What follows is an interview with Australia National Maritime Museum curator Kieran Hosty, who recently led a team of 40 professional and volunteer researchers in the discovery of the HM Schooner Mermaid, a wreck steeped in Aussie maritime history. Eric Michael, Senior Editor.
Sport Diver: What was your reaction to finding the wreck, and the confirmation that it was the Mermaid? Kieran Hosty: Ecstatic. I have been involved in maritime archaeology for over 25 years, been on numerous expeditions to locate shipwrecks in the past, and spent a considerable amount of time looking for particular sites with limited success. I put our chances of finding the Mermaid at about three out of ten. To find the site on the forth day was fantastic, and the discovery would not have been made if it was not for our sponsors, Silentworld Foundation, along with the dedication and experience of our professional crew, many of whom were volunteers.
Sport Diver: How was the discovery made?
Kieran Hosty: Using information from the 2004 expedition carried out by Oceania Maritime, we deduced that the Mermaid was not located on Scott Reef, the reported position of the wreck, which lies further to the north. We then went back over the historical records and located a report by the commander of HMS Crocodile in 1830, who reported seeing the wreck of the Mermaid high and dry on a reef between 7 and 9 nautical miles east of the Frankland Islands, which lie 40 nautical south of present day Cairns. We also located an additional report in 1846 from the crew of HMS Rattlesnake who reported seeing additional wreckage from the Mermaid on one of the Frankland Islands.
When we put all the information together (current charts, weather information, survivors accounts and the later wreck sightings in 1830 and 1846), we deduced that the site was either on the southern edge of Flora Reef, or on the southern edge of Maori Reef.
When we arrived at the reef on Jan. 2, 2009, we deployed a cesium When we put all the information together (current charts, weather information, survivors accounts and the later wreck sightings in 1830 and 1846), we deduced that the site was either on the southern edge of Flora Reef, or on the southern edge of Maori Reef.
We continued searching for the Mermaid using the magnetometers, as well as snorkel and scuba swimline surveys. All strikes were buoyed, surveyed in, and ground truthed. On the forth day one of the magnetometer teams located a significant anomaly on the southern edge of the reef, and ground truthing indicated that we had found a much earlier site. Copper alloy fittings on the site indicated a wooden, copper sheathed sailing vessel in the vicinity of 80 tons. Iron concretions indicated the presence of a large amount of iron (the Mermaid was carrying pig iron ballast blocks), cannister shot and musket ball shot confirmed the presence of military supplies and armaments, and the presence of "broad arrow" marks on some of the ship's fittings confirmed the identity of government stores, and possibly a government vessel.
The real confirmation came with the discovery of an early 19th century kedge anchor just off the edge of the reef approximately 150 meters from the wreck site. We know the survivors of the vessel deployed such an anchor in a similar position in an unsuccessful attempt to kedge the vessel of the reef in 1829.
Sport Diver: Why is this wreck historically significant?
Kieran Hosty: Phillip Parker King is considered to be one of the greatest of Australia's early maritime surveyors. He was charged with the task of "filling in the gaps" on early navigation charts left by previous surveys done by the likes of James Cook and Matthew Flinders. From 1817 to 1822, Parker King undertook a series of remarkable voyages that would see him chart vast areas of coast stretching from Arnhem Land to Cape Leeuwin and King George Sound to the Great Barrier Reef. To undertake these hydrographical surveys Parker King specially modified two vessels, the Mermaid in 1819 and the Bathurst in 1820. The Mermaid was to prove the mainstay of the expeditions. Purchased by Governor Macquarie for £2,000 in 1817 the single masted, wooden cutter Mermaid, built in Howrah, Calcutta, India in 1816, was 18 meters long with a beam of 5.48 meters and 84 gross tons. (AHSD, ID 5459)
After the completion of Parker King's surveys the Mermaid was taken over by the New South Wales Colonial Government and was directly involved with the establishment and supply of new colonies at Port Macquarie, Moreton Bay and Norfolk Island. The vessel's name has been used to name a popular beach near Brisbane, Mermaid Beach, and an extensive tropical reef system off Western Australian, Mermaid Reef.
Following an extensive refit and conversion into a two masted schooner HMCS Mermaid sailed from Sydney, NSW with stores for Port Raffles in what is now the Northern Territory on May 10, 1829, under the command of Captain Samuel Nolbrow. Nolbrow was under strict instruction to follow the safer, but longer, inshore passage to the Torres Strait discovered by Parker King during one of the previous Mermaid voyages.
Despite these instructions Nolbrow decided to hazard the Great Barrier Reef, which was, and still is, incompletely surveyed. On the evening of June 12, 1829, the Mermaid was at least 8 miles offshore from Double Point, southeast of present day Innisfail. Chief Officer John Hastings suggested to Nolbrow that because of the proximity to the reef the ship be heaved to (shorten sail and make no headway) until daylight. Nolbrow did not agree and at 4 am came on deck to instruct the watch to keep the foretopsail full so that the vessel made between 2 or 3 knots. At about 5:45 am the vessel struck a coral reef. The crew attempted to drive the vessel over into deeper water but after only going forward a short distance the Mermaid held fast and began to strike heavily. (Bateson, 1964, pp86)
Daylight found the Mermaid on the weather side of a reef extending about a mile and half both to the east and west and for some two to two and half miles ahead. When soundings were taken it was found that there was shoal water to the north-east and west of the vessel but some six fathoms (12 meters) astern of the vessel.
