The Historic Shipwreck Act

Article | Updated 9 months ago

On 19 November 2008, the 67th anniversary of the battle between HMAS Sydney (II) and HSK Kormoran, the Honourable Peter Garrett, Commonwealth Minister for the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts declared the wrecks and their associated relics to be historic shipwrecks, with associated Protected Zones. HMAS Sydney (II) and HSK Kormoran are the first shipwrecks to be declared historic under the act.

Wartime shipwreck sites are sometimes called ‘war graves’, but despite the great loss of life and possible presence of human remains, they are not officially recognised as such as ‘war graves’. These have to be in an officially designated cemetery with a headstone, and administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. These shipwrecks are nevertheless referred to as ‘war graves’, being respected as submerged tombs and as the final resting place for those lost in the battle and aftermath.

The sites are protected under the act so that it is an offence to disturb, anchor on, interfere with, remove relics or sell or dispose of relics. Additionally, being marked as protected on nautical charts means that vessels cannot enter the area without a permit.

How the Sites will be Managed

The Western Australian Museum’s Department of Maritime Archaeology is responsible via the Director for performing tasks delegated from the Commonwealth Minister. This includes wreck inspections, responding to public reports, administering permits and maintaining databases of the shipwrecks and their associated relics.

The Western Australian Museum, as delegated manager for HMAS Sydney (II) and HSK Kormoran sites, will work in cooperation with the Commonwealth Government, the Royal Australian Navy, and the German Government through diplomatic channels to ensure the sites are protected in perpetuity in according with the world’s best practice guidelines for the protection of underwater cultural heritage sites. The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001.

While the great depth of HMAS Sydney (II) and HSK Kormoran sites precludes SCUBA diving, human interference is still possible via jettisoning or dumping of intrusive modern material onto the sites, sub-sea operations and interference with or removal of material from the sites by remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

The aim of future management is to ensure the sites are not disturbed, do not have material removed from them and that intrusive material is not deposited on the site. For instance, any vessels wishing to lay wreaths must ensure the materials are biodegradable. In responding to applications for entry to the zones, cruise operators are advised of the memorials at Carnarvon where the German sailors came ashore, of the evocative HMAS Sydney (II) Memorial at Geraldton, and the nearby war cemetery where the ‘Unknown Sailor’ from Christmas Island now lies. The Western Australian Museum’s exhibits and education programs at Geraldton and Fremantle are another feature. In also commemorating the lost men these are designed to add to the Australian War Memorial’s exhibits and websites, to the Finding Sydney Foundation’s Virtual Memorial and to the Royal Australin Navy’s Sea Power Centre–Australia’s historical data and honour rolls.

The use of ROVs will not be allowed other than for non-disturbing research purposes. A great deal of information has been obtained using side scan sonar and ROVs, for example the Finding Sydney Foundation's research and the Cole Inquiries conclusive findings on the battle and final moments of the Sydney based on detailed analysis of underwater photographs and video.

It is important to note that both warships remain the property of their respective national governments, with neither being captured, expressly abandoned nor surrendered. As such any management of HMAS Sydney (II) and HSK Kormoran sites beyond the UNESCO guidelines will require further consultation and approval from the Australian Commonwealth and German Governments.