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Meet South Australia's Teenage Shipwreck Hunter

At just 18 years old Carl Von Stanke has already discovered three sunken ships everyone thought had vanished.

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

The first time Europeans sailed into South Australian waters was 1627 when the Golden Seahorse, a Dutch East India Company vessel, accidentally wound up too far south and ended up mapping the southern Australian coast. It would be another 150 years before any vessels came back, and when they did, they were loaded with people who'd left their lives in the old world to start again in the new.


And the more ships that came, the more wrecks there were. These days, it's estimated South Australia has around 800 shipwrecks along its coastline. However, heritage authorities don't know where they all are, which is why they rely on the help of locals like Mt Gambier's Carl von Stanke.

For an 18-year-old, Carl's strike record is pretty good.

"I've found three and I've given the info to the state government on three," he told VICE.

Even though he's still a teenager, Carl is now a diver with 10 years' experience. The fascination with the sea dates back to when he was three and he found his father's shell collection. As he grew up, Carl listened to his dad tell stories about the sunken ships that litter South Australia's southeast coast like the story of the Corio, a freighter wrecked in 1951, and the Hawthorn which lies in the shallows a few metres from the Carpenter Rocks beach car park.

And then there was the Admella, a luxury steamship that used to run between Adelaide and Melbourne which hit a reef in 1859. The crash made for one of the darkest days in South Australian maritime history. Survivors clung to the ship's deck for over a week while it broke apart beneath them in a raging sea. Those onboard watched one rescue attempt after another fall short, until exhaustion took and they slipped into the waves. By the end, only 24 of 113 passengers survived.

Over a century and a half later, Carl would eventually dive all three ships. "I was pretty intrigued," Carl said of finding the Hawthorn, his first wreck, thanks to a little detective work and luck. "Most people think it's a big ship still underwater, but over time it degrades into bits of timber."


"If you dive on a steel ship, most of the structure is still there and that is very eery. I've dived one of the steel ones that was fairly intact, that was called the Prince of Wales. You could go inside of it, and all the framework was still together and you could go into the bow of the ship, dive through there."

When the location of a new wreck is found, the job of studying it falls to experts like Dr Wendy Van Duivenvoorde from Flinders University. As a marine archaeologist, her work is to forensically piece together what happened.

"It's the best job in the world," she says. "With archaeology, the physical remains of our past, we usually get a story that is not written now and that is the story of common man and especially sailors on ships, the seafaring community, they never really had a voice in the past."

"We just worked on a beautiful example here where you have a vessel that sinks and different people witness that and there can be different stories. These stories can be handed down orally. The Indigenous population can communicate such things or it can be handed down as written recorded as insurance document or newspaper account or court document."

The most famous example of this is the wreck of the Maria, which left Port Adelaide for Hobart on June 26, 1840 and never arrived. It's location is unknown, given that most other shipwreck hunters focus on the spice merchant wrecks lost off the coast of Western Australia. That said, there is a legend that the Maria left carrying 4,000 English sovereigns—gold coins worth a fortune on the current market.


A month after the Maria's departure, newspapers began to carry reports of a "massacre site" that had been discovered along the Coorong coastline. The European colonists who investigated found Aboriginal people with blankets and sailors jackets belonging to the survivors. They ended up hanging two men in retribution.

But the way the local Ngarrindjeri people tell it, their ancestors actually helped the survivors. When the sailors repeatedly made sexual advances on young girls in the community, a fight broke out and customary law was invoked.

To this day the site of the Maria and any precious coins it was carrying, remains unknown, though if it were found the Heritage Shipwreck Act means taking anything from it would be illegal. Still, Dr Duivenvoorde said it was one of many shipwrecks waiting to be rediscovered and have its story told.

"There are plenty of examples of a shipwreck that has completely vanished," she says. "It's a little bit like MH37… you don't know what has happened to it."

Finding a wreck like the Maria takes a certain kind of investigative work. Carl's process was developed when he did a school project on how to locate a wreck, helped along by his dad, a Vietnam vet, ex-AFP officer and keen local historian. Carl's method can be boiled down into three steps: read everything, talk to people who work on the water, and then go swimming.

Last year, his research paid off when he tipped off heritage authorities to the site of the Iron Age, 160 years after it was wrecked in 1855. And while Carl may be in the army right now, his next project is the Flying Cloud. He knows where it is, he said, he just needs the time to go hunting.

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