A starboard perspective of a safe from the Keilawarra wreck located at a depth of 72m off North Solitary Island near Coffs Harbour.
A starboard perspective of a safe from the Keilawarra wreck located at a depth of 72m off North Solitary Island near Coffs Harbour.

Thieves plunder shipwreck safe

THIEVES have looted the 123-year-old shipwreck, the SS Keilawarra, off North Solitary Island near Coffs Harbour – the scene of NSW’s worst peace-time maritime disaster.

In a modern-day act of piracy, one of the safes aboard the heritage-listed wreck has been cut open and its contents stolen.

Commercial shipwreck salvagers are believed responsible for the crime, given the difficulty of using underwater welding and cutting tools at a depth of 75 metres.

Experienced local divers who discovered the heist have notified authorities, but it’s still unclear exactly how and when the safe was cracked.

“Usually if treasure or anything of precious value is found on a shipwreck and illegally taken there’s scuttlebutt that passes around diving circles – but up until now we haven’t heard any rumours,” Coffs Harbour diver Mark Spencer said.

Leading maritime archaeologist, NSW Heritage Branch deputy director, Tim Smith, said the Government was waiting on further evidence from the site.

“This is significant. Of the 1800 shipwrecks in NSW, only 10 per cent have been discovered and this was the only wreck with a safe onboard,” Mr Smith said.

The wreck was officially confirmed as the Keilawarra by a dive team led by John Riley and Kevin Denlay on September 17, 2000.

A local professional fisherman Darcey Wright helped to pinpoint its resting place, having long suspected one of his favourite fishing spots was a shipwreck.

Chris Connell, from Mullaway Dive Quest, who was part of the successful expedition, says a lot of mystery surrounds the theft.

“It’s a real disappointment, we had hoped the safe was relatively intact when we first reached it,” he said.

Based on the damage shown in photos, corrosion scientist from the Western Australian Maritime Museum, Dr Ian McLeod, believes the safe was raided about three years ago.

Stan Young, of the Wooli Dive Centre, who knows the site well, says whoever looted the wreck sure knew what they were doing.

“Only a very select group of divers using mixed gases in their tanks have been able to reach the wreck,” Stan said.

“It’s a terrible shame really. Forty-odd people lost their lives aboard that ship and it would have been great for the public to know what was inside the safe – now we’ll never know what was in it,” he said.

For more than a century the shipwreck lay undiscovered, near North Solitary Island.

On December 8, 1886, the 784-tonne iron steam ship plunged to the sea floor after colliding with the smaller steamer, the Helen Nicoll.

The 200-foot vessel sank within seven minutes, taking with it the lives of 48 passengers. Only a handful of people survived that night, after they were pulled from the ocean by the crew of the other badly damaged vessel. Just two bodies were later located ashore and were buried on Emerald Beach’s Look At Me Now Headland.

Under Federal and State laws, divers caught tampering with shipwrecks face fines of between $100,000 and $1 million.


The 784-tonne iron steam ship sank on December 8, 1886 at about 8.30pm.

The Keilawarra was travelling north from Sydney to Queensland, carrying passengers, food and alcohol supplies when it collided with the steamer, Helen Nicoll.

Special cargo onboard included ship anchors, cattle and two Melbourne Cup racehorses.

The 200-foot steamer sank within seven minutes – 48 passengers from both ships drowned.

Passengers on the smaller Helen Nicoll jumped ship onto the Keilawarra thinking their ship was sinking. In the aftermath just two of the ships’ lifeboats were found ashore, along with two bodies, later buried at Emerald Beach. In 2000, the wreck was rediscovered in 75 metres of water, near North Solitary Island. The safe is thought to have been raided by commercial ship salvagers sometime over the past three years.

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