Marloo or not Marloo? That is the Question
In 1972 Cyclone Daisy swept down the Queensland coast causing widespread damage and coastal erosion. As a result of that erosion and an exceptionally low tide three metal objects and some ship's timbers were exposed for only two days from their normal location buried under the sand at Orchid Beach, Fraser Island.
They appeared to be iron cannon and before the waves and sands hid them again they were inspected by W.D. Douglas from the Federal shipping and Transport Department who investigated the discovery of Captain Cook's cannon on the Great Barrier Reef. The Queensland newspapers took photographs of the mystery objects which then made front page news and caused massive speculation.
A Senior History Lecturer from Queensland University, C.B. Bredt, suggested that they might be carronades from the Napoleonic wars while others speculated that the cannon might be the remains of a pre-Cook shipwreck. However soon they disappeared under the Fraser Island sands once more and, with no way of their location being rediscovered, faded from public memory
In 2000 I was doing some research in the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland and I found a box of newspaper clippings about these mystery cannon. I studied the newspaper articles and the pictures of the cannon (as everyone then said they were) and was certain that they were not carronades and that their general appearance was more in line with a small caliber deck cannon as was used by many navies around the world up until the late18th Century. If these were cannon then it was highly likely they were from a pre-Cook shipwreck. It was another mystery shipwreck and, better still, it was on a nice sandy beach not a horrible Swamp. It was a perfect place to test Ultramag's magnetometer detection technology..
Phil McClelland, the geophysicist from Ultramag, standing beside our first hole at Orchid Beach Fraser Island. The "cannon" were now more than one metre below the sand and water table though we were there on the lowest tide of the year!
We found the buried shipwreck in less than one hour using Phil's magnetometers and a grid search of the target area on Orchid Beach. If only the 18 Mile Swamp was as easy to survey!
To cut a long story short we got permission to search for and excavate the shipwreck from the Queensland EPA through the personal intervention of their enlightened Minister Dean Wells despite the best efforts of his advisors to prevent it.
After finding the shipwreck with the magnetometers the next morning we excavated down to the tips of the "cannon" attracting a bit of an early morning crowd of beer drinking spectators in the process. Someone in the crowd telephoned one of the television stations and before lunch there were helicopters and plane loads of reporters.
My initial inspection of the exposed tips of the "cannon" confirmed they were definitely not carronades and more closely resembled the long bored, small caliber deck mounted guns such as the Portuguese Falconi.
When the television news crews began asking questions I told them there was a very good chance that the cannon (and there for the shipwreck) were pre-Cook.
Over the next 24 hours we took measurements and various observations and then the low tides passed, the weather turned bad and the wreck was once more went beyond reach while the media went mad with the concept of a pre-Cook shipwreck.
The next day we left Fraser Island and returned to our various homes to analyze our data. The next morning Brad Horton, our marine engineer, rang me with an urgent tone in his voice.
"I don't think they are cannon, I think they're davits."
That sent me into a spin. I drove around to Brad's place to see him and then into the state Library to get pictures of davits.I soon realized that Brad was correct and Immediately issued a press release stating that I was mistaken and that what we had found was not cannon but a ship's davits. However the mystery did not end there.
In the mean time the media was carrying stories from the EPA stating that the wreck was actually the Marloo but even the research I did on that first day showed that the shipwreck we had found was clearly NOT the Marloo
Greg Jefferys in the foreground and Brad Horton in the hole with the "cannon". Two venturi pumps kept the water out of the hole for about half an hour on the dead low tide while we took measurements and tried to get deeper. The walls kept collapsing and Brad ended up feeling around in the sand with his feet!
With advice from expert salvage diver Greg Chappelow we were able to expand the hole by keeping the hole full of water with a pump as we continued to use the venturi pumps to suck out sand. Without the internal water pressure the sand walls of the hole would collapse as quickly as we could suck the sand out.
The whole project was a beautiful example of a team effort.
