As our national anthem proclaims, “our home is girt by sea” in fact Australia’s area of maritime responsibility is some fourteen million square kilometres or twice the area of our land mass. Given our geographic position in the world surrounded by capricious oceans and our nations reliance on sea transport it is no wonder that we also are the final resting place for numerous shipwrecks.
There are around eleven thousand wrecks gazetted in Australian waters equating to one wreck for every three kilometres of coastline. Some the consequence of weather, some faulty navigation others the result of wartime activity and deliberate scuttling. The advent of underwater imaging technology and diving gear coupled with the shallow water in some are sited has makes it possible to visit some of these wrecks and personally experience the tales of tragedy, bravery and excitement they hold.
For those of us who can’t go first hand, all is not lost, a visit to your local maritime museum can offer a chance share these stories.” Among the many stories, visitors will be reminded of that faithful day in January 1975 when in the late afternoon the “Lake Illawarra” struck the pylons supporting Hobart’s Tasman Bridge bring it down splitting the city in two and the associated tragic loss of life that accompanied the disaster.
Or the less well-known story of bravery surrounding the wreck of the paddle steamer “Sovereign” on South Passage Bar, Queensland in March 1847. While navigating the narrow passage between Moreton and Stradbroke Islands in heavy seas her load of wool bales broke loose causing her to founder. She was swept into the sand bars and pounded by the sea and commenced to break up. Six local Quandamooka (Aboriginal) men seeing the disaster take place braved the high seas to swim out to the wreck and managed to rescue 10 souls. Forty-four people were not so lucky and died. The six rescuers Toopani, Nuggan, Woondu, Juckle Juckle, Nuahju and Poonipun were award inscribed breastplates for their bravery and a monument today stands at Amity Point to commemorate their deeds.
Closer to home is the story of the torpedoing of “Wollongbar 11” in World War 11. Carrying a load of eighteen thousand cases of butter, cheese and bacon she was sunk on the 29 April 1943 after being struck by a Japanese submarine. While many may know of her loss, few will be aware of the role played by the trawler “Excelsior” in the rescue of her crew. While returning to Port Macquarie with a catch of schnapper the crew of the “Excelsior” was alerted to the site by circling flying boats and effected a rescue of the crew.
While not featured in the pop-up exhibition visitors to the museum can learn about the very local war time sinking of the “Limerick” off Ballina, also a victim of torpedoes during WW2. Due to war time secrecy, very little news of these events was made known to the public.
Ballina of course has its own fair share of wrecks due to the tempestuous nature of the bar crossing before the construction of the breakwaters and the difficulties of navigation in the years prior to reliable engines. The stories of these wrecks including the stories of the tug “Protector” and the “Tomki” can be found among our displays.
The large number of craft plying the river and Port of Ballina contributed also to a number of obsolete and scuttled vessels littering the river. Many of these river steamers, barges and drogues found their final resting place in Rotten Row, South Ballina. When the tide is low their bony skeletons sometimes emerge from the mud among the mangroves reminding us of times past.
The SUBMERGED exhibition has only a short time left to run with us if you would like to view it please be quick. We are open 9:00 am till 4:00 pm seven days a week and we do recommend that you set aside a good hour to wander through the museum.
Please note it is an offense to disturb or remove objects from the site of a wreck and any finds should be reported to : www.environment.gov.au/heritage/historicshipwrecks/contacts or you could drop into the Ballina Naval and Maritime Museum and our staff will gladly help out in filing a report.