More deep dives reveal true identity of Bermagui shipwreck

More deep dives reveal true identity of Bermagui shipwreck

Narooma News - 25 May 2011

VOLUNTEER extreme scuba divers have come up with a surprising revelation about the real identity of a World War II shipwreck off Bermagui.

The wreck formerly thought to be the BHP freighter Iron Knight is now believed to be another wartime ship sunk by a Japanese submarine.

Divers from the Sydney Project extreme diving group have continued their programs of dives on ships where they lie 120 to 140 metres down on the edge of the continental shelf.

The dives are not without risk as the project lost one of their own when diver Sven Paepke died in 2007 diving on the wreck formerly thought to be the Iron Knight. His body has never been recovered.

The ship first located by trawlers operating out of Bermagui was incorrectly identified as the Iron Knight the year before thanks to Sydney Project dives.

The NSW Heritage Office then organised a ceremony of relatives of the Iron Knight to lay wreaths on the site, but now it is believed that wreck is more likely out beyond 40 kilometres in the shipping lines and at least 4 kilometres down where it will probably never be found.

The real identity of the wreck formerly thought to be Iron Knight has become clearer thanks to the continued efforts of the Sydney Project.

"The public during war and even now didn't realise how much submarine activity there was," Sydney Project diver Samir Alhafith said.

"The depths make it harder but we're bringing to history to life and revealing how many ships and lives were lost during the war."

Mr Alhafith and his colleagues have dived on the wreck and another nearby wreck known to be that of the Liberty ship William Dawes six times in the last year or so.

Each time they have been taken out and assisted by local charter boat operator Keith Appleby.

Diving on a wreck 120 metres down entails dropping quickly to the bottom for a bottom-time of just 20 to 25 minutes and then slowly coming back with a decompression time of up to five and half hours.

Mr Alahfith said the certain factors about the shipwreck formerly thought to be Iron Knight were just not adding up with underwater scooters allowing the divers to transverse the full length of the wrecks.

Firstly the holds were empty of the iron ore that ship was carrying, then there was the length that was not quite right.

Shipping records led them to believe the ship was more likely to a freighter known as the Coast Farmer that was carrying a load of perishable items including timber and asphalt and that was bound for the Phillipines.

Thanks to help from a historian from the National Library they were able to formerly identify the gun mounted on the ship finding its identification plate.

The Japanese submarine I-11 is believed to be responsible for the sinking of both the Coast Farmer and the William Dawes, which lies just a couple of nautical miles north in the area of 12-Mile Reef about 20 kilometres off Bermagui.

The Willam Dawes lies at a depth of 135 metres and is now known to be in two sections a couple of hundred metres apart with its cargo of Jeeps and other wartime equipment clearly visible.

Both ships were sunk in July 1942 with all but one of the Coast Farmer 40 crew able to get off alive.

The Sydney Project will now turn its attention to a third ship believed to be sunk by the I-11 submarine, the freighter George S. Livonos that lies in 150 metres off Batemans Bay but its depth will mean even shorter bottom time.

Ships identity revealed during Archeology Week

The work of the volunteer dive team is being publicised during National Archaeology Week.

NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) chief executive Lisa Corbyn said the wreck diving operations were the deepest undertaken in NSW, and the second deepest in Australia.

"The survey crew made up of professional deep wreck divers have been working to photograph and identify wrecks in 135 meters of water," Ms Corbyn said.

"To give you an idea of how deep that is - 135 metres equates to the same as going down the side of a 45-storey building, or the distance between the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the harbour below."

The voluntary team are using underwater scooters to search the sea bed and visually record the enormous Liberty ship William Dawes that sunk in 1942, while trying to identify another shipwreck that was originally detected in 2004 but is still waiting to be formally identified.

Ms Corbyn said the work demonstrated how unique the state's archaeological heritage is and provides a wonderful example of an exceptional archaeology project underway here in NSW.

Heritage Branch Deputy director Tim Smith said the second wreck located in 125 metres of water off Bermagui was initially thought to be the BHP freighter Iron Knight torpedoed in 1943 with 36 lives lost but that subsequent inspections have discounted this identification.

"The deep dives undertaken this month have provided new clues ... the vessel's holds are empty, the gun mounted at the stern is a 12-pounder type, and the vessel's hull shape suggests an early twentieth century design," Mr Smith said.

"One possibility might be that it is the steamer Coast Farmer, said to have been torpedoed further up the coast near Jervis Bay in 1942 with one crew member killed.

"Wartime records of the period can be very scanty, so the archaeological evidence contained in the shipwreck is a vital clue to unlocking the wrecks hidden story.

"The true identity of the wreck will only be possible with future planned surveys of the remains," Mr Smith said.

The Office of Environment and Heritage, as it is now known, are running a number of events during National Archaeology Week, including maritime archaeological training courses and public lectures on our maritime heritage.

The Heritage Branch, as the delegated authority in NSW, manages historic shipwreck sites in NSW under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, and also the State Heritage Act 1977.

Some 1800 vessels were lost in NSW's waters since European settlement, including the internationally significant Japanese midget submarine M24, located in 2006 near Sydney.

Protection of shipwrecks and underwater heritage is a partnership between individuals, the community, and state and federal governments.

Details of National Archaeology Week events can be found at

Ships lost at sea:

It is believed that 19 merchant vessels were sunk by torpedoes, gunfire or mines off the NSW coast during 1941-1944. Another 10 were damaged but managed to limp into port for repairs. Approximately 214 merchant seamen and military personnel were killed in these attacks. However wartime secrecy meant that Australians knew little about these tragic losses.

For instance, the Coast Farmer in wartime records was identified as being sunk off Jervis Bay, but these records could simply have been wrong or even purposefully misleading as authorities did not want the public to know how far south the Japanese submarines were working.



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