The Shipwreck Hunter: An interview with David Mearns

Much of David Mearns work as a shipwreck hunter is the analysis of images and sonar scans. Image: David Mearns. 

Much of David Mearns work as a shipwreck hunter is the analysis of images and sonar scans. Image: David Mearns.

“People think ‘That was it, the deep oceans became accessible to man with Titanic in 1985’. Well, that’s completely false.”

David Mearns is one of the world’s pre-eminent shipwreck hunters. His company, Blue Water Recoveries, has an 88% recovery rate. He discovered the HMAS Sydney, and the Kormoran, the HMS Hood, the Royal Navy flagship sunk by the Bismarck, Vasco da Gama’s Esmerelda (which sunk in 1503), the Lucona a cargo ship sunk by a time bomb that murdered its crew and the Rio Grande, the deepest shipwreck ever found – at 5,762 metres.

How to Become a Shipwreck Hunter

But Mearns wasn’t interested in history at University. He actively avoided it, instead, he concentrated on getting degrees in marine biology and later, marine geology. He found work in the offshore industry, helping search and recovery for the US Navy. This is what sparked his now lifelong obsession as a shipwreck hunter: part detective, part archaeologist, part deep ocean adventurer – and historian.

His passion for the stories of the past drives him thousands of metres below the waves.

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After Emden: HMAS Sydney’s War 1915-18

HMAS Sydney in the Firth of Forth when she was operating in the North Sea as part of the part of the British Grand Fleet. Image: author’s collection.

HMAS Sydney in the Firth of Forth when she was operating in the North Sea as part of the part of the British Grand Fleet. Image: author’s collection.

Australian Naval Historian and author Dr David Stevens will present the annual Phil Renouf Memorial Lecture on Thursday 31 March 2016. Phil Renouf was the much-loved and highly respected leader of Sydney Heritage Fleet and this annual lecture series honours his significant contribution to Australian maritime heritage.

HMAS Sydney’s victory over SMS Emden in November 1914 marked an important milestone in the war at sea. But in no way was this the end of Australia’s naval war, and it certainly did not herald Sydney’s departure from our naval history. Indeed, the cruiser remained extremely busy throughout the Great War, roaming all over the world and achieving a number of naval firsts.

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The ‘Devil fish’ and Empire Day 1914

AE1 off Balmain

As the sun rose over Sydney Harbour on Empire Day 1914, two sinister-looking, cigar-shaped vessels glided along behind their escort vessel HMAS Sydney. The radiant May sunshine glinted on the grey steel of the vessels that sat only a few feet above the water. Noone had seen anything like these craft in Australian waters. The first two submarines of the new Australian navy had arrived.

In October 2013 Sydney Harbour saw a grand celebration for the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the other elements of the new Royal Australian Navy – the warships. But on the 24th of May this year, 100 years to the day of the RAN’s first submarine arrival, there will be little fanfare.

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Our Emden – Contesting public memory through film

Raider Emden Poster

Cinema poster for the 1928 USA release of Ken G Hall’s silent film ‘Exploits of the Emden’ ANMM Collection 00046579

The sinking of the German Cruiser SMS Emden by HMAS Sydney in November 1914 was a siginficant moment in Australia’s experience of the First World War.

This was the first great naval engagement of Australia’s navy that had just been formed in 1913. The cruiser Sydney ended the amazing exploits of the Emden that had been raiding the Indian Ocean seemingly at will, capturing the imagination of publics around the world. The battle was celebrated with great gusto by Australians as their first victory in the war – and a victory that was on the international stage. Continue reading

100 years: The first fleet of the Royal Australian Navy

On this day, 100 years ago, the Royal Australian Navy’s first fleet of warships entered Sydney Heads ‘from out the morning mist’, as The Sydney Morning Herald dramatically described it. Headed by our first naval flagship, the aptly named Indefatigable class battlecruiser HMAS Australia, HMA Ships Sydney, Encounter, Melbourne, Warrego, Parramatta and Yarra comprised our first Fleet Unit. Sydney’s shores were lined with thousands of people, dressed in their Edwardian best, with their waistcoats and feathered hats. Over the next few days, Sydney Harbour will come alive once more, this time without the Edwardian garb, for International Fleet Review and what will be the largest gathering of navy ships most of us has ever seen.

Video: Reproduced courtesy of Sea Power Centre – Australia, via 1913 Fleet Entry Continue reading

ANMM members at Garden Island

Last week on a perfect Sydney springtime day a group of museum members caught the ferry from Circular Quay to Garden Island for a fun and informative walk around the naval base with guides from the Naval Historical Society.

Although now connected to the mainland, Garden Island was originally in fact a small island that since 1788 has been used for naval purposes – from growing food to repairing naval and commerical ships. In 1946 the land between Potts Point and the island was reclaimed and the Captain Cook Graving Dock was constructed. This dock is where we take our own HMAS Vampire and HMAS Onslow for their major maintenance works.

If you haven’t been to Garden Island and soaked up some of our naval history then add it to your list of things to do. Only the northern part of the island is open to the public but it’s a nice way to spend several hours – wandering through the Naval Heritage Centre, inspecting the memorials, monuments, guns and missiles, and then climbing up the small hill and the top of the building there to get wonderful views of the cityscape and harbour.

Garden Island – Fleet Base East for the Royal Australian Navy. Photo by Lindsey Shaw

Sydney cityscape from Garden Island. Photo by Lindsey Shaw

And there are free barbeques provided so bring along a picnic. Or you can go to the Salthorse Cafe and relax by watching the harbour go by.

If you want to see more of the island than is open to the general public then keep an eye on our members’ page for our next outing to this Sydney Harbour gem.

ANMM members with one of the 105 mm guns from the WWI cruiser Emden which was defeated by HMAS Sydney in November 1914. Photographer Jeffrey Mellefont

Bradley’s Head – a hidden gem in Sydney Harbour

This morning I spent a delightful couple of hours at Bradley’s Head hearing about the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service’s (NPWS) plans for the improvement of the precinct and the restoration of the mast from HMAS Sydney (I) which is a feature of the area.

A relic from the first HMAS SYDNEY, this mast commemorates the service of all four SYDNEYs in the Royal Australian Navy.

Prepared in conjunction with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the HMAS Sydney Association this landscape plan presented by NPWS is going to make the precinct even more beautiful and functional than it already is – hopefully in time for the International Fleet Review in October 2013.

Where is Bradley’s Head? Right near Taronga Zoo. Catch the Manly ferry and you’ll pass by it – look for the naval grey mast with a white ensign flying. And who was Bradley? William Bradley was First Lieutenant on board HMS Sirius in 1788 when it arrived in the harbour as part of the First Fleet. Captain John Hunter named the point after him. The Indigenous name is believed to be Dalyungay which means place of surveillance, lookout or alarm – and when you are there you can easily see why it might be so named. And its strategic importance wasn’t lost on the European colonists either as can be seen by the remains of the fortifications in the area.





If you haven’t been to Bradley’s Head, make the effort as it’s a wonderful spot to view the harbour – down to the Sydney Harbour Bridge or up to the Heads. And with the weather starting to warm up there are some wonderful walks to do too!

Sydney Harbour on a sunny winter’s day

Lindsey Shaw, senior curator