Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Mark Butler MP

Minister for Climate Change
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Water

Japanese ‘mother-shipwreck’ protected for future generations

Media release
28 July 2013

The only known wreck of a Japanese pearling mother-ship in Australian waters will be protected by a 200 hectare Protected Zone, announced today by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Water Mark Butler.

Located 60 kilometres off the Central Arnhem Land coast, the wreck of the Sanyo Maru sits on its keel at a depth of 27 metres and is the only known shipwreck of its type in Australia.

On 1 July 1937, Sanyo Maru, with its crew of 20, and heavily overloaded with harvested cargo, was hit by an unseasonal storm and headed seaward to find protection. The Sanyo Maru ‘rolled’ twice and then floundered and sank.

Some crew members managed to get away in a dinghy while others clung to floating debris. Survivors were picked up by other boats. Two crew members died in the sinking: a pearl diver and the ship’s purser.

Mr Butler said the Sanyo Maru is significant, not only because it is the sole wreck of a Japanese pearling mother-ship near the Australian coast, but also because of the site’s remarkable condition and the significance of its archaeological relics.

“The unique collection of relics at the site can provide us with unparalleled insight into the operation and technology of the pearl shell trade during the 1930s, and the day to day lives of the crews who sailed the ships and harvested the pearl shell,” Mr Butler said.

“We must ensure the protection of this unique shipwreck, an important part of Australian history, which is why I have decided to place a Protected Zone under the Australian Government’s Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.

“The lack of historical and contemporary information about the pearl shell trade in Australia reinforces the necessity of protecting the wreck of the Sanyo Maru and its relics as a significant part of Australian and Japanese shared maritime history.”

The Japanese Ambassador, His Excellency Mr Yoshitaka Akimoto, welcomed the announcement.

“I would like to extend my heartfelt appreciation of the establishment of a Protected Zone around the Sanyo Maru pearling mother-ship’s wreck site,” Mr Akimoto said.

“While expressing my deepest sympathy to those who lost their lives in the sinking, I hope that this will serve to remind people in Australia and Japan of the long and firm ties between our countries and to strengthen the friendship between our two countries.”

Further information on the Sanyo Maru

The Sanyo Maru was a steel Japanese pearling mother-ship used to support a fleet of Japanese pearling luggers in the seas off Central Arnhem Land during the 1930s. At the height of the pearl shell industry 190 pearling luggers were operating in the Arafura Sea, with each lugger averaging a crew of 14.

The pearling mother-ships provided food, diesel fuel, wood for cooking fires and fresh water to the pearling luggers. Australian and foreign crews from all pearling vessels were not permitted to make landfall.