Divers Discover the “Ship that the Sea Swallowed”

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By Terry Cantwell


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)


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.

8 thoughts on “Divers Discover the “Ship that the Sea Swallowed”

  1. After having spent considerable time and money looking for the wreck myself, it is brilliant that you have discovered the location. At least I can rest easily, knowing that I didn’t miss the wreck in my search – I was nowhere near where it appears you discovered it. Congratulations.

    • Thanks Peter,
      It’s a great credit to the guys at SOE – they’ve been searching for the Coramba for 8 years. Mind you they were looking for a different wreck when they came across this one.
      It’s whereabouts creates another mystery. Nobody can figure out why the historical record was so wrong. There’s a lot to come with the Coramba story I suspect.

  2. My Great Grandfather on onboard the TSS Caramba and for many years my father has followed in the media all attempts to find her, even sending money to Peter Ritchie in 1999 to help fund his search… The news of its finding bought tears to his eyes which is rarely seen… Well done to everyone for your efforts, you have made a family very happy…

    • Thanks Dionne
      I Will pass on your kind comments to SOE and Des Williams, the people responsible for the find. Lots of people have searched for this ship over the years and it’s been frustrating for many. Peter above spent a lot of time looking, I’m told. Des Williams and many others also tried to find it . All of their work was vital in the eventaul discovery because it eliminated a vast area of Bass Strait from the search. SOE will be delighted to hear from you. I know your comments will mean a lot to them. I’m also glad that this has been a postive event for your family.
      Terry Cantwell

  3. Congratulations to all those involved.My Uncle Michael Foley was one of the four bodies found washed up on the beach.I would dearly love to buy a copy of The Ship that the sea swallowed for my Mother who has just entered Aged Care.I am sure she would love to find out more about the Ship that claimed her brothers life,again congratulations. Kind Regards,Anna Howe.

    • Hi Anne
      I will pass on your message to Des Williams, the book author. He’ll be delighted ot hear from you. I have sent you an email with his details. This tragedy is still within living memory, and is a raw memory for many people. All the best and I hope this brings some solace to your mum.
      Terry Cantwell

  4. My heartfelt thanks to all concerned in locating the “Coramba”. My grandfather, John Loring SULLIVAN, was one of the crew lost. This was twenty odd years before I was born, so I never knew him – but the story of the “Coramba” has been part of my life forever. It was wonderful to learn that my grandfather’s resting place has finally been discovered. Ironically, on the day it was reported found I was in Port Fairy on holiday, and able to touch the bell of the “Coramba” on display at the history centre. I felt so close to him that day.

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