Culture and heritage

Maritime heritage

Diver resources

Shipwrecks in New South Wales

Shipwrecks are filled with history and colourful marine life, and offer unique recreational diving experiences. As archaeological sites, they offer a rare opportunity to study life at sea from times gone by, and they often survive as our only evidence for past technology, trades and life on board. For these reasons, they must be protected for all to learn from and enjoy.

Many shipwreck sites off the New South Wales coast await discovery and identification. Less than 15% of about 1800 ships wrecked in NSW have been located to date.

Leading dive training organisations and clubs encourage divers to take a special responsibility in protecting these fragile archaeological sites. You can help by learning about the shipwreck histories, treating the remains with great care, and by helping to record them.

The associated information and documents in this section will help you get the most out of shipwreck dives, while minimising human impacts.

Investigating shipwreck sites

Shipwreck sites are fragile archaeological sites. They comprise of the physical remains of a vessel's structure, including fastenings and fittings and associated equipment such as winches and anchors. They can retain:

  • important examples of early marine engineering technology in the form of engines and boilers
  • artefacts associated with cargo or passengers and crew.

The shipwrecks and associated relics are protected by legislation, which serves to remind us that they are 'museums beneath the sea', and must be cared for as such. Disturbance or removal of any material destroys the archaeological potential of sites, as well as destroying a diver's experience.

There are strict controls that determine when a site can be disturbed. This is usually only approved for reasons of scientific study, following an exhaustive archaeological assessment process, or where a site is in immediate threat from damage or destruction.

Material submerged in salt-water environments is very fragile and requires urgent professional conservation care if brought to the surface. This is generally a very expensive, but essential, exercise. Illegal recovery of items means that the site has been wilfully damaged, that there has been no scientific recording, and that the long term survival of recovered items has been compromised. For these reasons, shipwreck sites should be left intact as they appear on the bottom for all to enjoy.

Diving within the law

Divers are free to visit shipwreck sites and to learn from them. At the same time, it is important to remember that all shipwrecks located off the NSW coast are protected by the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 (HSA) and/or the NSW Heritage Act 1977 (HA) when over seventy-five years of age. In addition, shipwrecks and other relics located within inland areas of the State, including harbours and rivers, are protected under the Shipwreck provisions of the HA, and the Archaeological Relics provisions based on significance assessment.

There are severe penalties for breaching these Acts, including fines and jail terms. All NSW Police Officers (including Water Police), serve as Wreck Inspectors under the HSA with powers of confiscation and arrest. Designated staff of the Marine Parks Authority and Roads and Maritime Services are also Historic Shipwreck Inspectors.

Only three shipwrecks, out of some 1800 in New South Wales, require permits for entry. These are the Japanese midget submarine M24 (1942) off Sydney, the ss Lady Darling (1880) south of Narooma, and ss Bega (1908) off Bermagui.

For more information about legislation that applies to shipwrecks see the section on Legislation in the management section of this web site.

How to get involved in shipwreck conservation

You can help the work of the New South Wales Maritime Archaeology Program by being a responsible diver and promoting sensible interaction with the sites. Visit shipwrecks safely, and be careful not to damage them with your dive gear or when anchoring your dive vessel. Boat anchors can do irreparable damage to historic shipwrecks. For further information, download the Anchoring on Shipwrecks Guidelines (PDF, 32KB).

You can help record these fragile sites by observing their condition, level of exposure, unique features and associated marine life. The Heritage Branch's Wrecks Alive (WrecksAliveBrochure.pdf, 321KB) project has been established to assist this work. This project provides information on how to survey a site, what to record and how to undertake historic research. Perhaps the most important part of recording shipwrecks is to develop a plan or drawing of them. This greatly assists their study and interpretation to the wider community. Site plans will help other divers learn about the sites, how they were formed and what to expect.

New shipwrecks are detected each year and require urgent assessment. You can help by undertaking historic research, preparing access maps and site plans and by taking key photographs and video footage.

Share your information

If you have found a new shipwreck site, undertaken a survey of a shipwreck, completed a maritime heritage research project for a Univiersity course, or prepared a report though a Wreak Diver Course or and archaeology training course through the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology , you can share your information by emailing Maritime Heritage Online. If your work is used, you will be credited.

To report a new shipwreck site, please complete the Shipwreck Reporting Form (PDF, 47 KB).

More information

The Heritage Branch, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, can assist with advice on the underwater heritage of a particular region. This might be in the form of historical information or wreck site condition reports.They can also provide advice on the development of educational projects, such as Historic Shipwreck Walking Trails. The Heritage Branch has produced several guides on the development of these and other exciting educational projects.

You should also contact dive shops that may have an intimate knowledge of local shipwreck sites.

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Page last updated: 19 March 2014