a boat with eight other people a few weeks later. 

One of them, James Newell, told Albany courthouse he stayed for several months and worked as a sealer for Australia’s only known pirate, a man called Black Jack Anderson. 

Newell said Anderson later took him and his friend James Manning to the mainland, leaving them without provisions to make their way to King George Sound in Albany – a journey that took them seven weeks. 

Two months after the Mountaineer was wrecked, five others left Middle Island in the boat without any provisions to go to King George Sound. It is not known whether any of them made it. 

In 1991 the archipelago narrowly escaped an environmental disaster when the 33,054-tonne bulk carrier Sanko Harvest struck a reef near Cape Le Grand national park and sank. 

Thousands of tonnes of oil and fertiliser spilled into marine life-rich Southern Ocean and 75,000kg of polluted sand was removed over a 60km area. 

Author: Angela Pownall | Source: The West Australian [April 18, 2012]

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