Jeremy Green: The Deep-Water Graveyard

Video | Updated 4 months ago

The settlement of Western Australia meant that an increasing number of ships were sailing into port. Some of these ships were incapable of carrying on due to factors like age and storm damage, and so were being abandoned on pristine beaches. This caused unrest within the local community as it ‘didn’t look good’ to have wrecked ships lining the coast.

The Government acted on this unrest by designating a dumping area in Cockburn Sound but this caused further problems. It was then decided that the wrecks would instead be dumped in an area of 100m deep water, 10-15km south west of the west end of Rottnest Island.

Ships that weren’t fit to carry on were employed as hulks and stored coal or supplies to service other ships. Eventually, they became so rotten that they were deemed a danger to the port, at which point they were taken to the Graveyard.

Records exist of 50-60 ships from 1900s-50s that were sunk at the Graveyard. Dr. Michael McCarthy of the Western Australian Museum started to receive reports from fishermen that fish were aggregating around the site in great columns – needless to say a great spot for fishing. However, this indicated something existed on a deeper level, and the conclusion drawn was that this area was the location of the Deep-Water Graveyard.

The water certainly was deep: too deep, in fact, for maritime archaeologists to explore the area with the skills and tools that were available to them. Luckily, a decade ago, a local film company called Prospero Productions came to the Western Australian Museum and asked if there were any projects they would like to pursue that they wouldn’t usually get government funding for. The Deep-Water Graveyard was one of the possibilities mentioned.

A film was made about the Graveyard but, unfortunately, it never went to air: the story was not deemed ‘good enough.’ The story it told, though, was a fascinating one. Prospero Productions had commissioned a local aerial survey company to run an aerial magnetic survey over a section of the Graveyard, which revealed the location of 6 or 7 very large magnetic anomalies: iron wrecks. A further stroke of luck saw a group of technical divers looking for something ‘interesting’ to do, and so added their skills to the investigation. Their expertise provided archaeologists with confirmation that the iron wrecks existed there, and also with the first fuzzy photographs of the sunken skeletons.

Jeremy Green from the Western Australian Museum, says that, once again, the team had a lucky encounter. Jeremy had been working in Turkey in 2001, where he’d used a two-man submarine to look for wreck sites. The submarines were quite comfortable: ‘a big plexiglass bubble.’ At the time of the Graveyard investigation, Jeremy was sailing on the Swan River when he saw a boat moored at Pier 21 with one of the same submarines on the back of it. He tracked down the owner of the sub and found that they, like the technical divers, were also looking for something interesting to do.

The owner was given the coordinates of the wreck sites and, for the first time, high-definition video was recorded of the wrecks. This allowed the team to confirm the existence of 16 sites in the Deep-Water Graveyard, 5 of which they could identify from records. From that point on, for the rest of the site investigation, new information would come in about the area every month or so.

Jeremy went down in the submarine on one occasion: ‘70m of water and you could still see the surface.’ He spent two hours down there which, for him, highlighted the big advantage such a piece of technology has over other methods of deep water exploration. Technical divers, for example, can only spend around 15 minutes exploring a site before they have to return to the surface, where the must spend up to 3 hours decompressing in 10m of water.

Jeremy is confident that, as time goes on, more will be revealed about the Deep-Water Graveyard and the ships that were sunk there. There is, he is certain, much more to be revealed about Western Australia’s rich maritime history.

Transcript

The "graveyard" I suppose of the whole story of this process started following settlement in Western Australia what was happening is, that ships were coming in the port, some of were being wrecked, some of them were not capable of carrying on their journeys of voyages and they were being abandoned on the beaches and this actually, I suspect, caused a rather, sort of, didn't look terribly good to the settlers to settle with abandoned wrecks laying all over the place and eventually the government decided that it had to managed properly as governments tend to want to do, and so they designated an area well they initially designated a place down in Cockburn Sound to get rid of ships, but this started to become another problem and so they said, the best bet is we're going to get them to be dumped in what they called the "deep-water graveyard" which is about 10-15 kilometres south-west from the west end of Rottnest in about a 100 metres of water. So, there is over various period of time ships that were being used in the harbour, a ship would come in it would not be fit to carry on it's voyage, because it was in such bad condition, it would be say, damaged in a storm or something like this generally those ships then became lighters, or they became hulks, and they stored coal, or supplies for the ships, water, that sort of thing and they were tied up in the harbour ervice the ships that weer coming in and then eventually, they became so hopelessly rotten that they became a danger to the port and that point they were taken out and sunk in the deep water graveyard. And we've got public records of about 50 or 60 ships from around 1900 to the 1950s that were sunk in the graveyard. And then what happened is Mike McCarthy started, we started to get reports from fisherman who were working fishing out in this area, and shipwrecks are big fish aggregation areas, fish tend to collect around them and if you go over the top of wreck site with an echo-sounder you'll see big column of fish, basicially, so fish love them and so they started to report sites and they were way too deep for us to deal with but we started to gather this sort of information together and then about, ten years ago a local film company Propero Productions, they were doing the "Shipwreck Detectives" and one of the projects, they came to us and said what sort of project would you like to do that you're not normally funded to do by the government? And one of them was the deep water graveyard unfortunately, that program never came, went to air six other programs did, but the story wasn't good enough but it's fascinating, it has been fascinating, because they commissioned a local aerial survey company to run an aerial magnotomic survey over a section of the deep water graveyard and came up with six or seven very large magnetic anomalies so we then knew the precise position of five or six big iron wrecks iron wrecks sunk in the graveyard. Fortunately at that time there was a a group of technical divers, these sort of people who dive on gas mixtures and they were looking for things to do you could go dive to a 100 metres and have a look at the few sea anemones at the bottom, but it's pretty boring stuff, so they were really excited by this idea we gave them positions of the sites and they dived on them they reported there were wrecks there they got very fuzzy photographs in the beginning, because they were just learning how to do things and it really became really interesting, and I've been working with them in Turkey in 2001 and we'd been using a two-man submarine to go in and look for wreck sites and it was a really, sort of, it's a one atmosphere thing, so it's comfortable, there's a big plastic style bubble and I was in the Swan River sailing my boat, and I looked across at the Pier 21 and there was boat with a one these submarines on the back of it, and I said Gosh! This is.. Who's that?! So, we did some investigation and found the guy who owned it and he was also looking for things to do, because you can go down in a submarine to a 100 metres of water and look around at a very boring bottom, and we gave him the positions of some of the wreck sites and he started to dive on them and we started to get high-definition video footage of the sites and we've now identified probably about 16 sites well, we've located 16 sites identified about five of them we've actually got names for them and virtually every day not every day, but once a month or so, new information has come in about this whole area, so it's it's very interesting. I dived in the submarine one time, when we were in 70 metres of water and you could see the surface we were down for two hours I think it was and of course the technical divers can only dive for about 15 minutes then they have to spend about three hours decompressing in 10 metres of water, so it's a wonderful tool. I think gradually as time goes on we're going to learn a lot more about the graveyard and the ships that have been sunk there.