Authors: Lauren Davison, Josh Russ, and Tim Zapor
From 2nd February, 2014 until 16th February, 2014, Flinders University teaches its Maritime Archaeology Field School in which students have a unique opportunity to have hands-on training in the field. Generally, only a few people get such experience until they reach a professional level. Students from around the world get a chance to gain valuable knowledge from professionals, historians, PhD. candidates, and local societies around Phillip Island, Victoria, Australia. This experience gained is invaluable and helps to elevate the growth and knowledge of these aspiring professionals in a field of great importance to cultural heritage. Archaeology is a field in which professionals and the community share in the protection of a finite resource that will be lost without the cooperation of both parties.In collaboration with Heritage Victoria (HV) (Peter Harvey and Toni Massey), the Maritime Archaeology Association of Victoria (MAAV) (Peter Taylor and Des Williams), and Flinders University, students have made preliminary evaluations of possible shipwreck sites off the coast of Phillip Island using a side scan sonar from HV’s vessel Trim.
One such wreck that was discovered is Vixen, which was a schooner-rigged, carvel-built ferry that sunk in 1917 while under-tow from Phillip Island to Melbourne, Vic. Vixen had taken on water while moored at Rhyll when the topside seams burst open in 1915 (Jansson 2013). On the 20th of July 1917, the tugboat Sprightly was towing Vixen to Melbourne for repairs when it became unattached and started to founder. There was an attempt to run the vessel aground at Rhyll (Phillip Island) but it failed and Vixen sank about a mile east of Cowes Jetty. The exact location of the shipwreck site was unknown until the 6th February, 2014 when a team of professionals, students, and local society members located the long lost ship remains (Department of the Environment 2013). The team was able to successfully locate the wreck with the use of local knowledge of events surrounding the wrecking event as well as the advanced technology of side scan sonar.
In underwater archaeology, geophysics is the scientific study of features below the surface or seabed using a range of instruments including side scan sonar to produce an image (Bowens 2009:217). Side scan sonar is a method that uses sound that reflects off the seabed and objects and produces shadows that with enough experience can be interpreted and then investigated. Side scan sonar emits sound waves that strike the sea floor and creates imagery by recording the timing and amplitude of those sound wave reflections (Bowens 2009:218). This method cannot replace divers on the seafloor, but greatly aids in the locating of shipwrecks and other material on the seabed especially in hazardous conditions. This is exactly how the Vixen was located. Peter Harvey and Toni Massey from Heritage Victoria kindly lent their assistance and boat Trim and with the knowledge acquired from Peter Taylor and Des Williams (MAAV) after countless hours of research and years of looking for the Vixen; allowed students to participate in an astounding find for Phillip Island and for most of the students, their first shipwreck.
The image above shows a slight deviation from the seabed that, to the untrained eye, doesn’t appear to be much, but with experience one can start to ‘pick out’ these variations. Experience comes with hours of observing these images and experts can start to identify the presence of possible shipwrecks. After locating a possible site, divers are needed to confirm the remains because not every image is necessarily a wreck.
The use of side scan sonar helped to limit the time and cost of endless hours of diver searching that would produce little results. This method allowed for a non-invasive and in-situ identification and preservation of a wreck that would be otherwise lost forever. Local historian John Jansson, and fellow local historians, have an invested interest in preserving the culture of the area and helping to educate people on the history surrounding the ships as well as the intangible heritage that brings the human perspective to the physical remains. The cooperation between local community members and professionals alike, such as was undertaken in this investigation, aids in the preservation of the world’s heritage, one shipwreck at a time.
Bowens, Amanda (editor)
2009 Underwater Archaeology: The NAS Guide to Principles and Practice. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishing, West Sussex.
1902 Museum of Victoria Collection.
Department of the Environment
2013 Australian National Shipwrecks Database. Electronic document, http://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/shipwrecks/database.htm, accessed February 8, 2013.
2013 Personal Communication.