Maddy McAllister calls herself the shipwreck mermaid. She scuba-dives into the deep to uncover archaeological artefacts — but she doesn’t think of it as collecting buried treasure. For her, it’s all about understanding the lives, ambitions and suffering of those who disappeared.
That feeling of being under the water is like nothing you can really explain. It’s kind of like flying.
It’s entering a completely different world, and you’re always filled with this excitement that you’re heading down to see a shipwreck that you’ve maybe spent months researching.
Sometimes you can spend days trying to locate a site and not find it. You’re always reminded that often you’re on a wreck site where people probably lost their lives. There’s always a haunting, chilling aspect to diving on a shipwreck.
I love telling people how many shipwrecks are actually on our coastline. There’s over 900 ship and aircraft wrecks along the Great Barrier Reef itself … of those, we have located roughly 115 of them. And even within those 115, we probably know the actual identity of just a handful of those.
There’s two ways [of finding shipwrecks]. Probably the most common is that other people will find them. So fishermen or scuba divers or people that are just interested in getting out on a reef and snorkelling will come across things that look not right. They don’t look natural — they’re straight lines — and they report the shipwrecks to the government.
So you start with the site and you have to work backwards, like a cold case.
And the other way is to start from the books and the records that we have. So spending time in archives, reading ship logs and journals, and knowing that a shipwreck may have gone down in 1840 in this particular part of the reef, and what that ship is made from.
One that I remember working on was quite old and had a few nooks and crannies — very shallow, two metres of water — and there was an octopus that had made its home in one area.
You could tell he was living there because he had these piles of shells and crabs sitting outside of his home. Every once in a while you just see a little a tentacle come out and look at you, so you can get really distracted from your job.
We’ve been crafting seafaring vessels for millennia, and certainly in the traditional wooden shipbuilding of Europe, there’s a long tradition that was never written down. It was handed down from generation to generation, and that was something that shipbuilders learnt very young and they carried on.
So we may not have these records of what exactly went into a ship. And so that information is preserved in these shipwrecks when we can find it.
It may seem like the most boring side of a shipwreck – it’s not treasure, it’s not objects from people, it’s the actual ship itself.
But we can learn so much about how we built and how we improved and advanced our shipbuilding knowledge over time.
We can learn so much from tiny clues. Sometimes archaeology is that fascinating story of really tiny details and samples and analysis that tells us these wonderful big stories about our heritage.
My favourite story – and I’m certainly stealing all of this information from my colleague Dr Wendy van Duivenvoorde, who has done this research – is that some of the Baltic timbers [on the Batavia, which was wrecked off WA in 1629], which were quite renowned for their smooth appearance and fantastic form, matched wood from the frames from some of Rembrandt’s paintings.
So it’s likely he was sourcing them from the same spot, or you can put your imaginative hat on a little bit and think about him back at that time, painting in the same city in Amsterdam, maybe sourcing his timbers from offcuts from the Dutch East India Shipbuilding Company across the road or down the street.
Some of my colleagues … sampled some of those timbers and found that they were 300-year-old trees that were harvested from now extinct forests in Europe.
But at the time — 1625, and the ship was built not soon after that — so they were harvested there and used green, which is obviously quite smart, so they could bend and flex the timbers into the shapes that they wanted.
It’s absolutely fascinating that these timbers that we have from Batavia are in a museum in Western Australia that are actually now from extinct forests in Europe.
This is an edited excerpt from Conversations, a podcast that draws you deeper into the life story of someone you may, or may not, have heard about — someone who has seen and done amazing things. Listen for free on the ABC listen app.