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Wrecks of Australias Coral Coast


 While perhaps most famous for Ningaloo reef and whale sharks, Australias Coral Coast also boasts an impressive number of wrecks



Wrecks of Australias Coral Coast

Cervantes, Jurien Bay (1844)

The Cervantes was originally built as a whaling brig with one deck, square stern and a billet head. It was copper fastened and had a coppered bottom. It was built in 1836 in Bathe, Maine, and registered in that port on 4 October 1836. The first whaling voyage to Western Australia had taken place in late 1841.

The Cervantes was anchored in Jurien Bay and the crew were fishing when a gale blew up. Before the vessel could make sail and weather the gale out at sea it was driven on to a sand-bar. The crew got ashore, and three of them arrived in Perth on 6 July to report the loss. The wreck lies in 2–3 m of water about 0.5 n mile WSW of Thirsty Point.

During the first exploratory wreck inspection various materials were collected and analysed to aid in determining the name of the wrecked vessel. A local person recovered some timber in July 2002. Pieces of old timber, probably from this wreck, are sometimes found on the beach near Cervantes.

Europa, Hill River, Jurien Bay (1897)

The British built but Italian owned 3 masted barque the Europa was wrecked on Three Breaks Reef 8 miles south of the Jurien Bay marina, directly west of the Hill River mouth 4 miles from shore.

The 756 ton barque hit the reef during the morning of the 10th January 1897 and quickly filled with water. While the Captain sought help, the crew of the Europa set up a camp on the adjacent beach under orders to watch over the wreck to prevent any other ships to claim salvage and unload the cargo.

The barque was carrying a general cargo which included quantities of alcohol destined for the Swan River Colony. When the coastal trader the Lubra found the wreck unattended and began unloading the cargo, the crew of the Europa where reportedly still on the beach busy indulging in the alcohol taken from the hold.

Wrecked on top of the reef in 3 metres of water, the site steps down to the south to around 8 metres where much of the cargo has spilled onto the sea floor, further to the south west of the site an impressive swim through and a natural sink reaching down to 14 metres that has collected various pieces of shattered cargo and wreckage. After a century of wave energy the cargo of bottles and china have been smashed into millions of pieces littering the seafloor.

Given the shallow area of the wreck and its proximity to breaking swell the site should be approached with caution and only dived in low swell. Like most wrecks, the site is fully protected from interference by the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.

Lubra, Jurien Bay (1898)

The Lubra was built in Glasgow in the 1860s, and belonged to the Adelaide Steamship Company when it was wrecked in Jurien Bay in early January. Since the mid-1880s the vessel had a regular run delivering passengers, cargo and mail between Geraldton and Fremantle.

Due to sustaining damage after departing Geraldton, the Lubra anchored in Jurien Bay to unload passengers and cargo and it was then decided to try to beach the vessel. In doing so the steamship was actually ran up onto a reef just near the south leads into the bay and soon became a wreck.

The wreck site lays between Favourite and Boullanger Islands and very little remains distinguishable on the site beside sections of propellor shaft, the stern wedged in the reef and most noticably the 60hp 2 cylinder compound engine block. The engine block still stands upright breaking the surface and creates a surf break that forms most days of the year, therefore, the shallow 4 metre site is best visited in very low swell. Due to the small size of the site and the lacking of visible wreck material the Lubra is better suited to a snorkel site.

Cambewarra, Dongara

The Cambewarra was designed to carry 400 tonnes of blue metal from the government quarries at Kiama and Port Kembla. It was specially designed for the rapid discharge of this cargo. It had two engines. The Cambewarra was on its maiden voyage from the builders to Sydney under the command of Captain Van der Key with a crew of fourteen.

The captain had planned to sail through Torres Strait to his destination but en route he calculated that the strong currents in the strait would mean burning more coal than he had left on board. With no bunkering port near Cape York, he decided to sail via Fremantle instead, and take on coal there. He did not, however, have any detailed charts for this route.

