Beneath the Waves: Diving Tasmania’s Sunken History
My mate Richard mentioned a cool kelp forest he’d recently found south of Dover, Tasmania. Initially there were to be three of us, but the dive grew legs and before long there were nine. Some of the others were keen to try to locate the known resting place of the Katherine Shearer.
In 1855 the Katherine Shearer, a 440 tonne barque, was sailing from Britain to Australia, with her final destination being Hobart. She carried a mixed cargo together with a number of people wishing to start a new life in Tasmania. As she sailed up the d’Entrecasteaux Channel, named after Bruni d’Entrecasteaux who first mapped the area some 63 years earlier in 1792, she caught fire and was abandoned near the shore. The Captain ordered all passengers and crew inland to avoid the inevitable explosion caused by a large cargo of gunpowder. The vessel did explode, with wreckage and debris scattered across a wide area. All passengers and crew survived, but were initially stranded in the rugged wilderness at the bottom of the Earth.
The drive south from Hobart to Dover can be done comfortably in 90 minutes. Past the mist of Huonville, the winding roads narrow and the surrounding environment creeps right to the edge of the bitumen. It is wonderfully scenic and feels as if the inhabitants are really only briefly borrowing their plots of land from the forest. Once at Dover, our destination can only be reached by boat; an approximately 20 minute journey via zodiac over the lumpy, awkward swell that rises around the islands of Port Esperance, named Faith, Hope and Charity.
The resting place of what remains of the Katherine Shearer has been known since approximately 1929, however, it is not marked and is not frequently dived. One of our party had last dived here 29 years ago and described the wreckage as being little more than a few planks. Not being optimistic of finding her on the sounder, our boat continued south and dived the Giant Kelp forest for 50 minutes, swimming in and out of the stands and fossicking about. It’s like being in a land forest, but weightless; in perfect harmony with the ocean, the sun sending down dappled beams of brilliant white light.
Upon rejoining the party, we were surprised to discover that the other two boats had found the wreck, apparently using more arse than class. Nonetheless, it was a great find. We anchored, geared up in the choppy swell and then descended down the anchor line. The first 10m of the dive contained a large amount of fresh water from recent rain and visibility was down to only a few meters. However, after passing the 10m mark and continuing down to the sea floor at 15m, the visibility opened up and immediately revealed a scattering of wooden remains lying where they fell.
We spent 30 minutes on the wreck, amazed to find a significant amount of hull remaining, together with numerous artefacts such as bottles and crockery, copper sheathing and sections of wood. Most of the obvious and intact material has been removed over the years, but it is still very easy to find remnants of life in 1855. It is a true honour to be able to hold in your hands things from two centuries ago that have not felt fresh air or seen the bright light of day since they fell to the sandy bottom 156 years ago.
Topside, it was incredibly easy to imagine those years past, with the surrounding dense forest remaining virtually unchanged since the demise of the Katherine Shearer in 1855, and the arrival of Bruni d’Entrecasteaux’s party in 1792. d’Entrecasteaux was tasked with searching for Jean-François de La Pérouse, who was last seen in 1788 in Botany Bay, Australia. d’Entrecasteaux and his party spent approximately one month replenishing supplies and mapping the area which later bore his name. Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) was not colonised by the British until 1803/1804, so these earlier visits by explorers of other nationalities are a fascinating part of early Tasmanian European history.
Of this wonderfully remote part of the Earth, d’Entrecasteaux said:
It will be difficult to describe my feelings at the sight of this solitary harbour situateted at the extremeties of the globe, so perfectly enclosed that one feels separated from the rest of the universe. Everything is influenced by the wilderness of the rugged landscape. With each step, one encounters the beauties of unspoilt nature, with signs of decrepitude, trees reaching a very great height, and of corresponding diameter, are devoid of branches along the trunk, but crowned with an everlasting green foliage. Some of these trees seem as ancient as the world, and are so tightly interlaced that they are impenetrable.
The untimely demise of the Katherine Shearer fortunately claimed no lives. However, the Tasmanian coast is littered with the wrecks of hundreds, perhaps thousands of vessels where those aboard were not so fortunate. Many of these final resting places have never been discovered.
Geoff Rollins lives in Hadspen, a town of approximately 1900 people, in the north of the island state of Tasmania, Australia. He is 30 (but in denial) and married with twin daughters. He is undertaking a Master of Teaching degree through the University of Tasmania, after a career in maritime administration. In his spare time he loves SCUBA diving and underwater photography, rock climbing, gardening and is a volunteer firefighter with his local brigade.