Remembering the mysterious Mermaid resting on the Great Barrier Reef

Published: 13/06/2018

On this day in 1829, disaster struck the HMCS Mermaid south of Cairns — reminding us today of the Great Barrier Reef’s rich maritime history.

Laying at the bottom of the ocean near Flora Reef the wreck of HMCS Mermaid was only found nine years ago after being missing for 180 years.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s maritime archaeologist Peter Illidge said it was one of nearly 800 shipwrecks resting at the bottom of the Marine Park.

“There’s lots of mysterious and intriguing shipwrecks in the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.

“They remind us of the great stories of Australia’s maritime history held in our northern waters, and highlight just how hazardous coral reefs were to ships sailing in the area before advances in navigation and technology.

“Most wrecks are now home to colourful marine life and attract divers and snorkelers as well as history buffs who are interested in the ships’ heritage value.

“To preserve these sites for the future, anyone visiting must ensure they do not disturb the wrecks.

“There are many more reported wrecks yet to be found in the Great Barrier Reef Region. Hundreds of wrecks remain unaccounted for in this vast area bigger in size than Italy.”

In its early life in Australia, the Mermaid was captained by naval officer and cartographer Lieutenant Phillip Parker King who surveyed large tracts of Australia’s coast missed by earlier European cartographers.

After refitting in 1820 the vessel joined the then colonial government to service early settlements.

The ship was on a supply run from Sydney — or Port Jackson as it was then known — for Port Raffles in the Northern Territory. Captain Samuel Nolbrow was the master when the ship ran aground.

On the evening of 12 June — despite chief officer John Hastings suggesting to “heave to until daylight” for safety — the captain continued through the Reef and in the early morning Mermaid struck a low-lying coral reef to the east of the Frankland Islands.

It was lost for a while, though a number of sightings of the wreck were reported in the 19th century. Attempts were made to locate the wreck up until 2009 but to no avail.

The HMCS Mermaid was found in 2009 by maritime archaeologists from the National Maritime Museum, Silentworld Foundation and Oceania Maritime Consultants.

All shipwrecks and aircraft older than 75 years (from the time they were wrecked) are protected under either the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 (Commonwealth) or the Queensland Heritage Act 1992.


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