The Cambewarra lies in deep water 11.8 miles from Island Point, 8.37 miles from Seal Island, 10.8 miles from Green Head and 8.75 miles from North Head (all radar distances).  The wreck lies on a N–S axis on a sand bottom in 57 m of water. It appears to be virtually upright, with the lower part of the hull buried to a depth of 2–2.5 m. The bow and stern sections are relatively intact but the midships has collapsed inwards. The wreck is 45–47 m long and 10–12 m wide amidships. There are no loose artefacts visible.


Wrecks of Australias Coral Coast

Mayhill (1895)

4-masted barque, Hull: Iron and steel Mayhill was built by A. Stephen & Sons at Dundee in Scotland in 1890 for George William Wood. He sold it to W. H. Myers & Sons, Liverpool, in 1893. The framing and stringers were of iron with plating and beams of steel. There were two decks, the upper deck being sheathed with wood. The vessel was under charter to the White Star Line of Aberdeen, carrying 2?947 tons of railway line for the Mullewa to Cue railway at the time it was wrecked. In 5 m of water on Point Moore Reefs, 400 m south-east of the entrance to the deep water channel into Geraldton Harbour.

There is no evidence of machinery, windlasses or anchors and the general indication is one of heavy salvage and an almost total lack of artefacts. The vessel’s floors are still evident throughout, and part of the cargo of railway lines is visible. The stem and stern are also distinguishable from the main wreckage and the curve of the stem and the jumble of mast sections nearby are very striking. The site is visually quite attractive and is spread over an area of 100 m by 20 m. It is accessible only on days with low to moderate swell, but when publicized could become a popular diving attraction in good weather.

South Tomi (2004)

The South Tomi was made infamous after one of the longest pursuits in the Royal Australian Navy’s history. Originally spotted illegally fishing in Australian waters for Patagonian Toothfish, the South Tomi was pursued by the RAN for over 6,000 kilometres where it was finally boarded and confiscated 300 miles from the South African coast and brought back to Fremantle. The catch worth over 1 million dollars was sold by the Government and the vessel turned over to the city of Geraldton to be used as a dive attraction.

Purpose sunk in 2004, the 60 metre long fishing vessel sits in 25 metres of water, 3 miles from the Batavia Coast Marina. The site is exposed to the swell and is best dived in calm conditions. Unfortunately, since the disbandment of the Geraldton Artificial Reef Commitee, the wreck no longer has a buoy or moorings attached and the site sits unmarked, roughly 200 metres east of the South Tomi Isolated danger marker used for commercial shipping.

Laying on a south west to north east axis, the vessel sits upright starting at 14 metres depth with the wheelhouse removed and open access panels on each level for the entire length of the wreck. The site is easily navigated with average natural light and allows for penetration right down to the engine room.

Batavia Shipwreck, West Wallabi Island, Abrolhos Islands (1629)

Carrying 322 crew and passengers, the 650 ton Batavia is one of the most infamous and historically significant wrecks on the Australian coastline, and one of Western Australia’s best-know dive sites.

Wrecked in 1629 on Morning Reef in the Wallabi group of the Abrolhos Islands, it is the second ever recorded shipwreck in Australian history with a gruesome story of survival, mutiny and massacre among the survivours of the wreck. With the women forced as concubines while the weak, unwilling and sick were murdered.

Of the 268 castaways marooned on the surrounding islands, less than 150 remained alive on the 17th September when Commander Fransico Pelseart returned on the ship the “Sardam”. After being arrested the mutineers were tortured into confessing and eventually, all but two had their hands severed before facing the gallows erected on Long Island. Two young mutineers Jan Pelgrom and Wouter Loos were given mercy and marooned near the mouth of the Murchison River in Kalbarri.

The site lays on the seaward side of Morning Reef and is exposed to swell and wind making it a difficult site to dive in all but the best conditions. The site has been fully excavated however, many of the cannons and anchors remain surrounding a large sand hole that was once the stern of the ship.  The remains lies in four to six metres of clear Indian Ocean making it an excellent dive spot for people of all diving abilities.  You will see the outline of the hull which is still equipped with cannons and anchors in a stark reminder of the gruesome tale which has now become part of Australian maritime folklore.

