Oilies ramp up search for sunken warship

PETROLEUM is hard to find. But locating a sunken World War II warship that went missing off the Western Australian coast more than 65 years ago appears to be even harder.
Oilies ramp up search for sunken warship Oilies ramp up search for sunken warship Oilies ramp up search for sunken warship Oilies ramp up search for sunken warship Oilies ramp up search for sunken warship

Many have been looking for the ill-fated HMAS Sydney, which sank in a close-range gun battle with the German mercantile raider Kormoran off the coast somewhere between the ports of Carnarvon and Geraldton on November 19, 1941.

But despite all efforts, no trace of it or the 645 crew on board has ever been found in what has been declared Australia’s worst naval disaster.

A non-profit organisation, the Finding Sydney Foundation (FSF), together with its trustee company, HMAS Sydney Search, was established to solve the mystery and find the ship.

But so far, the organisation has only been able to raise $2.2 million to do so, just half of the funds needed to get the search underway.

The Federal Government has pledged $1.3 million, while WA and New South Wales have provided $500,000 and $250,000, respectively.

In the last few years, oil and gas companies have also jumped on board, offering cash donations, equipment and logistical support.

Petroleum industry identities play a considerable role in the search for the Sydney. HMAS Sydney Search Pty Ltd’s general manager is Perth oil and gas consultant Bob King and its chairman is Mermaid Marine general manager development Ted Graham.

And in 2003, a Voyager Energy-led seismic survey acquisition program north and west of the Abrolhos Islands helped narrow down the search area.

The then managing director of Voyager, John Begg, said he became inspired to help out when he heard about the HMAS Sydney on the radio while driving to work one day.

“I heard the story and realised I was in a unique position to do something,” said Begg, now managing director of Salinas Energy.

“At the time, Voyager was involved in a joint venture exploration off the WA coast and I realised the very areas they were interested in were the same ones we were about to conduct surveys over in our search for oil and gas-drilling targets.

“So I approached the joint venture, saying we could do a great public service at incremental cost and they all agreed.

“They let some of our survey vessels be used to check out a few of these locations and use sonar technology to see if there was anything on the seabed. We also agreed to deploy a magnetometer, which would record any metal objects underneath the boat as it passed over.”

Begg said the information, which the JV provided to the WA Maritime Museum, later played a major part in helping researchers narrow the search to the north in deep water off Shark Bay.

The high cost of the operation is largely due to the wide search area, covering two possible locations and the mobilisation of equipment not generally available in the region.

The FSF has reportedly acquired the services of global shipwreck hunter David Mearns to conduct the search.

It has also approached several companies to tender for the two-phase operation, which will use deep-towed low and high frequency side scan sonars and either a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) or manned submersible vehicle.

The side scan sonar technology will be used initially to find signs of wreckage on the seabed and if any are found, the ROV or manned submersible will be deployed to take video and photographic footage.

Water depths are expected to be as deep as 5000m.

Begg said it meant a great deal to help the mission in any way he could and hoped if found, the site would be preserved as a war grave.

“I had no particular interest in maritime archaeology or anything like that when I first heard about it, I just found myself in a position where I could do something,” he said.

“It’s an incredible story and something that appeals to people. All the oil companies involved in that joint venture did a terrific job, tried to help out, put cash in to support the search and that’s why I got involved.

“But there were also 645 men that went down with that ship and I think finding it would give their families a much-needed sense of closure.

“It wouldn’t be right as a nation to fail to do something about it.”

The search for HMAS Sydney is expected to cover about 1500 square nautical miles in deep water off Carnarvon and WA’s Coral Coast.

The foundation hopes to raise at least $4.5 million by July. If it has sufficient funds, it plans to kick-off the search in late 2007 or early 2008.

First published in the March issue of Petroleum magazine

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