Koombana Bay archaeological excavations 8-16 February 2016

Article | Updated 4 years ago

Samuel Wright excavation site in Bunbury
Wreck excavation site in Bunbury
WA Museum

The Bunbury whalers

Photo Gallery of the 2016 Dig

In the 19th century whale oil was a valuable commodity, used for street lighting, to make soap, candles and a myriad of other domestic and industrial products. American, French and British whalers were particularly active in hunting whales throughout the world’s southern hemisphere oceans, following their habitat, seasonal migration routes and breeding grounds.

Three North American whaling ships wrecked in northwest gales at Koombana Bay, the Samuel Wright (1840), North America (1840) and North America (1843), lie 10,000 nautical miles from home, located beneath a car park and vacant land in the south-western regional centre of Bunbury. Excavations in 2011 and 2016 have revealed amazing stories about whaling in the Indian Ocean, shipwreck discovery and conservation, and Western Australia’s rich maritime heritage.

Recent work conducted between 8-16 February 2016 excavated the wreck of a large wooden shipwreck, confirmed to be the Salem whaling ship Samuel Wright (1831-1840).

Read about the history of the Samuel Wright here. 

Video Animations of the Samuel Wright Shipwreck Site


The 2016 Dig 

The Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife and the Western Australian Museum, in conjunction with excavation contractors Precision Drainage, conducted excavations at Lot 882, Koombana Bay Drive between 8 and 16 February 2016. The archaeology team consisted of maritime archaeologists and conservators from the Western Australian Museum, a maritime archaeologist from the Australian National Maritime Museum and archaeology students from the University of Western Australia and Notre Dame University.

Key archaeological findings are as follows:

  • A large wooden feature identified through water probe surveys during November 2011 and November 2015 buried between 3.5 and 6.0m below ground surface level is confirmed to be the remains of the intact lower hull of a wooden shipwreck;
  • Excavations uncovered a continuous section of the port hull running to the bow and the amidships-stern section of starboard hull;
  • A number '8’ waterline mark located 1.24m below the top of the stempost and other coherent hull remains indicate approximately 3.0 to 3.6 metres of intact lower hull of the vessel is preserved;
  • The measured length from bow to amidships is 17m, giving an estimated overall length of 34m, while the maximum width between hull structure exposed at the approximate waterline amidships was 7.6m;
  • Key structural timber features identified were ceiling (inner) planking, hull frames, outer planking, sacrificial outer planking, the stem-post, cant frames (frames not set at right angles to the keel), two breasthooks (large timbers reinforcing the bow structure), vertical timber deck support stanchions and an enclosed pump well;
  • Wood identification results from timbers in the stern section are white oak (frames, inner planking and outer planking) and yellow pine (sacrificial outer hull sheathing);
  • A lower breasthook at the bow is an obvious repair having been fashioned from an unworked log/ branch. Other hull repairs observed include a graving piece and log frame located along the port side hull;
  • Timbers buried below the original pre-1896 beach level are in a very good appearance of preservation with original surfaces intact. A full conservation report into the environment and state of preservation of timbers is forthcoming;
  • Fastenings were primarily wooden treenails with copper bolts and spikes, and iron bolts and spikes;
  • The site is archaeologically rich with up to an estimated one metre thick dense deposit of archaeological artefacts and iron concretions encapsulated in the lower hull of the vessel. These artefacts would have been quickly trapped and buried below the hull waterline and beach sand level at the time of the vessel’s wrecking;
  • A total of 219 objects were registered including timber samples, iron concretions, hand-made red bricks, firewood, dunnage (wooden sticks and branches used to help stow the cargo in the hold), wooden casks, ballast stones, leather shoes, clay pipe fragments, ship waterline markings, glass fragments, iron concretions and ships’ fastenings;
  • 32 artefacts were repatriated to the site in their trench of origin mainly being miscellaneous timber and iron concretions assessed to have little diagnostic or interpretive value;
  • Surrounding archaeological contexts reveal environmental information including original beach levels indicated by layers of seaweed and shells. This is evidence that the site was left undisturbed by 1960s sand-mining activities;
  • Recording methods included baseline and offset measurements for drawing hull structure plans and profiles and fastening plans, total station and survey grade GPS for site plans, elevations and levels, digital photography, three-dimensional (3D) photogrammetry with 3D model outputs using Agisoft Photoscan, Blender and Panotour computer programs, and a laser scan survey;
  • A conservation survey included collecting sediment cores to measure pH and oxygen levels, timber degradation samples and metal samples for corrosion studies to evaluate the current stability and long-term preservation conditions on the site;
  • On completion of the excavation timber remains were covered in geotextile with sandbags supporting fragile structures, and the site was reburied;
  • A full archaeological excavation and conservation report is in preparation.

