A gudgeon’s life – from ocean floor to exhibition

Artefacts from shipwrecks have often travelled far and undergone much before being exhibited. This is true of the gudgeon was selected for display in our upcoming exhibition East of India – Forgotten trade with Australia.  It’s believed to come from the wreck of the Cato, a merchant vessel built in Stockton, Britain in 1799. Cato was carrying a shipment of coal destined for India – possibly Australia’s first coal export. Coal blocks were found at the wreck site, one of which is displayed in the East of India exhibition.

East of India curator and maritime archaeologist Nigel Erskine examines the gudgeon at the wreck site

East of India curator and maritime archaeologist Nigel Erskine examines the gudgeon at the wreck site. Image courtesy Xanthe Rivett.

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Wreck Reefs Expedition…last official day of the expedition

A shark on the prowl

A shark on the prowl


Today was the last official day of the project. Conditions at Bird Islet were gorgeous. Being the last day, we took time to enjoy our surroundings by conducting recreational dives. I dived with a group on the outer edge of Bird Islet’s fringing reef. Not to sound like a broken record but this was an incredible dive. The outer reef is a series of coral canyons, caverns, swim throughs and chimneys. Pastel coral terraces provide a dynamic habitation for tropical fish of all kinds. Swimming through the canyons is exciting because you have no idea what the next corner will unveil. We were constantly on the look out for sharks because yesterday a team reported seeing a large bull shark. I asked Nigel how large the shark actually was and he replied it was a big bugger. We did not see any sharks on this dive, just some very large sea snakes. A list of all the marine life we observed could fill a book.     Continue reading

Wreck Reefs Expedition…Cato’s gudgeon and sea snakes

Well, it’s been a few days…. so I’ll try to catch up with what has happened.

10 December, Thur.

Today we were working on the Mahiaca again… trying to finish off the measured drawings and photomosaic.  The only problem is the more time we spend looking at the site, the more things we are finding!

After lunch a manta board search was organized for the northeastern corner of the reef.  There were a couple of magnetic anomalies found on Wed. during the magnetometer survey. Continue reading

Wreck Reefs Expedition… the magnetometer arrives!


It is getting harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning. Everyone is starting to feel the exhaustion of the trip. There are more people napping after lunch (actually some people are napping before lunch!). Today Kieran had two manta board/snorkelling teams and two Porpoise/Cato snorkelling teams. I was in the manta board/snorkeler team with Paul Hundley as our team leader. Sarah Ellis and  Grant Luckman completed our team with Kate Thompson as our tender operator. Our aim today was to travel back to Hope Cay (a 15 minute boat ride from Porpoise Cay) and manta board in between the lagoons and coral cliffs looking for Lion, a 300 ton American whaler which went down on 4 December 1856 near Hope Cay. Continue reading

Wreck Reef expedition…magnetometer finds two interesting anomalies

Warren Delaney plus team off Porpoise Cay

Warren Delaney plus team off Porpoise Cay

7 December, Mon.

This morning the wind and waves seem to be in opposition!  Actually, it was a very rough night for people on both boats.  And everyone seemed to be a bit subdued about breakfast…

As we have been working hard and sometimes having less than expected (or at least hoped for) results, it has been decided to do something completely different today.  We are shifting the Nimrod to Hope Cay (AKA Whalebone Cay) for the day.   We will be looking for the remains of the Lone Star, which was built in the United States in 1864.  Interestingly, this was during the American Civil and there were limited materials available for non-war related enterprises.  A bit of further research could uncover some fascinating insight into Civil War shipbuilding in the USA.  (For those very few specialists that might be interested in that sort of thing!!)  The Lone Star wrecked on Hope Cay in 1871.  The crew was left behind on the cay to salvage whatever they could, while the captain went for a rescue vessel.  Everything was able to be saved with the exception of three anchors.  The remains were located during a preliminary survey by the Queensland Museum in 1988. Continue reading

Wreck Reef expedition…we’ve found the 1854 Mahaica wreck site!

5 December, Saturday

This morning the wind appeared to be shifting from the southeast to the east and almost the northeast. A northerly wind is ideal for the work we want to do. It keeps the southerly swell down to a minimum. This was so encouraging that Meryck, the captain of Nimrod, took one of the small boats around to the outside of the reef to check whether we would be able to dive. The report came back….maybe! 

On the swimline off Wreck Reefs

On the swimline off Wreck Reefs

Anchor from HMS Porpoise on Wreck Reefs

Anchor from HMS Porpoise on Wreck Reefs

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Wreck Reef Expedition… short bios for each team member

Here you will find a short biography on each member of the Wreck Reef expedition. Photos will follow shortly.

Jennifer McKinnon is a Lecturer in the Flinders University Program in Maritime Archaeology, Adelaide, South Australia. Originally from the US, she moved to Australia in 2006 to begin teaching at Flinders. Jennifer’s interests on this project are colonial ship construction and trepang extraction and processing camps.

