Insider guide: shipwrecks

Insider guide: shipwrecks

Go behind the scenes to dis­cov­er the unique jobs and pas­sion­ate peo­ple that care for South Australia’s environment.

Amer Khan Senior Mar­itime Her­itage Officer

How would you describe your job to some­one at a BBQ?

Mar­itime Her­itage is all about telling good sto­ries, and in my case, ship­wreck sto­ries. South Aus­tralia has about 800 ship­wrecks, a huge num­ber rel­a­tive to the length of the state’s coast­line. My job is to pre­serve as many of these sites as pos­si­ble for cur­rent and future gen­er­a­tions to enjoy – and to keep telling those stories.

Many mid-19th cen­tu­ry ship­wrecks in SA have a spe­cial place in the state’s his­to­ry as they are asso­ci­at­ed with the ear­ly Euro­pean set­tle­ment of the state. Sto­ries of ship­wreck­ing are still told and com­mem­o­rat­ed in many region­al towns as they relate to tales of tragedy, heart­break, and brav­ery, often with sig­nif­i­cant impact on those coastal communities.

Ships built dur­ing that peri­od were pos­si­bly one of the most tech­no­log­i­cal­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed prod­ucts of human endeav­our at that time, in a way they were the space shut­tles’ of their time. As each of these ship­wrecks is unique, the loss of one of these sites can mean the loss of the last known exam­ple of a par­tic­u­lar type. These wrecks real­ly are like endan­gered species, once they’re gone we no longer have any phys­i­cal remains of such ves­sels. As time pass­es and these ship­wrecks get old­er, there will be few­er and few­er of them, and they will become even more impor­tant to protect. 

How did you get into this line of work?

A love of his­to­ry, tech­nol­o­gy, and the ocean drew me to a career in mar­itime her­itage. I stud­ied a Bach­e­lor of Biol­o­gy and Com­put­er Sci­ence and then a Mas­ters in Mar­itime Archae­ol­o­gy to get to where I am today.

What do you encounter in a nor­mal’ day on the job?

My work is split between field work and office-based research. When we run a field oper­a­tion, I vis­it the site of a ship­wreck and con­duct a site assess­ment to gath­er as much infor­ma­tion as pos­si­ble about the phys­i­cal remains of the ves­sel. This usu­al­ly involves scu­ba div­ing and using sur­vey equip­ment to explore the wreck, deter­mine the extent of the site, and iden­ti­fy inter­est­ing or unique ele­ments of the ves­sel, while try­ing to under­stand how it fits into a broad­er his­tor­i­cal context.

Research then gives me the rest of the clues that I need. I rely heav­i­ly on con­ver­sa­tions with local wreck-spot­ters’ and fish­er­men – peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty who have an inter­est in ship­wrecks and have that insid­er’ knowl­edge of the area. I also look at archives, logs and con­duct oth­er research back at the office to fill in as many gaps as possible.

What’s the most amaz­ing thing you’ve seen at a ship­wreck site?

About three years ago I was explor­ing the wreck of the Hougomont near Sten­house Bay, off the tip of Yorke Penin­su­la. Ship­wrecks are an amaz­ing sanc­tu­ary for marine life as they pro­vide pro­tec­tion for small­er fish in the big blue ocean. On this occa­sion, I was swim­ming along the side of the ship when a giant cut­tle­fish that was also swim­ming near­by took an inter­est in my under­wa­ter cam­era, attached itself to the lens and tried to swim off with it. I think it saw its reflec­tion in the dome of the cam­era lens and was either threat­ened by it or want­ed to mate with it. As a result I got some amaz­ing pho­tos of the cuttlefish.

What are your insid­er tips about explor­ing shipwrecks?

My tip is to vis­it the Song­vaar wreck at Port Vic­to­ria, which sank on the same day as the Titan­ic. There’s a bizarre sto­ry behind it. The ship was anchored and the cap­tain was ashore, but as the tide dropped the ship swung around and end­ed up sit­ting on its own anchor. It pierced the hull and pinned the ship to the seabed. As the tide began to rise again the ship flood­ed. For­tu­nate­ly no one was on board. It’s an easy spot to dive and you’ll be able to see the anchor fluke stick­ing up through the cen­tre of the hull.

If you’re keen to explore South Australia’s mar­itime his­to­ry, check out some of ourship­wreck trails.

This con­tent was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with  Good Living