Despite attempts to kedge the vessel off using its anchors, the Mermaid held fast and the crew commenced jettisoning some of its cargo in an attempt to lighten the schooner. At 5:30 p.m. during another attempt to drive the vessel over the reef, the vessel rolled over onto its beams ends (side) and within a few minutes the hull was breeched and the water quickly gained on the pumps. At 8 p.m. the Mermaid was abandoned and the crew took to the ship's boats. (Bateson, 1964, pp85-87) After spending 11 days in the boats, the crew of the Mermaid were subsequently rescued by the Admiral Gifford on June, 24 1829.
Sport Diver: What are the most interesting bits of the Mermaid story?
Kieran Hosty: Shipping was not only the lifeblood, but also the lifeline for these isolated colonies. Mapping the coast and mapping a way through the Great Barrier Reef to secure shipping routes was of paramount importance to both the colonial and British Government. The Mermaid and the work of Phillip Park King (An Australian born the son of a convict) played an essential role in this work, and many of the charts Australian navigators use today are still based on the work carried out by King in the Mermaid.
A great example of the hazards facing navigators on the Australian coast in the 1820s is the wrecking of the Mermaid. It was a well equipped, well crewed ship (except for its captain) that ran aground on the edge of a sea route it charted. The crew took to the ship's boats, were rescued by the Admiral Gifford, which passed them on to the vessel Swiftsure, the Swiftsure with the Mermaid crew on board was subsequently wrecked on another part of the Great Barrier Reef, the two crews were later rescued by the Governor Ready, which in turn was also wrecked on the feef. The combined crews of the Mermaid, Swiftsure and Governor Ready took to the boats and were subsequently rescued by the brig Amity, which took them around to Port Raffles, then Albany before landing some of the crew back in Sydney five months later.
Sport Diver: Why were previous attempts unsuccessful for so long (40 years?)
Kieran Hosty:Scuba divers, historians and marine archaeologists had been looking for the wreck of the Mermaid since the late 1960s. The last expedition to the area, prior to ours, was in 2004. The wreck was not located for a number of reasons, the historical information from the survivors was very vague, a large reef north of Double Point, south of Cape Cleveland and somewhere between 10 and 20 miles offshore. Things were further complicated by the fact that Capt. Nolbrow never fronted an inquiry so the correct navigational information was not available. The Mermaid was also a tiny (80 tons) wooden ship wrecked on a shallow reef in warm coral waters frequented by tropical cyclones. Any exposed ship's timbers were quickly broken down by the actions of wood eating organisms and the shallowness and exposed nature of the site. Coral growth also quickly covered the wreck, making it difficult to see. Within a few years, you would have been able to swim over the site and see nothing that looked like the remains of a ship.
Sport Diver: Please describe the site where the wreck was found.
Kieran Hosty: HMCS Mermaid was located on the southern edge of Flora Reef, which lies 20 nautical miles offshore and 40 nautical miles south of Cairns. Flora Reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, is a lunette shaped coral reef some four kilometers long by two kilometers wide and is surrounded by a number of other similar sized reefs, including Maori and Sudbury.
Sport Diver: What are the future plans for the site?
Kieran Hosty: The Australian National Maritime Museum, the Commonwealth Government, the Museum of Tropical Queensland (the Queensland State Government Agency responsible for the management of shipwrecks in the waters off that State) and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (The Commonwealth Government Agency that manages the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park) are currently working on a Conservation Management Plan for the site of HMCS Mermaid. The plan will direct all future research on the site and will look at public access, interpretation and site management. Given the exposed nature and shallowness of the site, the plan will also examine the various arguments for and against excavation and recovery of artifacts from the site.
The discovery of the Mermaid site has generated considerable interest amongst archaeologists. Shallow coral reefs are particularly harsh environments for wooden shipwrecks and these types of sites usually consist of 'shipwreck smears,' a scattering of wreckage across the top of the reef. In the case of the Mermaid we have a buried site which appears to be contained within a small compact area with a high possibility of organic (timber) remains.
Sport Diver: Will recreational divers ever get a chance to visit?
Kieran Hosty: The shipwreck site of HMCS Mermaid is currently protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976). This act protects all shipwrecks (and their associated relics and land sites) which are more than 75 years old from illicit activities including fossicking [prospecting] and intentional damage. The Act also controls and regulates the sale, disposal and curation of relics recovered from that wreck prior to its protection under the Act.
The majority (more than 99%) of protected shipwrecks in Australian waters are fully accessible to recreational divers. However, in some exceptional circumstances, the wreck is given additional protection in the form of a Protected Zone. HMCS Mermaid has been granted a Protected Zone status, which prohibits access to the site without a permit. Divers may still be able to visit the wreck site, but must apply for a permit from either the Commonwealth Government of the Museum of Tropical Queensland to do so. This permit applies to all visitors to the site and the Australian National Maritime Museum is also required to have a permit to visit the site.
The work of finding the Mermaid would not have been possible without the contribution of our sponsor, Silentworld Foundation, the valuable assistance of Oceania Maritime, Museum of Tropical Queensland, The Maritime Archaeological Association of Queensland, James Cook University, Mike Ball Dive Experience, the crew of Nimrod and Pirate, Bega High School, along with volunteer divers from Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania, Solomon Islands, Germany, United States and Singapore.
To follow the progress of the Mermaid Project 2009, visit the blog at anmm.wordpress.com.