Archaeologists, Biologists and the Pied Piper

By Julie Mushynsky (MMA Student)

From May 16 to May 27, 2011 the South Australia Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) embarked on a Commonwealth funded project in the Investigator Strait off the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia.  Maritime Heritage Officer, Amer Khan and everyone’s favourite handyman, Ross “Mouse Whisperer” Cole of the Coastal Management Branch of DENR headed the project.  Two volunteer researchers on board included Shea Cameron, a Flinders University Marine Biology student and me, a Flinders University Maritime Archaeology student.  Kevin Jones, director of the South Australian Maritime Museum joined the group for a few days during the first week.  Lastly, Assistant Director for Maritime Heritage for the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (SEWPAC), Andy Viduka also joined the group during the second week.

Perimeter fixing. Photo by: Amer Khan

The Investigator Strait area is the navigable stretch of water between the southern Yorke Peninsula and Kangaroo Island.  Vessels in the area were engaged in such activities as whaling and sealing up until about the 1850s, then a heavy shipping trade developed including the transportation of wheat, wool and mineral cargoes to Adelaide.  The high volume of activity resulted in many wrecks in the area.  The aim of this particular project was to determine the perimeter of a number of known wrecks.

Rather than have a shipwreck depicted in a database as a simple point in an area, the goal was to convey the wreck as a polygon, therefore having a better idea of the size and area of the wreck.  The second goal was to further the research conducted on the missing Le Casuarina anchor. Research from the Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH) in 2007 reported some signals from a magnetometer and metal detector survey.  This time around, we sought out to return to the location of those signals and find the anchor.  Lastly, we were there to take biological surveys and samples as a part of Shea Cameron’s PhD research and to take video and photographs of the wrecks.

Serious biology going on with Shea. Photo by: Amer Khan

For the entire time, we were stationed in Edithburgh on the southeastern tip of the Peninsula primarily launching our boat from the Edithburgh boat ramp.  Our first order of business was to determine the perimeter of the wreck Clan RanaldClan Ranald was a turret steamer which once carried wheat and flour bound for South Africa.  It wrecked in 1909 due to stability problems and 40 people lost their lives.  The wreck is located south of Troubridge Hill just south-west of Edithburgh.  For two days, Amer, Shea and I along with coxswain Cole used lead weights tied to thirty meters of rope and then tied to a float to determine the perimeter.  The weights were placed at the extremities of the main structure of the wreck and the rope was let go allowing the floats to ascend to the top.  While topside, GPS points were taken on each float from the boat.  To account for the difference in location from the weight on the bottom and the float on the top, and for any water movement moving the float from its position over-top of the weight, test drops were taken by quickly dropping a weighted float, taking a GPS point, allowing the float to settle and then taking a GPS point of the float.  The difference between those two points could be used to calculate the movement of the perimeter floats.  Clan Ranald is home to a number of fish and invertebrate species.  From my archaeology eye the sea-life on the wreck included grouper, cuttlefish, leatherjackets, scallops, crabs, and octopus to name a few.  A further list can be obtained from the oh-so-knowledgeable Shea Cameron who was excited to find a great big shell, while Amer and I were excited about the great big wreck.  Mission accomplished on the Clan Ranald.  Onto the next task.

Boiler of the Clan Ranald. Photo by: Amer Khan

The following two days were dedicated to searching for the Le Casuarina lost anchor.  Le Casuarina was a survey vessel employed by Nicolas Baudin, one of the earliest explorers to map the South Australian coastline.  In 1803, Le Casuarina was caught in an inbound tide in Sturt Bay and dropped anchor to resist being blown ashore.  The line of the anchor was severed and the anchor was lost.  Research from 2007 had determined a number of possible magnetometer and metal detector signals for the missing anchor.  We stationed ourselves at the point that returned a strong signal in 2007 and where further investigation was needed.  We began a metal detector survey of the area.  A circle survey from one metal detector in the first 7.5 meters rendered no signal.  On the second dive we took two metal detectors underwater and received some very strong signals at approximately 8-10 meters on the circle search.  From there we dredged three holes approximately 20 – 30 centimetres in depth and 20 – 30 centimetres wide.  Unfortunately, dredging revealed nothing.  Subsequently, we took a metal detector down to the holes and to our surprise no signal was received.  To finish the survey we continued the circle search with the metal detector to approximately 12 meters, again with no signals.

Shea and I searching for Le Casuarina anchor. Photo by: Amer Khan.

The next four days of inclement weather and gale force winds left us land locked.  Ross Cole and I decided to go test out the metal detectors on the beach to try and make sense of the signals we were and were not receiving underwater.  After digging, burying, searching and explaining to the locals what we were doing on their beach, we found that the two metal detectors actually feed off each others’ signals and deliver a very high pitch sound.  Another find was that the deeper the object the fainter the sound.  How does this relate to our search?  Well, a possible explanation could be that the two detectors interacted with each other underwater and that there was actually no metal at all.  Another explanation could be that whatever was giving us a strong signal was indeed on the, or close to, the surface and was removed by the dredge.  Either way, no anchor was found and further research needs to be conducted.

