Guest post by David L. Mearns.
A question I get asked all the time, in addition to what it is like to have the greatest job in the world, is which one of all the shipwrecks I’ve found is my ‘favourite’. I usually balk at the question by saying it is impossible to answer, or that it would be like admitting I have a favourite amongst my three children. Also, it doesn’t feel right to think of any of the more than two-dozen major shipwrecks I’ve found as a favourite when nearly all resulted in great loss of life when they sank.
However, there are several shipwrecks I consider to be the most significant in terms of the outcome of having found them. The motor vessel Lucona certainly deserves a place on this list because finding it was literally a matter of life or death. Lucona was at the centre of a murder trial, and the man accused of sinking her by time bomb and killing six of the ship’s crew in the process, was fighting for his life in an Austrian courtroom when we found the wreck in over 4,200 metes of water in the Arabian Sea. When our photographs of the exploded hull were shown in court in 1991 the accused, the cold-hearted killer Udo Proksch, knew his glamorous and flamboyant life was over. Proksch got a life sentence for his crimes and did indeed die in prison.
Another very important shipwreck on my list is the British bulk carrier Derbyshire. Derbyshire sank in 1980 off the coast of Japan during a typhoon with the loss of all forty-four persons on board and is still the largest casualty in British maritime history. Despite Derbyshire’s gargantuan size however, the 169,000-ton ship was seemingly lost without trace leaving the authorities and families little hope of determining what causes it to sink. The clue I used to find the wreck in 1994, which was discounted by other experts, was the position of an oil slick spotted by the Japanese search teams. With the wreck position finally known, the British Government stepped in to fund a detailed photo/video survey of the wreck, which led to a reopening of the Formal Inquiry. A number of deficiencies in the way this class of ship was being built were identified leading to a whole raft of rule changes for bulk carriers adopted by the International Maritime Organisation. Without question finding Derbyshire has resulted in safer ships and the lives of seafarers being saved.
But the shipwreck that had the biggest impact on my life, and the lives of countless Australians was one that was lost over 75 years ago. HMAS Sydney, the light cruiser lost in battle with the German raider Kormoran, went from being Australia’s greatest naval defeat – with the loss of all Sydney’s 645 men – to Australia’s greatest maritime mystery. For most of those 75-years relatives, friends and descendants of Sydney’s men questioned how the ship sank, where it sank and, most importantly, why not a single Australian survived the battle when the majority of Germans did survive. The answers to those troubling questions finally came as a result of an expedition I led in 2008, which successfully located and filmed the wrecks of both the Kormoran and Sydney.
On one hand finding Sydney’s wreck opened old wounds, especially when it was judged that her Captain was to blame for putting his ship and his men in unnecessary danger by getting too close to the heavily armed raider. On the other hand, relatives finally knew where their loved ones were entombed, with the wreck’s position serving as a focal point for commemorative services held on the anniversary of Sydney’s loss. To this very day family members still contact me to express their gratitude and to tell me how important it was to them that the shipwreck was found. An empty space in their lives has been filled with the knowledge of how the men fought and died and that they will always be remembered for their service to Australia. Leading the search for Sydney was one of the great privileges of my life.
The Shipwreck Hunter
A lifetime of extraordinary discovery and adventure in the deep seas
David Mearns, the man who discovered the wreck of HMAS Sydney, takes us on an extraordinary voyage through his amazing career as one of the world's most successful shipwreck hunters.
David Mearns has found some of the world's most fascinating and elusive shipwrecks. His deep-water searches have solved the 66-year mystery of HMAS Sydney, discovered the final resting place of the mighty battlecruiser HMS Hood and revealed the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur in the narrow underwater canyon that served as its grave...