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Media Release
Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon. Ian Campbell

6 November 2004

Shipwrecks discovered off NSW coast


Two pristine shipwrecks just discovered off the NSW coast offer rare opportunities to investigate Australia's maritime heritage, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, said today.

The wrecks are those of the torpedoed WWII US Liberty Ship, the William Dawes , and the coastal steamer the TSS Bega .

Two divers from the Sydney Project diving team broke the NSW diving record to reach the William Dawes , plunging 135 metres into the waters off Merimbula to discover the silent remains of the vessel.

The William Dawes is one of 2751 mass-produced Liberty Ships built to transport wartime cargo for the US forces. It was carrying a 5576 ton load, including jeeps, trucks, ambulances and explosives when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine on 22 July 1942. Five merchant seamen were killed.

The ship was found in an area notorious for snagging fishing nets, prompting Bermagui charter boat operator Keith Appleby and Sydney Project diver Stewart Bell to suspect a wreck. They then plotted the wreck's location from information given to them by fishermen

Divers from the Sydney team also identified the 96-year-old wreck of the Bega, which capsized and sank between Tathra and Bermagui in 1908. Its passengers and crew abandoned ship before it submerged beneath the waves.

Two Bermagui men, retired sub-sea engineer Fred Billington and charter boat operator David Prior, found the wreck last month after years of searching.

They identified anomalies on the seabed with a magnetometer, then developed their own underwater video camera and attached to a cable from their boat to spot the wrecks.

"These ships have remained undisturbed on the ocean floor for decades until now," Senator Campbell said.

"Because they have remained untouched, they are virtual time capsules, rich in stories and historic information important to our knowledge of the past. With proper care, we can study and learn from these underwater museums.

"For this reason I am protecting them under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, by declaring a Protected Zone around the Bega which will limit access to the site to those holding a permit and by declaring the William Dawes to be an ‘historic shipwreck' which will enable divers to visit the wreck, but not to remove or disturb relics without a permit .

"Although historic shipwrecks in Australian waters are usually at least 75 years old, the William Dawes deserves our protection as it may be a war grave of the five lost crew.

Senator Campbell said he made these declarations to ensure the vessels and their contents were protected from possible interference or damage by visitors.

"It is important that we respect our underwater heritage," he said. "Our wrecks provide a wonderful opportunity to explore and better understand our past. The valuable information that they hold needs to be protected for the benefit of all Australians – both now and in the future."

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