Grant Luckman is a Senior Program Officer for the Maritime Heritage Section, Australian Government, Department of Environment, Water and Heritage. He administers the historic shipwreck legislation.

Doug McKenzie is a Medical Officer in the Naval Reserve with experience in diving medicine over the last twenty years. He joins the team as a doctor but has a keen interest in naval history. Continue reading

Wreck Reef Expedition…more swim line searching

3 December

The day starts early on Nimrod… some people are early risers and can’t sleep past 4:30!  And the crew are on watch so there are always conversations going on.  Generally by 5:30 or 6:00 there are people having coffee and a continental breakfast.  We have decided that we really don’t need a full cooked breakfast every day.  Plus it is more efficient to get people out in the water earlier if we only have a cold breakfast.  The daily briefing is at 7:30 and we like to get the boats away by 8:30.  Generally we get back to Nimrod by 11:30 for a 12:30 lunch, a 1:30 briefing on the afternoon work and boats away again at 2:00.  The afternoon work ends about 4:30-5:00.  The cook seems to always have something ready for the cold and wet divers.  Most people spend an hour or more before dinner writing up notes, downloading GPS co-ordinates or trying to fix unresponsive electronics!  We are having a few problems with our magnetometer. Continue reading

Wreck Reef Expedition… swim-line searching and a sea snake

This morning greeted us with much the same weather conditions as yesterday – quite windy and choppy but lovely and warm. Today’s teams were broken down into much the same as yesterday’s with two snorkel swim-line teams, one Porpoise Cay team (terrestrial) and one fish team (biologists). This morning I had the opportunity to be part of one of the snorkel swim-line teams. The visibility was amazing with at least 50 meters visibility and lots of fish all colours of the rainbow. The first five minutes of the snorkel I saw two stingrays gliding past and a moray eel. Continue reading

Day three…high winds, heavy surf and a forest of coral

Some of the Wreck Reefs expedition team

Some of the Wreck Reefs expedition team

The winds picked up overnight leaving the sites of HMS Porpoise and Cato exposed to heavy seas. The teams were once again divided into four groups with specific tasks. Our team was tasked with swim-line searches of the eastern lagoon. Swim-line searches are conducted in order to cover the maximum amount of seabed. They are typically run using a single line or rope which snorkelers or divers are evenly spaced along. The line moves forward at the same time as divers scan the seabed looking for anomalies (i.e. cultural materials). Continue reading

Day 1…have reached Wreck Reefs

Porpoise Cay

Porpoise Cay

30.11.09 – 1.12.09

Flinders University Masters of Maritime Archaeology students Shawn Arnold and Toni Massey who are under the direction of Lecturer Jennifer McKinnon were invited by the Australian National Maritime Museum to participate in the Wreck Reef Expedition. The main objectives of the project are to visit Wreck Reef in the Coral Sea, 450km off the Queensland coast, to expand our knowledge of the wrecks that surround the reef system. In particular the project aims to relocate Mathew Flinders’ 1803 wreck of HMS Porpoise and to locate and identify the wreck of Cato.

 The evening of 30 November we loaded our luggage onto the Nimrod Explorer and were assigned our bunks. We then made our way to Silent World II, a large 120ft vessel, where we had a luxurious dinner (prime rib, prawns, mussels, etc.) and mingled with everyone on the Wreck Reef project. The team is quite diverse including maritime archeologists, shipwrights, students, avocationals and genuinely interested people. Continue reading

Wreck Reefs expedition: history of the area

1803 map of Wreck Reefs.

Wreck Reefs (022d 11’S/155d 20’E) are a narrow, 18 nautical mile long chain of low lying coral reefs and sand cays – West Island, Hope Cay (Whalebone Cay), Porpoise Cay and Bird Islet. They lie approximately 180 nautical miles NNE of Sandy Cape on the northern tip of Frazer Island, and approximately 230 nautical miles east of Gladstone.

The Wreck Reefs gained their name through the wrecking of HMS Porpoise and Cato, which were wrecked together on what were then uncharted reefs on 17 August 1803. Continue reading

Wreck Reef Expedition: shipwrecks, reefs and a shadowy early mariner

Drawing of Porpoise Cay after Porpoise and Cato are wrecked on Wrecks Reef in 1803. Marooned sailors erect tents on the tiny island and fly their flag upside down to indicate distress. Porpoise is grounded on the reef (far left).

Wrecks, reefs and a seabed search to identify a mysterious early explorer in Australian waters will be the main topics of conversation during the museum’s latest voyage.

On 30 November 2009 our maritime archaeology team sets out on a two week expedition to explore Wreck Reefs in the Coral Sea, one of the reef systems being considered for a proposed Coral Sea Marine Park 230nm off the Queensland coast. Continue reading