Identification of the Samuel Wright

An assessment supporting the identification of the shipwreck as the remains of the North American whaling ship Samuel Wright (1831-1840) is based on the following evidence:

  • Historical information - Surveyor Raymond Parks conducted historical research into government surveyor Henry Ommaney’s original field notes from his 1841-42 survey of Bunbury (Parks 1990). Parks’ resurvey of Ommaney’s Bunbury town plan resulted in a position for the Samuel Wright’s mast and a concrete plinth was placed within 1.5m of this location to mark the spot. Water probe surveys in the location of the plinth in November 2011, November 2015 and subsequently the February 2016 excavation confirmed a large shipwreck in this location;
  • Location - The shipwreck is the closest of any wreck so far located on Lot 881 and 882 to the original beach foredunes. Historical information described the Samuel Wright as having been close to shore;
  • Timber identification - White oak is endemic to Europe and North America while yellow pine is endemic to the east and west coasts of North America overall indicating a likely North American origin of the wreck – the Samuel Wright was built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on the east coast of North America in 1831;
  • Artefacts - chopped firewood and numerous red hand-made bricks are consistent with the use of brick try-works (furnaces used to render whale blubber into oil) aboard whaling vessels, and are comparative with finds of hand-made red bricks aboard other 19th century shipwrecks involved in whaling activities—the Samuel Wright was involved in bay whaling at Koombana Bay at the time it was wrecked;
  • Hull dimensions - Samuel Wright’s recorded dimensions are 33.5 x 8.5 x 4.2m, 372 tons – the exposed length of the site was 28m with an estimated overall length of 34m, while the maximum width at the waterline approximately amidships is 7.6m. This width is consistent allowing for increased widening of the maximum breadth at deck level amidships;
  • Structural dimensions - The stem-post dimensions of 440 x 385 mm (17.3 x 15.2 inches), inner and outer planking thickness of 7.5mm (3 inches) and trenail diameter of 30-35mm (1 1/4 inches), are consistent with an early 19th century 300-400 ton vessel – the Samuel Wright was 372 tons;
  • Ship construction – the widespread use of trenails with additional metal fastenings and presence of wooden breasthooks and cant frames are indicative of early 19th century shipbuilding prior to increasing use of metal fastenings and iron frames/ knees– the Samuel Wright was built in 1831;
  • Metal fastenings analysis –Copper and copper alloy fastenings in early 19th century ships were primarily made of pure copper. Qualitative X-ray fluorescence (XRF) elemental analysis analyses confirm mean copper contents of 98.15±1.07% in a sample of seven copper alloy fastenings with the addition of arsenic that was deliberately added to make copper harder and more resistant to erosion corrosion. This result is typical for high quality copper fastenings produced for early 19th century North American shipbuilding prior to introduction of copper alloys with greater percentages of zinc and tin from 1832. Zinc leaded bronze sheathing tacks were also analysed with 78.31±0.76% copper, lead and tin composition percentages similar to those found on the North American-built China trader Rapid (1807-1811) wrecked at Point Cloates, Western Australia. Overall alloys used do not correspond to any modern alloys but are characteristic of bronzes used in the construction and maintenance of ships in the first half of the 19th century. The use of patented Muntz metal and other ‘yellow metal’ alloys ranging between 50-63% copper and 50-37% zinc were increasingly used from 1832. This use of almost pure copper fastenings, sheathing and zinc leaded bronze sheathing tacks supports a likely pre-1832 build date. The Samuel Wright was built in 1831;
  • Consideration of other possibilities - There are four other large wooden wrecks wrecked in this area of Koombana Bay of similar size and tonnage including two other American whalers built in the northern hemisphere that could potentially be confused with the wreck of the Samuel Wright. These wrecks can be discounted for the following reasons:
Wreck Details Loss Comments on ID
Annie M. Young b. Nova Scotia 1863, 303 tons, 33.2 x 8.1 x 5.3m, iron frames/ composite construction, yellow metal sheathing Driven onto north beach about 2.8km from the inlet Discount – later construction with iron frames, yellow metal sheathing and described wreck location too far east
Cingalee b. Dundee, Scotland 1872, 337 tons, 40.1 x 7.9 x 4.5m, copper fastened and sheathed with yellow metal Ran ashore 400m east of estuary Discount – later construction, yellow metal sheathing and whaling artefacts not consistent. Possibly the large wooden wreck located in 2011 30m north of Samuel Wright.
North America (1834-1840) b. east coast North America, 29.1 x 7.9 x 4.0m, 260 tons Blown ashore same gale as Samuel Wright Discount – dimensions too small and historical information indicates wreck was almost entirely dismantled
North America (1804-1843) b. 1804, New York, 29.1 x 7.9 x 4m, 285 tons Blown ashore and ended up 60m east of Samuel Wright Discount - dimensions too small, wreck exposed lying north-south during sand mining in 1963 previously identified as North America (1843) This site has been located through historical photo transits to be lying approximately 60m east of the Samuel Wright 

Statement of Significance

Historical Significance

The Samuel Wright has high historical significance as one of the earliest American whaling ships to visit Western Australia’s south coast from at least 1837 to conduct seasonal bay whaling activities. Whalers knew the rich hunting grounds off Western Australia’s coast as the ‘New Holland Ground’. Although originally built for the North Atlantic cotton trade, Samuel Wright was converted to a whaler and is recorded as being one of the largest and finest ships of the Salem whaling fleet.

