THE stark reality of shipwrecks is brought home in Bicton marine archaeologist Graeme Henderson’s latest book, Swallowed by the Sea.
It explores wrecks around Australia, from the earliest, the Tryal in 1622, through to one that played out on television sets across the nation as 48 asylum seekers drowned off Christmas Island in 2010.
“We tend to think of shipwrecks as romantic, but the SIEV 221 brought to living rooms the terrible things that happen [at sea],” the former maritime museum director says.
The Tryal was sunk after its inept captain drove it into rocks and the book looks at it and other wrecks, the people involved, the dramatic circumstances of the wrecking and the aftermath.
Discovering the wreck of 17th century Vergulde Draeck (Gilt Dragon) while spearfishing off Ledge Point in 1963, kicked off a lifelong passion for shipwrecks for the then 16-year-old.
Spotting bricks scattered on the ocean bed he thought they were craypot weights: “[Then] I saw little bits of something sticking out [of the sand] which turned out to be elephant tusks.”
Until then little thought had been given to wrecks off the WA coast and authorities were unsure what to do when the find, which turned out to include silver coins, was reported.
It took several years but finally legislation, and a program to protect wrecks, was introduced: “Which is one of the best in the world,” Mr Henderson says.
He’s dived on numerous wrecks over his long and illustrious career, but his favourite is the Sirius, the flagship of the first fleet which sank off Norfolk Island in 1790.
Mr Henderson reckons the ship was lost because Governor Phillips reduced the ballast when leaving Blighty in order to carry more provisions to the new colony.
Once the cargo was unloaded in Sydney the ship would have been too light for tight manoeuvres: “Maybe by him taking out the ballast the ship was less seaworthy and less able to go about,” Mr Henderson ponders.
Swallowed by the Sea is available at the Maritime Museum and all good book stores.
by JENNY D’ANGER