On 20 June 1917 the famous polar vessel SY Aurora set sail from Newcastle, Australia, never to be seen again. Now 100 years since its mysterious disappearance the Australian National Maritime Museum will remember the tragic loss of the ‘plucky little ship’, its Captain Reeves and his crew of 20 in a new display of its lifebuoy, all that remains of the SY Aurora.

The lifebuoy has been generously gifted to the museum by Mr John Hooke CBE in memory of his father Sir Lionel Hooke, wireless operator in SY Aurora 1914-1916.  

SY Aurora started life in 1876. As part of the Dundee whaling fleet it voyaged into Arctic waters to hunt seals and whales. In 1911 it was purchased by John King Davis for South Australian geologist Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic expedition 1911-14. No sooner had it returned from Antarctica than it was refitted and back in icy service, returning to Antarctica later that year carrying Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea party, the supply party for his ill-fated expedition to be the first to cross Antarctica. Like its counterpart, Shackleton’s Endurance, Aurora was beset by ice. Unlike Endurance, however, it did survive and made its way to New Zealand, returning to Antarctica in 1917 to rescue the marooned Ross Sea sledging party.

Aurora set sail for the last time on 20 June 1917 from Newcastle loaded with coal for Iquique, Chile. It was never seen again. Six months after its disappearance its lifebuoy was plucked from the seas of northern New South Wales. The ship’s name and the initials of both its major Antarctic expeditions, Shackleton’s ITAEO (Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition) and Mawson’s AAE (Australian Antarctic Expedition) can be seen in ghosted lettering on its rim. It was wartime and several theories emerged but there was no new evidence. On 2 January 1918 Lloyds listed the ship as missing.

In the 1930s the lifebuoy was presented to Sir Lionel Hooke, general manager and later Chairman of AWA (Amalgamated Wireless Australasia). He had served on Aurora as wireless operator on the Ross Sea Party after AWA fitted the ship’s wireless. Hooke’s technical brilliance has been widely applauded when he re-rigged the ship’s aerial to increase broadcast range to signal its survival during the Ross Sea Party entrapment and drift in 1916. 

Museum director Kevin Sumption PSM expressed the museum’s gratitude to John Hooke CBE, son of Sir Lionel Hooke and himself a former chairman and CEO of AWA, for gifting this significant object in his father’s memory,

“The Australian National Maritime Museum has a mandate to share important stories from our maritime history and the story of the SY Aurora is one that should not be forgotten. The lifebuoy help us remember this ‘plucky little ship’ and all those who sailed on her, in particular those who were lost. Our sincere thanks go to Mr John Hooke CBE and his family for their generous gift to the National Maritime Collection.” 

The Aurora lifebuoy will be on display from 19 June until late September and is part of the museum’s FREE galleries. The Australian National Maritime Museum, in Darling Harbour, is open from 9.30am to 5pm daily. All enquiries (02) 9298 3777. 

All media inquiries: Jude Timms (02) 9298 3645; 0418 219 841.