Wrecks of Australias Coral Coast

Hadda, Beacon Island, Abrolhos Islands (1877)

The Hadda sailed from the Lacepede Islands north of Broome on the 12th of April in 1877 carrying a load of guano bound for Fremantle when the 334 ton wooden barque struck reef only a few hundred metres from Beacon Island in the Wallabi Group of the Abrolhos Islands on the 30th of the same month.

The captain of the vessel was intending to steer the Hadda towards the east of the Abrolhos through the Geelvink Channel between the islands and the mainland. A court of enquiry found that the captain was not at fault and was likely pushed further west by uncharted currents. The Hadda struck bow first into the northern shelf of the reef and was hard aground. The crew abandoned the vessel and were able to sail the ships boat to Geraldton, the Hadda was likely salvaged to some extent as anchors and deck machinery are not evident at the wreck site.

The site of the Hadda is easily accessible and well protected from most weather, it is only exposed to weather the north. Nearby the site there is also a convenient sand patch for anchoring your vessel without disturbing the abundant coral gardens found in the area. Being a timber vessel not much remains of the wreck except numerous iron knees that supported the decks, a few ships fittings and hull sheathing. The abundant corals and the location being a sanctuary zone make the site an impressive dive.

Ben Ledi, Pelsaert Islands

The Ben Ledi, under the command of John Boyd with a crew of 22, was en route from Sydney to Calcutta in ballast when it struck on the east side of Pelsaert Island at 11 p.m. on the night of 16 December 1879.  The Ben Ledi lies just offshore on the east side of Pelsaert Island about 7 km north of Wreck Point. This is also the site of the wreck of the schooner Marten in 1878.

The wreck of the Ben Ledi consists of the main site about 150 m off shore on a shelving reef in 2–6 m of water, with much material washed shoreward. This latter is in breaking water in depths of from 0.5–1.5 m. Some frames and plating at the main site show above water. The bulk of the wreckage covers an area about 33m long, and there is still further material about 20 m to the north of the main site.

The spread of heavy pieces of iron hull over a fairly large area gives an indication of the strength of the seas that can impact on this section of the reef. The bows have disintegrated, but sections of plating and frames, anchors, chain, windlass, deck and mast fittings and ballast stone are visible. The stern section with the rudder lies at the greatest depth. The inshore area contains a section of the ship’s floor, some deck beams and a section of bulwark.

Windsor, west of Pelsaert Island, Abrolhos Islands

The wreck of the Windsor is on the southern end of Half Moon Reef, about 7 km west of Wreck Point, Pelsaert Island, in the Houtman Abrolhos. The site is subject to heavy seas and is normally only accessible on the very few days with little or no swell.

The most visible evidence of the wreck site is the Windsor’s iron boiler, which reaches a height of 4 m above the reef and projects well above water level. There is wreckage spread out over a large area both on the reef and in the lagoon beyond, with the stern of the vessel lying towards the east and the bow towards the west. The material remaining includes the rudder, propeller, engine and a great deal of the ship’s structure. The force of the seas in this area is indicated by a 5–10 tonne section of the stern that has broken away and been carried some 400 m over the reef and into the lagoon.


Gudrun (1901)

The ship was scuttled by the ship’s carpenter, Azel Rawd, age 22, for some offence. It was towed to Fremantle and repaired, but later got wrecked anyway.


Wrecks of Australias Coral Coast

The Ningaloo Reef is the world’s largest fringing coral reef, stretching for 280 kilometres from Quobba to North West Cape in the Gascoyne Region of Western Australia. Since the early 17th century trading vessels have skirted along the cape as they sailed north up the coast of Western Australia, initially Point Cloates and the Exmouth peninsular was charted as an island and was only discovered to be mainland Australia in 1819 by Phillip Parker King who charted the southern reaches of Exmouth Gulf.

Numerous wrecks have been discovered off the reef over the last three centuries mainly concentrated around the area of Point Cloates and north of Coral Bay. Most discovered wrecks are trading barques or more modern steam freighters however countless undiscovered wrecks are spread across the whole length of the reef, from lost pearling luggers, a World War II submarine chaser, 19th century sailing vessels and aircraft undiscovered in the Gulf from military operations during the World War II era.

