Divers Discover the “Ship that the Sea Swallowed”

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By Terry Cantwell

6/6/2011

One of Victoria’s most searched-for shipwrecks has finally been discovered.

Last Sunday (May 29) archaeological divers Southern Ocean Exploration (SOE) discovered the wreck of the TSS Coramba, which sank in Bass Strait in 1934.

The Coramba was en-route from Warnambool to Williamstown with a cargo of condensed milk and wool, when Captain John Dowling attempted to find shelter in Westernport.

The ship was no match for the huge seas that also swamped much of the mainland on Novemebr 30, 1934.

17 men drowned in what was one of Victoria’s worst hurricanes and the wreck’s  whereabouts has remained a mystery until now.

The Coramba’s sinking was a huge blow to a state already reeling from a crippling depression. Relatives received little compensation and many children grew up in poverty after losing their family breadwinner.

Divers have been searching for the wreck for over 70 years. In 1935, legendary salvage diver John Johnstone claimed to have found the wreck near Seal Rocks, Phillip Island: a claim that was accepted by a marine inquiry at the time. However, last week’s discovery places the wreck many miles to the west of Johnstone’s coordinates.

Fairfax/Whitewater video report

The Ship that the Sea Swallowed author and maritime historian, Des Williams has been searching for the Coramba since the 1980s.  “The Coramba has been a big part of my life for the past 35 years. I’ve searched for it on many occasions, written a book about it and have become very close to the families of those who drowned,” he said.

Southern Ocean Exploration has been searching for the wreck for eight years and has surveyed almost 15 square kilometres of Bass Strait. The team’s chief researcher, Peter Taylor, has painstakingly researched all available data. He recently decided to change the search grid on a hunch that team may have been looking in the wrong area. “It’s a great relief. There have many days when we’ve returned from a Coramba search very despondent. This is absolutely wonderful,” Mr Taylor said.

SOE Team Leader Mark Ryan says that the Coramba find is one of SOE’s finest moments. “This is the sweetest find of all. We have discovered nearly a dozen wrecks now, but this one required a special resilience. There were many occasions when we were about to write her off,” he said.

Other Media:

Sunday Age report

Sydney Morning Herald video report

WA Today report

Westernport News Report (pp 18-19)

WIN TV 

Mornington Leader report

Hobsons Bay Leader feature about Peter Taylor

Guardian Mildura

Frankston Leader

Hobsons Bay Leader follow-up interview with Norma Dowling.

Brisbane Times Video

Canberra Times Video

Ayrshire Post Scotland

Sunday Business Post Ireland

photos by Brenden Stevenson, Vikki Ryan, Des Williams, Mark Ryan, and Whitewater Documentaries.

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