Time and the tides have washed away the last traces of a famous 19th-century shipwreck from a coral reef in the South Pacific, the scene of extraordinary tales of survival during the "Age of Sail," according to archaeologists who visited the site earlier this year.
A team of 11 maritime archaeologists and divers from Australia journeyed earlier this year to Kenn Reefs, a submerged atoll among the Coral Sea Islands, located more than 300 miles (500 kilometers) northeast of their port of departure at Bundaberg on the Queensland coast.
The researchers — from the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) and the Silentworld Foundation, a private maritime archaeology group — had hoped to find the wreck of the Jenny Lind, a small sailing ship that sank after it struck the reef during the night of Sept. 21, 1850. [See Photos of the Shipwrecks Found Around Kenn Reefs]
The Jenny Lind was sailing from Melbourne to Singapore, with 28 crewmembers and passengers on board, including three children, according to a news report in the Moreton Bay Courier from Nov. 9, 1850.
All 28 people escaped from the sinking ship and survived for 37 days on a quay of sand behind the reef wall while they built a boat from the wreckage. They then sailed more than 370 miles (600 km) to Moreton Bay on the Australian mainland — an ordeal celebrated in newspaper reports at the time.
A maritime survey in 1987 reported that the remains of the ship were still visible in shallow water beside the reef wall, but the latest expedition, in January of this year, found that the sea has now claimed the last traces of the Jenny Lind.
However, the researchers found and documented four previously uncharted wrecks of sailing ships of about the same age — a testament to the dangerous reputation of the reefs, said James Hunter, a maritime archaeologist at the ANMM who took part in the February expedition.
"Strewn with wrecks"
The new finds include cannons, anchors and ballast stones from four unidentified ships, which the researchers think sank on the reef before the ridge began to appear on navigation charts in the 1850s.
One of the earliest charts, from 1857, recorded that the southern end of the reef was already "strewn with wrecks."
Hunter told Live Science that the reef lay along a major trade route between Australia and the French and Dutch Pacific colonies, and at least eight sailing ships were known to have been wrecked on Kenn Reefs during the 1800s. [Sunken Treasures: The Curious Science of 7 Famous Shipwrecks]
The "highly dynamic" ocean environment around the reefs, caused by powerful tidal currents and tropical weather, has reduced the 150-year-old shipwrecks mainly to their metallic parts, Hunter said. Some wood from the wrecks may remain beneath the surface of the seafloor, but so far, the divers have made no excavations, he added.
The researchers explored the entire atoll above and below the waterline, using a marine magnetometer towed by the expedition vessel to locate magnetic anomalies created by metal items such as anchors or cannons, Hunter said.
Hunter explained that the Kenn Reefs atoll is above the peak of an extinct undersea volcano that rises sharply for more than 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) from the seafloor, and covers an area that spans more than 15 square miles (40 square kilometers) on the surface.
The southern edge of the reef, where most of the ships were wrecked, is a vast wall of limestone and coral, but it is almost completely submerged at high tide, Hunter said.
"When you're there, [the reef] seems massive, but it's just a little speck in a very big sea," he said. "So, you can imagine these poor guys are out there, sailing the vast ocean, throwing a lead line for the seafloor. And there's nothing, no indication that there's a sea bottom anywhere out there, and they don't see this reef. And boom — they just smack right into it."
Even after the reef was recorded on official navigation charts in 1859, "during that period, it was very easy to make a miscalculation, either when you are plotting a position at sea to try and get the reef on a chart, or when you're at sea and you are trying to avoid it," Hunter said.
The researchers also tried to find traces of another famous shipwreck at Kenn Reefs — that of the Bona Vista, which sank in 1828. The crewmembers had to survive for weeks on top of the reef before the crew of a passing ship spotted and rescued them.
But, like the remains of the Jenny Lind, the wreck of the Bona Vista that was seen by the 1987 survey team could not be found, Hunter said.
Beneath the waves
The expedition to Kenn Reefs is the latest in a series of maritime expeditions in search of historic Australian shipwrecks. A team of researchers from the ANMM and the Silentworld Foundation are conducting the expeditions. The foundation, which funds the expeditions, is backed by the Silentworld transport group, which operates a shipping and logistics network between Australia and the Solomon Islands in the eastern Pacific, Hunter said.
In 2009, the same team of researchers found the remains of the Mermaid, a colonial schooner that was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns in 1829. And in 2012, they found theRoyal Charlotte, a sailing ship wrecked on Frederick Reef in the Coral Sea in 1825.
Paul Hundley, director of the Silentworld Foundation Museum and one of the expedition leaders, said the data from the newly discovered wrecks would be carefully checked against colonial shipping records from the time on an effort to identify the ships.
"That's going to be quite a detective story,” Hundley told Live Science. "It's going to take a bit of work to line up the remains that we've got with the ships that we know were wrecked there."
Many of the ships known to have been wrecked on the Kenn Reefs were leaving from Sydney without cargo after delivering supplies to the colony: “So there's very little cargo which would help identify the individual vessel, or even a nationality.
Identifying the ships would help historians better understand the historic trade between early European colonies in the eastern Pacific region, Hundley said.
Hunter said precise physical data from the sites and detailed underwater photographs would be used to create three-dimensional digital models of the wrecks and the surrounding undersea landscape for further study.
"One of the things we are hoping to do with that data when it has been processed is to put it online, so people can virtually dive on one of these wreck sites," Hunter said.
Original article on Live Science.
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Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.