In Norwegian Bay lays the remains of a once successful whaling station and offshore lay lost barges and whale chasers.

Magnolia, b/w Red Bluff and Gnaraloo

The Magnolia was originally built in England and was brought out in sections to Botany Bay, where the boat was put together. For many years she was a crack sailing yacht in Sydney and Melbourne waters before being acquired for fishing.

After being reported by Peter Fox, in October 1980, a then unidentified wreck c. 9 kilometres south of the Gnaraloo station homestead was inspected by M McCarthy assisted by Colin Powell and Geoff Kimpton. The position, fixed in the pre GPS era was recorded as 23°50’S., 113° 31’E. When he reported finding the wreck Mr Fox delivered to the Museum one glass burner top, a red glass fragment, assorted plank spikes (95mm by 11mm square) and assorted brass bolts 1.25cm in diameter. The inspection team recovered two lead pipe lengths 6cm diameter, a small sounding lead (16cm) and two fishplates.

Stefano, Ningaloo Station

The story behind the crew

The Stefano site is a fantastic site to dive however, being a wooden vessel not much remains distinguishable of the wreckage besides an anchor, windlass and numerous iron knees scattered over the reef top. The attraction of the site ties in with the amazing story of the wreck but also the condition of the surrounding reef and marine life.

The site is located in around 12 metres of water with bommies of healthy coral reaching up to the surface on a part of the Ningaloo Reef that has very little disturbance and visitation due to being inaccessible to most trailer boats.  Boat launching at  Ningaloo Station shearers quarters with permission from the station owners, is the best access, however, the nearest boat launching facility is 30 miles further south at Coral Bay or beach launching 20 miles further north at South Lefroy Bay.

Visibility on the site was crystal clear but due to the surrounding bommies that would break in large swell the site should only be dived when the swell is low. The site stretches for around 40 metres by 30 metres with two large sand areas for anchoring.

Rapid, Jane Bay, Ningaloo Station

In 1978 a group of spearfisherman, including Frank and Barry Paxman, discovered an unknown wreck site that was littered with 18,540 Spanish silver coins. The site was later identified as the Boston owned America to China trader named the Rapid, skippered by Captain Henry Dorr.

Initially carrying 280,000 American dollars when wrecked, the crew burnt the ship to the water line and sailed to Java in a 16 foot boat. Eventually they returned to the isolated site with a larger ship and recovered as much of the coins and cargo as they could leaving almost 20,000 coins on the site before returning to America.

The site sits between two coral reefs in 5 metres of water only about a mile out from the Ningaloo homestead. Still left on the site after many excavations by the museum lay two anchors, large piles of ballast stones and sections of hull partially buried in the seafloor. When the site was visited in 2015 it was covered over by shade cloth and sand bags by the museum to stabilise the site, it had however been uncovered either by interference or ocean movement and has since been re-covered again.

In its covered state the anchors nearby are still interesting and worth a short visit or snorkel, if the site is found uncovered it can be reported to the Maritime Museum to help keep the site remaining for many more years. As of 2019, the site remains well covered to be preserved for decades to come with a dense layer of marine growth stabilising the site.

Wrecks of Australias Coral Coast

Benan, Janes Bay, Ningaloo reef

The 75 metre Benan was a 1415 ton iron barque that was lost on the Ningaloo Reef on night of the 23 December. The barque, travelling on a northerly bearing was pushed eastwards towards the Ningaloo Reef in the night by a north west current that was not charted on the ship’s navigational charts.

After the initial wrecking the barque was pinned harder against the reef by the Indian Ocean swell and the crew abandoned ship while waves broke over her decks. Standing out to sea in the lifeboats through the night, the crew were unable to reboard the Benan the next day, leaving them stranded on a deserted West Australian beach the next morning. Marooned with no food but a barrel of flour that floated ashore and little water the crew were assisted by local aborigines and were walked inland to a nearby station.

