Saturday, August 18, 2007


Found (again) and lost (again): HMAS Sydney


By Page Taylor and Tony Barrass
August 18, 2007

CARNARVON, Australia -- A ROYAL Australian Navy ship has found "nothing of interest" at a wreck site off the West Australian coast that newspapers last week claimed was the resting place of HMAS Sydney.

Navy sources confirmed that HMAS Leeuwin, a hydrographic survey ship with sophisticated scanning and sonar equipment, had completed its sweep through an area off Dirk Hartog Island, 800km north of Perth, and had reported its findings to Canberra last night.

Fairfax newspapers, the Seven Network and The West Australian claimed last week a group of local enthusiasts had discovered the wreck of the Sydney, which went down in November 1941 with all 645 crew.

But inquiries by The Weekend Australian raised questions about the group's claim that the Sydney rests in 130m of water 20 nautical miles off the island.

It is believed the Leeuwin may have detected a vessel about 30m long and four or five metres high. Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Billson is expected to make an announcement about the find -- or lack of it -- over the weekend.

The vessel may be an old barge that was sunk off the island in the 1940s, locals believe.

Last night, British-based marine salvage expert David Mearns -- who is expected to lead a federal and state government-backed search for the Sydney early next year -- said it was a lesson to all.

"To be blunt, they didn't know what they were doing," he said from Italy. "They made a grave mistake both at sea and in how they dealt with it in the media.

"It serves as a lesson to everybody -- including journalists -- that these things should bedone in a proper and professional way.

"I heard it ended up on the front page of a broadsheet (The Sydney Morning Herald) and I find it amazing they don't check their facts properly, or try to contact experts to get a balanced opinion or verify something as important as this.

"I'm sure the editors will have a lot of egg on their faces today."

Pondering the location of Sydney has been a popular pastime on the shipwreck-littered stretch of Gascoyne coast where the light cruiser and the German raider the Kormoran fought to the death in November 1941.

Marshall Hipper, former deputy shire president of Shark Bay, was told years earlier by the state museum that a bolt his sons Dion and Adrian fished from a wreck on the ocean floor in September 2001 came from a wooden vessel -- not the Sydney.

But the 71-year-old never stopped believing the wreck was the long-lost war grave and he wanted others to believe him too, his widow, Midge Hipper, told The Weekend Australian.

A small group of enthusiasts led by Graham and Phil Shepherd from his home town of Denham believed him, and last Saturday -- seven months after Hipper's death -- newspapers burst into print with celebratory banner headlines, including a front-page declaration in The West Australian screeching: "FOUND".

In the following days, maritime experts expressed their disbelief, as well as disapproval at the certainty with which the group and the media organisations proclaimed their find.

Bruce Teede, 79, of Carnarvon, was one of the locals who scoffed, saying: "Codswallop."

The bombshell announcement forced the federal Government to investigate, and meanwhile postpone more than $2 million in funding for the non-profit HMAS Sydney Search, which was preparing to conduct a deep-sea scan of an area it and many others believe is the most likely resting place of the two legendary warships -- about 150 nautical miles off Carnarvon.

Since 2002, and with the backing of independent experts, HMAS Sydney Search has used decoded German notes and other official sources to decide on the search area, which it will scan early next year.

This week's events angered Mr Billson, whose attempts to have the navy verify last weekend's claims were initially frustrated when the group refused to reveal the co-ordinates.

Leeuwin arrived yesterday at the site where the group was hovering over the wreck. Sources said the men were having trouble getting their equipment powered and asked the navy for help.

But there was a chance their gear could have corrupted the navy's equipment, and the request was refused. The Leeuwin is expected to be in the area for another few days while it examines at least two other wreck sites.

West Australian Museum director of maritime archeology Mike McCarthy told Hipper in 2002 the copper bolt his sons found at the site could not be from the Sydney.

Dr McCarthy said he heard from people who thought they had discovered the Sydney about every six months.

He said he understood the interest because its loss, and the Government's inadequate response over many decades, had an effect on the national psyche.

"We lost boys and men from every city," he said.

The Shire of Shark Bay had known of the wreck for years and had found it to be far smaller than the Sydney -- 30-36m compared with 170m. This compares favourably with the shape and substance of what the Leeuwin has found. The shire is embroiled in a legal squabble with the WA Museum over maritime archeological objects in the coastal fishing town of Denham's new interpretive centre, which the shire wants to keep as it positions itself as the place tourists visit to learn about the Sydney and other wrecks.

Mrs Hipper said her husband, who lived for 33 years in Denham, could never get the media traction for his find the Shepherds achieved.

Last year while in treatment for lung cancer at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth, Hipper made calls to regional TV station Golden West Network claiming he had solved the 66-year-old mystery of the Sydney.

"They were promising to come round and interview him but he was slurring his words a little bit and they probably thought 'Silly old thing, doesn't know what he's talking about'," she said.


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