Accidental ocean floor discovery solves 120-year-old mystery of coal ship disappearance

<span>The 73-metre long vessel was bound for Melbourne, but never arrived. </span><span>Photograph: Brad Duncan/CSIRO</span>
The 73-metre long vessel was bound for Melbourne, but never arrived. Photograph: Brad Duncan/CSIRO

The 120-year-old mystery of the disappearance of a coal ship off the coast of New South Wales has been solved, after a commercial company looking for lost cargo accidentally stumbled upon its ocean-floor wreckage.

SS Nemesis and its 32 crew – which included Australian, British and Canadian members – set off from Newcastle loaded with coal on 9 July 1904.

The 73-metre long vessel was bound for Melbourne, but never arrived.

It was last seen in distress in rough seas off the town of Wollongong, just south of Sydney, by another ship also caught in the storm.

In the following weeks, bodies of crew washed up on Cronulla Beach, along with fragments of the ship’s steering wheel, doors and other wreckage.

Despite a media storm and intense public interest at the time, the ship was never found.

Then, in 2022, Subsea Professional Marine Services, a remote sensing company that was scouring for lost cargo containers off the coast of Sydney, accidentally stumbled across the wreck.

It was found 26km offshore, 160m metres underwater. The ship’s iron wreck was resting upright on a sand plan. Its bow and stern were significantly damaged.

NSW Heritage experts’ initial hunch was that it was the SS Nemesis, but they had difficulty verifying its identification given the depth of the shipwreck.

Related: South Australia’s oldest European shipwreck at risk from the forces that uncovered it

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) then became involved, capturing underwater imagery that confirmed the ship’s distinctive features when compared with historical photographs and sketches of the SS Nemesis.

The investigation also revealed how the ship went down: researchers believe its engine became overwhelmed in the storm. When it was hit by a large wave, it sank too quickly for life boats to be deployed.

Ed Korber, managing director of Subsea Professional Marine Services, which has a history of discoveries at the ocean’s floor, said his team navigated several obstacles in its initial search.

“It has been an absolute honour to have discovered this wreck which will now finally bring some closure to the families of its lost crew members,” Korber said.

NSW environment and heritage minister Penny Sharpe noted that about 40 children lost their parents in the wreck.

“I hope this discovery brings closure to families and friends connected to the ship who have never known its fate,” she said.

Local Wollongong MP Paul Scully said that just 105 of the more than 200 believed shipwrecks off the NSW coast have been discovered, praising the importance of continued search works.

CSIRO voyage manager Jason Fazey said later investigations created a high-resolution map of the entire wreck to help identify the ship’s features.

“Our technical team aboard CSIRO research vessel, RV Investigator, did an amazing job in mapping the entire site and capturing very clear vision of the wreck using one of our underwater camera systems,” he said.

“Using RV Investigator’s advanced multibeam echosounders, we were able to create a high-resolution map of the entire wreck and measure key dimensions to aid in its identification.

“Everyone aboard was honoured to be able to contribute to this project and assist Heritage NSW’s maritime archaeology experts in the successful identification of SS Nemesis to help bring closure to another one of our nation’s maritime tragedies.”

Australia’s federal science minister Ed Husic said “every Australian should take heart in the curiosity and persistence our scientists have shown in this project”.

“I admire how determined they were to solve a century-old mystery, demonstrating once again the value of working together and backing that up with the latest knowhow,” Husic said.