The Benan site needs extremely low swell and usually sits beneath the breakers in the marine sanctuary off Jane’s Bay. The wreck lays almost starboard side to the reef with the bow facing north, in a depth of 3 metres at the bow and 8 metres at the rudder. The site rates among the most impressive of the Ningaloo wreck sites, it is a huge clean site like most Ningaloo wrecks, with the features of the wreck easily distinguishable with an abundance of marine life.

Numerous anchors, masts sections, ship’s machinery and a few portholes fused to the reef all lay amongst the twisted wreckage. Like all historic wrecks older than 75 years it is fully protected from disturbance and interference under the Historic Shipwrecks Act. 

Zvir, Norwegian Bay, Ningaloo reef

The 100 metre, 3353 ton screw steamer went aground on the 27th of November while en route to Adelaide from Java carrying a cargo of sugar. Upon striking the reef, with the cargo ruined and the vessel wrecked, the crew abandoned the ship and walked to Carnarvon leaving the Zvir behind at the mercy of the Indian Ocean swell.

The 120-metre wreck site makes an excellent dive in low swell. It lays inside a sanctuary zone at around 10 metres depth. The bow faces out to sea and is surrounded by large coral bommies teeming with life. From the bow towards the north east lay huge sections of deck plating and numerous deck winches before reaching the massive two-cylinder steam engine, three boilers and a spare propeller that was carried on board. Further on, following the 40 metres of propeller shaft and hull lays the still upright rudder and four bladed propeller at the stern of the wreck.

Chofuku Maru, Ningaloo station

The largest wreck on the Ningaloo Reef, the Japanese owned freighter sits in 8 metres of water out from Point Billie and South Lefroy Bay. If camping on Ningaloo Station, the Chofuku Maru is one of the easily accessible sites near Point Cloates however, being outside the breakers on the outer reef it is another site that is best dived in low swell.

The 117 metre long, 4498 ton steam ship went aground on the Ningaloo Reef while attempting to render assistance to the aground SS Shunsei Maru. The Chofuku Maru was carrying a cargo of wheat which began to swell when seawater entered the hold, the swollen wheat began buckling the hull plating and the ship was considered lost. After her crew were evacuated to the nearby whaling station, a fire broke out on board the Chofuku Maru. The vessel was left with its port side awash and while still smouldering it was stripped of anything that could be used to re-float the still salvageable Shunsei Maru.

A great dive only two miles offshore from Point Billie on Ningaloo Station, the wreck sits behind the outer breakers in 10 metres of water amongst numerous coral bommies. Towards the south west of the site, easily distinguishable is the rudder, steering quadrant and huge four bladed propellor with the shaft proceeding for 40 metres to the huge 3 cylinder triple expansion engine collapsed on its side. Nearby, its two large boilers sit to the north and the bow – still partially intact, laying on its starboard side further to the north east.

SS Mildura, Lighthouse Bay, Exmouth (1907)

The most northern wreck on the Ningaloo Reef, the Mildura lays a few hundred metres off Point Murat partially submerged and usually awash with swells that roll across Lighthouse Bay to the south west. Despite over a century of swell the wreckage still remains upright and makes an interesting snorkel. Currents can be experienced over the site and snorkelling should be timed with the slack water of tide changes.

The steamship Mildura. Lost in Lighthouse Bay near Exmouth in 1907. The SS Mildura was travelling from Cambridge Gulf to Fremantle with a cargo of cattle in June 1907 when it hit shallow reef at the top of North West Cape. The steamship was wrecked without any loss of human life however, very few of the cattle survived.

Visible from the shore, the swell regularly breaks over the two large exposed boilers that mark the site. The wreck is generally regarded as unsafe in all but the best conditions as the Mildura site is prone to strong surge and currents that can easily carry a snorkeller crashing into the many parts of the twisted iron wreckage.

If attempting to visit the site it is best visited during neap tides. We managed to snorkel the site on the top of changing tide on a rare low swell day with still some degree of difficulty. The wreck sits in 4 metres of water with the rudder and propellor shaft to the north, bow facing the shore and the two boilers and engine mount in the centre of the still upright and relatively intact hull

Article written by Australias Coral Coast

Photo Credit Australias Coral Coast

Want to read about more great places to dive in Australia?

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