Visits by American whaling ships including the Samuel Wright were crucial to maintaining the viability of small Western Australian coastal settlements such as Bunbury, Flinders Bay (Augusta) and King George Sound with their associated trade in imported goods in exchange for fresh provisions such as vegetables and kangaroo meat. The sale of whaling gear from eight shipwrecked American whaling vessels to local interests and the involvement of experienced American whaling crewmen (some who had deserted their ships) were key factors in the successful establishment of colonial shore whaling operations which benefited early Western Australian society and economy (Gibbs 2000). King George Sound residents held an interest in the Samuel Wright during its time there in 1837 (PGWAJ 18/11/1837 p.1008), probably cooperating in bay whaling activities for a share of the oil. This cooperation gives an insight into Western Australia’s early colonial economy.

Samuel Wright additionally has high historical significance for its association with the early development of Bunbury. One of the masts on the wreck was still standing when it was used as a reference point in Government Surveyor Henry Ommaney’s work in pegging out the Bunbury town plan and land allotments between 1841-42—the City of Bunbury’s town plan is therefore based on the Samuel Wright. Captain Francis Coffin lived aboard the Samuel Wright around 1840-41, during which time he rented the wreck out to the Western Australian Company as a warehouse for their stores (PGWAJ 1/12/1841 p.2), making it one of Bunbury’s first buildings. Some of Samuel Wright’s timbers were salvaged and used in the construction of at least one of the Western Australian Company storehouses constructed inside Leschenault Inlet in 1841. Captain Coffin subsequently built and lived on a farm on 100 acres of land at the Picton River, which he later sold to Reverend Wollaston. Reverend Wollaston used this land to build the first Anglican church in the Southwest.

The Samuel Wright is representative of world systems relating to the northern hemisphere whale oil trade, and the activities of American whalers and merchants that extended their economic frontiers to all corners of the world’s oceans during the late 18th and early to mid-19th century. This vigorous phase of maritime exploration led to early cross-cultural contact occurring with many Pacific, African and Australian indigenous societies, including in Western Australia.

Archaeological significance

The archaeological significance of the wreck of Samuel Wright is wide-reaching. It includes substantial intact remains of up to 3.5m of the ship’s lower hull including features not often preserved such as vertical deck stanchions. The hull demonstrates evidence of early 19th century North American shipbuilding practices, and repairs carried out during its working life.

The wreck and its surrounding environmental/ archaeological context showing historical beach levels are evidence that it was not interfered with by industrial sand mining operations carried out in the 1960s, and is thus an undisturbed site.

The hull is estimated to contain up to a one metre thick deposit of a variety of archaeological evidence including fragile organic materials such as wooden barrels and casks, iron concretions, rope and leather shoes, and brick, glass and ceramic artefacts.

Samuel Wright has high research potential to obtain further information on North American whaling activities, ship layout, cargo packaging techniques and long-distance voyaging in the early 19th century.

Samuel Wright is additionally associated with the wider complex of Koombana Bay shipwrecks that include two other American whaling ships the North America (1840) (not yet located) and North America (1843) (located in 1962-63 but position not accurately fixed), making the Koombana Bay wreck resource of state, national and international significance.

Legal protection

The Samuel Wright is protected by the Maritime Archaeology Act 1973. 


Gibbs, M., 2000, Conflict and commerce: American whalers and the Western Australian colonies 1826-1888, Great Circle: Journal of the Australian Association of Maritime History, 22 (2): 3-23.

Parks, R., 1990, The Bunbury town survey—A surveyor’s view, Early Days—Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society (Inc.), Vol.10 Part 2: 157-167.

Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal newspaper

Related links

Samuel Wright

North America (1840)

North America (1843)

Charles Morgan whaling ship museum, Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, USA

Bunbury Whalers 2011 webpage

2011 Koombana Bay foreshore excavation report

McAllister, 2013, Sturdy Stout and Strong: A typology for early nineteenth century American whalers, Masters degree thesis, Department of Archaeology, Flinders University of South Australia, Bedford Park

Media links

2011 Carpark Whalers YouTube videos by Vue Group

ABC 7.30 Report, 28 December 2011

ABC News, 11 February 2016-02-26