Above: a 19th Century ship's davit from a plan, note how it resembles the barrel of a cannon but flanges out at the bottom. Brad felt the flanges with his toes through a metre of sand
Click below to read full Courier Mail Report March 1972
NOT THE MARLOO
The first and most obvious clue that the shipwreck we had found was not the Marloo came from the simple fact that the location of the wreck of the Marloo was well known, about 2 kilometers south east of the site that we were working and was regularly dived on by local divers when conditions were good.
Some people tried to explain this by saying that the top section of the Marloo must have broken off and drifted north along the beach to end up buried under the sand. The obvious problem with that explanation is that the pre-dominant currents along Orchid Beach are from north to south not south to north.
Another problem with that explanation is that the magnetometers showed huge amounts of iron beneath the sand (see mag image) and it would be highly unusual for such a large mass of metal to drift anywhere let alone two kilometers against the current.
Also the amount of iron showing up in the mag imagery was indicative of a whole ship not just a small section.
However the conclusive evidence was supplied by Mick Dale who found an early photograph of the mysterious shipwreck in the Brisbane Courier Mail , taken in 1912, two years before the wrecking of the Marloo.
Magnetometer image of the mystery Orchid beach wreck courtesy of Phil McClelland from Ultramag.
The imagery of this shipwreck shows a vessel that is approximately 70 metres long, clearly not the top section of the S.S. Marloo.
The bulk of the vessel (which had been already buried under the sand of Orchid Beach for a long time in 1912) is more than 5 metres under the sand. It lies facing almost North/South and at an almost 90 degree angle to the beach.
It is almost certainly, but not definitely, a steel hulled vessel.
The image above was taken at Orchid Beach in 1912 whilst the image on the right was taken after Cyclone Daisy in 1972. Whilst the shipwreck has broken up somewhat over the 60 year period its angle to the beach and the waves is identical.
Looking at these images it is easy to see why the function of cannon was ascribed to the protruding cast iron metal davit tubes.
Clearly this shipwreck can not be the Marloo if it was already long buried in 1912!
The other important point to take from these images is how many davits (and there fore life boats) there are on this vessel and their arrangement.
If you inspect the image of the Marloo below you will see that this shipwreck is very obviously NOT the Marloo.
If not the Marloo then what ship is it?
The Marloo (above) was originally a steel hulled luxury steam passenger (and cargo) vessel cruising the Mediterrainian before reaching the end of its "luxury life" and coming out to Australia to do the coastal routes between Tasmania and Townsville. Typical of life boats on ships of the second decade of the 20th Century the Marloo's lifeboats were a bit over ten metres long. Three on each side and a couple more at the stern. The gaps between the vertical davits which support the life boats are there for about 40 feet. The davits on the ship we excavated at Orchid Beach are not much more than 20 feet apart. Further the timber "rafters" or beams protruding out of the sand, which almost touch our davits at a 90 degree angle, are not present in the construction of the Marloo. It sank in 1914 after a storm and was run onto a sand bar off Orchid Beach Fraser Island with no loss of life. In the early years of scuba diving it was blown apart with dynamite to get the copper from its boiler fittings. I spoke to one of the divers who did it! Whilst severely damaged the steel hull is still above the sand and acts as an artificial reef which is a great dive site when the weather is calm. As a result a result its exact location is well known and can even be seen using Google Earth. It is well to the south of the wreck we found.
Image to the right is from Google Earth downloaded April 2008. Consistent storm activities over the summer and Autumn of 2008 have revealed the Fraser Island shipwreck to an extent not before seen.
The remains of the wreck can be seen center of page.
Neither the Queensland EPA or the Queensland Maritime Museum bothered to investigate freshly exposed wreck even though it is a declared historic site and even though its identity is still unresolved. My offer to excavate the entire vessel, using venturi pumps and holding ponds, was of course refused. It appears that the Queensland EPA would rather our maritime heritage just rusted away under the sand or be torn apart by souvenir seeking tourists.
Davit tube with flanged base