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The hunt for the Mermaid

Philip Parker King is considered to be one of the greatest of Australia’s early maritime surveyors. He was charged with the task of “filling in the gaps” on early navigation charts left by previous surveys done by the likes of Cook and Flinders.

From 1817 to 1822 Parker King undertook a series of remarkable voyages that would see him chart vast areas of coast stretching from Arnhem Land to Cape Leeuwin and King George Sound to the Great Barrier Reef.

To undertake these hydrographical surveys Parker King specially modified two vessels, the Mermaid in 1819 and the Bathurst in 1820. The Mermaid was to prove the mainstay of the expeditions. Purchased by Governor Macquarie for 2000 pounds in 1817 the two masted, wooden schooner Mermaid, built in Howrah, Calcutta, India in 1816, was 18 metres long with a beam off 5.48 metres and 84 gross tons. (AHSD, ID 5459)

After the completion of Parker King’s surveys the Mermaid was taken over by the New South Wales Colonial Government and was directly involved with the establishment and supply of new colonies at Port Macquarie, Moreton Bay and Norfolk Island.

The wreck of the Mermaid

The HMCS Mermaid sailed from Sydney, NSW with stores for Port Raffles in what is now the Northern Territory on 10 May 1829 under the command of Samuel Nolbrow. Nolbrow was under strict instructions to follow the safer, but longer, inshore passage to the Torres Strait rather than hazard the more dangerous outer route.

Despite these instructions Nolbrow decided to hazard the Great Barrier Reef which was, and still is, incompletely surveyed. On the evening of the 12 June 1829 the Mermaid was at least 8 miles offshore from Double Point, south-east of present day Innisfail. Chief Officer John Hastings suggested to Nolbrow that because of the proximity to the reef the ship be heaved to (shorten sail and make no headway) until daylight. Nolbrow did not agree and at 0400 hours came on deck to instruct the watch to keep the foretopsail full so that the vessel made between 2 or 3 knots. At about 0545 the vessel struck a coral reef, the crew attempted to drive the vessel over into deeper water but after only going forward a short distance the Mermaid held fast and began to strike heavily. (Bateson, 1964, pp86)

Daylight found the Mermaid on the weather side of a reef extending about a mile and half both to the east and west and for some two to two and half miles ahead. When soundings were taken it was found that there was shoal water to the north-east and west of the vessel but some six fathoms (12meters) astern of the vessel.

Despite attempts to kedge the vessel off using its anchors the Mermaid held fast and the crew commenced jettisoning some of its cargo in an attempt to lighten the schooner. At 1730 hours during another attempt to drive the vessel over the reef the vessel rolled over onto its beams ends (side) and within a few minutes the hull was breeched and the water quickly gained on the pumps. At 2000hrs the Mermaid was abandoned and the crew took to the ship’s boats. (Bateson, 1964, pp85-87)

After spending eleven days in the boats the crew of the Mermaid were subsequently rescued by the Admiral Gifford on the 24 June 1829.

Although a declared historic shipwreck under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976) the actually location of the Mermaid wreck is unknown. For legislative purposes the Queensland Museum did deduce a tentative position for the Mermaid wreck, (based on the 1829 inquiry) as being on Scott Reef. A subsequent survey of Scott Reef in 2004 along with recent archival research  indicates that the actual position of the wreck lies further south – most likely on Flora Reef – 40 nautical miles south east of Cairns, Queensland.

In 2004 Oceania Maritime in conjunction with the Museum of Tropical Queensland mounted an archaeological expedition to locate the remains of the Mermaid. Although the expedition was unsuccessful the work of the expedition ruled out the possibility of Scott Reef being the wrecking place of the vessel. The expedition also reported that Flora Reef contained several magnetic anomalies on the South-east reef edge which could represent buried iron work associated with the initial grounding place of the Mermaid. (S. Smith, ANMM, 2004)


Kieran Hosty

I started diving in Western Australia in 1976 and after a few years of mucking around on shipwrecks joined the Maritime Archaeological Association of Western Australia in order to try and make sense of what I saw on the seabed. My love of diving and maritime history made me pursue a graduate degree in history and anthropology from the Western Australian Institute of Technology followed a few years later by a post graduate diploma in maritime archaeology from Curtin University also in Western Australia. After 18 months as an archaeological field volunteer I took up a position with the Maritime Archaeology Unit at the Victoria Archaeological Survey. I was the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Officer in Victoria for six years before coming to the Australian National Maritime Museum in 1994 to take up the position of Curator of Maritime Archaeology and Ship Technology. At the Museum I was responsible for the Museum’s maritime archaeology program as well as curating the Museum’s collection relating to convicts, 19th century migrants and ship technology. My expertise in convict related material was further enhanced, when I took up a temporary position as Curator / Manager of Hyde Park Barracks Museum for eighteen months in 2004 followed by a further 18 month contract at the Barracks where I curated an exhibition on the history and archaeology of convict hulks and another on the World Heritage listing of Australian convict sites. In 2012 my role at the Museum shifted focus when I became the Manager – Maritime Archaeology Program – reflecting an increased emphasis on the importance of the maritime archaeology program at the Museum. I have worked on many maritime archaeological projects both in Australia and overseas including the survey and excavation of the Sydney Cove (1797), HMS Pandora (1791) and HMCS Mermaid (1829), the Coral Sea Shipwrecks Project (sponsored by the SiILENTWORLD FOUNDATION and the ARC) and the hunt for Cook’s Endeavour in the USA. I'm the author of the book Dunbar 1857: Disaster on our doorstep, published by the Museum along with two books on Australian convicts and 19th century migrants published by McMillan.