As an island colony and later state of the Commonwealth of Australia, Tasmania has always been fundamentally dependent on shipping services to connect it to the outside world. However, lying in the path of the winds known as the ‘roaring forties’, the waters around Tasmania have proved treacherous to mariners.
Since the wreck of the ship Sydney Cove in 1797, around 1,000 vessels of all sizes are known to have been lost in Tasmanian waters up to the present day.Although the locations of less than 10% of these shipwrecks are presently known these sites are an important part of our national maritime heritage, a unique gift from our past.
While many shipwrecks can only be visited by suitably qualified divers material may also be seen on the sea shore or in tidal zones. Many shipwreck sites are often left unlocated or undisturbed for years and some natural processes of decay and decomposition are stopped or substantially slowed in the underwater environment. For these reasons shipwreck sites are time capsules which can open a window into history.
Managing Tasmania’s Shipwrecks
In Tasmania the Historic Heritage Section of the Parks and Wildlife Service is the government authority responsible for the management of the State’s historic shipwrecks and other maritime heritage sites. From its base in Hobart the Branch is actively involved in researching, locating and surveying shipwreck sites. It is also concerned with the dissemination of information through publications and actively works with organisations such as the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, on the conservation and display of artefacts. In recent years the Branch has also carried out an extensive research and excavation program on the Sydney Cove shipwreck in Bass Strait.
The Historic Heritage Section is also responsible for the administration of legislation that provides protection for a number of shipwreck sites in the State’s internal and coastal waters, including sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island.
Shipwrecks and the Law
Two laws protect the remains of shipwrecks in Tasmanian waters. The Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 applies to Australian Commonwealth waters extending from the low water mark to the outer edge of the continental shelf. The State Historic Cultural Heritage Act 1995 applies to shipwrecks that lie within the state waters of Tasmania (harbours, enclosed bays, estuaries, rivers and lakes).
Under both these Acts all shipwrecks and their associated artefacts which were lost over 75 years ago are automatically protected. Shipwrecks that occurred less than 75 years ago may also be individually protected under these Acts if they are considered to be significant. In special circumstances when a shipwreck is considered highly significant or vulnerable a ‘Protected Zone’ may be declared around the site, requiring a permit from the management authority to enter. There are currently no ‘Protected Zones’ in Tasmania.
In all instances members of the public are welcome to visit shipwrecks provided they do not collect artefacts or otherwise disturb or damage the sites. Underwater sites are often quite delicate and even apparently small disturbances can result in considerable long term damage. Under the current laws it is illegal to interfere with a protected shipwreck site without a permit from the managing authority.
Both laws require discoveries of a shipwreck or the possession of artefacts from protected shipwrecks to be reported. For the reporting of sites, permits, advice or information concerning Tasmania’s shipwrecks and other maritime heritage places please contact the Maritime Archaeologist. Historic Heritage Section, Parks and Wildlife Service
Michael Nash of the Parks and Wildlife Service has posted profiles of eleven shipwrecks found the waters surrounding Tasmania during the last two hundred years:
Courtesy Michael Nash and Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife. Learn more at: