Deep beneath the ocean, in waters west of Rottnest Island, lies a treasure trove of scuttled ships, military vehicles and abandoned aircraft.
For nearly 50 years the deepwater graveyard has remained mostly forgotten but new technology is helping to reveal its booty.
The first clues to the graveyard came in the 1990s when fishermen observed rich pickings in small areas of the ocean, leading to the theory that wrecks were lying on the sea floor.
Forensic work by a team from the WA Museum exposed records of the area being used as a maritime dump site from the 1930s to the 1950s and the search for the exact location of the wrecks began.
So far the team has uncovered 17 of the wreck sites out of a possible 54 and established the identity of five of the vessels.
Aerial surveys using mining industry equipment, which is able to detect evidence of iron, have helped in the search, as has the use of a two-person submarine.
Head of maritime archaeology at the museum, Jeremy Green, said the graveyard was in waters 70m to 100m deep.
It covered a large section of ocean floor, from an area 15km off the West End of Rottnest to the edge of the Perth Canyon.
He said the team had yet to discover the whereabouts of at least two Catalina aircraft that were scuttled after the end of World War II.
“The aerial survey work picked up eight or nine quite prominent targets that were obviously iron shipwrecks,” Dr Green said.
“We then brought in technical divers who photographed the wrecks.
“We do know from records what was sunk in the deepwater graveyard but the positions were not well recorded. It wasn’t just ships that were sunk.
“At the end of the Second World War, all of the equipment provided by the Americans for the war effort was dumped out there.
“There are a couple of Catalinas out there, a whole lot of trucks and all sorts of things.”
Dr Green said the deepwater graveyard could one day form the basis of an underwater tourism venture, using submersibles to view the various wrecks.
He said most of the wrecks had been taken out and blown up, but divers could still make out the distinctive features of some of the ships.
He said industrial waste had also been dumped in the graveyard area and that waste may have included highly toxic material, such as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.
Dead dolphins that washed up in the Swan River in 2009 contained alarming levels of PCBs, despite the pollutants having been banned for decades. The source of the toxins in the dolphins has never been determined.
Jane Hammond (The West Australian)
Source: thewestaustralian, March 8, 2011;