VR dive South Australia's oldest recorded European shipwreck

VR dive South Australia’s oldest recorded European shipwreck

The small blue and white boat bobs in the calm waters of Encounter Bay, South Australia, beneath a clear sky. Nearby, gentle waves wash up the beach, and steep cliffs are being bathed in the soft morning light.

At the stern are diving tanks, and in a few minutes, you’re underwater. On the sandy sea floor, swaying sea grass and kelp surround a half-buried hull. Schools of black-and-white striped fish with yellow tails swim by, and a few metres away, another diver is exploring the site with a flashlight.

Artefacts, like broken pieces of decorated pottery, stoneware, and glass abound, and a voiceover provides an explanation of each one. Then, in the murky distance, there is a large, moving shadow. It gets closer and its grey torpedo-shaped body becomes clearer – a great white shark. In a few seconds, this apex predator of the sea swims out of sight.

The dive ends, and suddenly you’re on the wooden deck of a ship with three masts and smaller whaling boats and rusty anchors suspended from its sides. The voiceover explains that this is a restored version of the underwater shipwreck. The deck is grimy and blood-stained, and placed around it are large wooden barrels full of whale oil that was extracted from blubber at the ramshackle tryworks that are on the nearby shoreline.

This is a demonstration of a virtual reality dive on South Australian – South Australia’s oldest recorded European shipwreck.

Screenshot 2023 aust national maritime museum 4
The model of the intact ship was recreated using many different references.

In its eighteen-year lifetime, the 236-ton English barque was variously used as a postal packet for delivering mail between England and far-flung outposts in the British empire; an immigration vessel to transport part of the initial wave European settlers to the colony of South Australia; an offshore whale processing platform, or ‘cutting-in’ vessel; and an improvised prison for the first Aboriginal person to kill a European in South Australia.

On 8 December 1837, the ship was moored in Rosetta Harbour, loaded with whale oil and ready for departure to Hobart, when it got caught in a south easterly storm. After its anchor chains snapped, it washed over a rocky reef and was wrecked in shallow water.

Dr James Hunter, the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Curator of Naval Heritage and Archaeology, was part of the team who rediscovered the ship in April 2018 – and he has now helped bring it back to life – virtually.

According to Hunter, this virtual reality experience is critically important because it makes this significant cultural and historical site more accessible for people who cannot visit it.

Shipwreck sites should be available to everyone; they belong to the public, they’re part of our cultural patrimony.

“Shipwreck sites should be available to everyone; they belong to the public, they’re part of our cultural patrimony. It’s important to give everyone the opportunity to interact with those wrecks. You can read about it, you can look at pictures or see it in film, but the ability to interact with it almost like I do as a maritime archaeologist – that gives it an added dimension.”

By enabling the public to experience what the work of a maritime archaeologist entails, Hunter also hopes this project “gets people more interested in shipwrecks and what they can tell us about our shared past.”

The origins of this audio-visual project lay in a chance meeting in late 2018 between Hunter and Professor Holger Deuter, an expert in virtual design at Germany’s University of Applied Sciences, Kaiserslautern.

During the meeting at the University of Technology Sydney – from which Deuter had received an honorary professorship as a visiting researcher two years earlier – Hunter mentioned an idea he had to develop a virtual reality dive on a shipwreck. Deuter’s interest was immediately piqued.

“I’m a freak of diving, I love Australia, and there was a good connection between James and I,” Deuter says.

The vr experience allows everyone to experience the feeling of viewing a shipwreck on the bottom of the ocean.
VR ‘explorers’ can hear a a narrator explain each of the artefacts found on the seabed.

Around that time Hunter had been conducting extensive research on PS Herald, a small iron-hulled side-wheel paddle steamer that sank near the mouth of Sydney Harbour in April 1884, and he and Deuter agreed that it would make for a perfect VR pilot project.

With the data provided to them by Hunter – which included historical and environmental information, images, underwater footage, and 3D photogrammetric surveys – Deuter and his team of seven masters students got to work generating a 3D model of the Herald wreck site in virtual space. They also built a 3D wireframe model of the vessel to show how it was originally constructed, using the one surviving archival photograph and historical information about other side-wheel paddle steamers from that era.

Another critical part of developing the project was interviewing scientists like Hunter who had actually dived on the wreck site. “We always listen to the stories of the divers,” Deuter says. “What were they feeling? What were their emotions? We try to reflect all of that in a way that is authentic, but not too stressful for the user.”

After the project was completed in early 2020, Deuter brought the software and equipment to Australia to show Hunter. “I absolutely flipped out,” Hunter says. “Because it was so interactive and realistic. It was pretty much like being on the wreck: it was murky, it was dark.”

He wasn’t the only one impressed: at the 2020 Comm Awards in Germany, the project won two prizes.

A virtual reality version of the research vessel, maggie iii.
The experience starts with a short briefing ‘aboard’ research vessel, Maggie III.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hunter and Deuter – who is also a skilled comic book artist – began working together on a new project: a graphic novel about South Australian, based on the logbook of the ship in the last twenty-four hours before it wrecked.

This occupied them during lockdown, and when their lives started to return to normal, Deuter suggested to Hunter that they work together on another VR shipwreck experience.

“We had other wrecks in NSW we were going to do, but because of COVID, we didn’t get a chance to go out and dive and get the necessary data,” Hunter says. “But we did have data for South Australian. So, we ended up doing that.”

The process was much the same as for the PS Herald – except that in this instance, there were double the number of students who translated the swathes of archaeological and environmental data Hunter sent to Deuter into an immersive VR experience.

“It’s been a really collaborative exercise,” Hunter says.

Early next year, once Deuter and his students have finished making the final adjustments to the project, he will return to Australia to showcase the full, interactive virtual dive experience on the wreck of South Australian at UTS.

A scuba diver surveys the sea floor as part of a phtogrammetric study.
James Hunter conducts a photogrammetric survey of South Australian’s bow section during the June 2019 investigations. Image: Kieran Hosty/ANMM

After this, Hunter is planning for it to be displayed at the Australian National Maritime Museum. But that won’t be the end of his collaboration with Deuter; in fact, the two are already at work on developing a new virtual reality dive for what Hunter believes to be the wreck of HMB Endeavour in Newport Harbor, in the United States

Hunter hopes this will help people understand how challenging it was to work on that site.

“There’s not much of the ship left. Plus, you’re working in an environment which varies between dark, very dark and sensory-deprivation-tank dark – and, during the winter months, has a water temperature just above freezing. At the end of a sixty-minute dive, your hands don’t function anymore – even if you’re wearing a dry suit.

“Unfortunately, we can’t capture the cold with virtual reality. But we can at least capture the visual elements of what it’s like down there.”

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