One of the land days was spent assisting the Society for Underwater Historical Research (SUHR) crew at the Ethel wreck located on a small beach north-west of Reef Head.  The Ethel was a British built barque (say that three times fast) bound for Port Adelaide from South Africa carrying grain.  It wrecked in 1904 in a storm when it struck a reef and washed up onto the beach.  We extended SUHR’s baseline and conducted a metal detector search every 5 meters, determining the boundaries of the wreck under the sand.   Another vessel called S.S. Ferret wrecked in the same area in 1920.  Ferret was a Scottish  iron-hulled, schooner-rigged steamship carrying a cargo of beer, wine and whiskey from Port Adelaide to Port Victoria.  The vessel’s course was altered to dodge the intense fog and it ran ashore.  In older photos you can see the boiler of  Ferret in the surf zone, but the boiler could not be located this time around as the surf zone was quite treacherous that day.  We took GPS points of Ethel metal detector hits and any hits we got as far out as we could safely go.  We then tried to climb up the stairs in over gale force winds.  The winds were so severe you could put all your body weight into the wind and still stay upright.  The rest of the day was spent at Inness National Park.

Amer, me and the SUHR crew. Photo by: Ross Cole

Archaeologists don't normally wear pants do they? Photo by: Ross Cole

The next day we visited Yalta, a wooden steam tug located in the intertidal zone at Point Turton.  The vessel was owned by the Adelaide Steam Tug Company.  In 1926, the vessel had beached after developing a leak and was eventually abandoned.  Today you can see the boiler from shore.  Again, we determined the perimeters via a metal detector search and took GPS points of major structure left underwater.

The Ethel. Photo by: Ross Cole

Once the winds died down on Wednesday, we were able to launch out of Marion Bay and do perimeter fixing for the wreck HougomontHougomont lies in approximately 9 – 10 meters of water in Stenhouse Bay approximately one and a half hours from Edithburgh.  The Hougomont was a Scottish built, steel-hulled barque bound for Port Lincoln in order to load wheat destined for Europe.  In 1933, the vessel was seriously damaged in a storm and sailed under jury rig until it reached anchorage off of Port Adelaide.  Repairs were too costly so the owner decided to strip the vessel of its fittings, tow it to Stenhouse Bay and sink it to act as a breakwater for gypsum loading vessels.  There is still substantial structure underwater and the highest points are only about a meter below the surface.  We were able to establish a perimeter of the main structure and Shea was able to collect a number of invertebrate samples off the stern of the wreck.  Again, the sea-life on the vessel was vast.  More cuttlefish, one which attempted to grab Amer’s camera and an abundance of other fish species.  On our way out back to Marion Bay, we were met by a pod of dolphins.

Cuttlefish stalking Amer’s camera. Photo by: Amer Khan

On the last day we headed back out to the Clan Ranald to take an image of it using the side-scan sonar.  We then set out to locate the Yatala Reef wreck.  This wreck was an Australian built wooden hulled vessel for the Royal Australian Air Force to carry supplies to coastal landing strips in Papua New Guinea.  It was later commissioned as a government prawn trawler and spent the rest of its years in the tuna and prawn fishery.  In 1981, a fire started in the engine room and spread throughout the vessel.  The crew abandoned the Yatala Reef while the vessel went up in flames and sunk.  The hull is documented as lying in 11 meters of water and mostly covered by sand.  Shea and I went down first to conduct some more biological sampling.  I donned an AGA mask for the first time, however at the bottom of the anchor chain, the Yatala Reef was nowhere to be found.  Amer and Andy conducted some searches for the wreck while Shea and I held tapes.  It gets mighty chilly when you’re not swimming around.  Unable to locate the wreck, we all ascended to the surface.  After trolling the waters, Ross was able to detect some areas with the boat’s echo sounder.  We deployed some floats in those areas and Amer and Andy went down to again search for the wreck, however, they did not locate a single bit of it.

Where the heck is the stern? Photo by: Amer Khan.

On the way back to Adelaide, we stopped by the Clan Ranald cemetery.  It consists of the officers’ graves within the main cemetery, and a mass grave found way in the back with 34 crew members of Asian descent who died on the wreck.

All in all the project was quite successful.  Amer acquired his perimeters, video and photos. Shea collected his samples.  Ross rounded-up all the Edithburgh mice by catching and disposing of 30+ in our accommodation.  I received some valuable practical skills and knowledge, perfected my metal detector ear, operated a side-scan, used an AGA mask, met some great people and learned some proper boat etiquette.  Although I cried a bit about the water temperature, the Yorke Peninsula project was an extremely valuable experience for me and I am lucky to have been a part of it.

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2 responses to “Archaeologists, Biologists and the Pied Piper

  1. Thanks for a great post. Very informative. It almost makes me want to go underwater. Almost!
    Susan Arthure

  2. Great report Julie! You should have put in the final mouse count! ;)