Lost for 50 Years, Mysterious Australian Shipwreck Has Finally Been Found

The “Blythe Star” sank off the coast of Tasmania in 1973, heralding improvements to the country’s maritime safety laws

Black and white photo of ship
The 144-foot Blythe Star coastal freighter Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database

Researchers in Australia have solved a 50-year mystery by locating the lost remains of the M.V. Blythe Star, a coastal freighter that sank in 1973.

The team discovered the wreck’s location in April, while studying an underwater landslide off the west coast of Tasmania, according to a statement from the federal Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). 

First, the researchers used sonar to map the shipwreck. They then sent two underwater cameras to visually inspect the vessel, which was submerged nearly 500 feet deep.

Sonar scan of underwater shipwreck
Sonar mapping technologies revealed the shape of the shipwreck resting on the seafloor. CSIRO

On October 12, 1973, the 144-foot M.V. Blythe Star was sailing off the coast of Tasmania when it began taking on water. The freighter’s ten crew members quickly abandoned the ship—which was traveling from Hobart to King Island with a load of fertilizer and beer kegs—and boarded an inflatable raft. 

Their disappearance “triggered the largest maritime search ever conducted in Australia to that time,” per CSIRO. Seven days later, searchers abandoned the effort.

Camera inspection of Blythe Star shipwreck - CSIRO

But the men were still alive. They spent over a week at sea, trying to survive in stormy weather on glucose powder, a small amount of canned water and biscuits. One crew member—John Sloan, the second engineer—died before the small boat could reach land, likely because he didn’t have time to grab his thyroid medication from the sinking vessel, per the Maritime Executive.

Weak and hungry, the remaining nine crew members eventually landed on Tasmania’s Forestier Peninsula. Another two men—John Eagles and Kenneth Jones—died shortly after the lifeboat made landfall. Eventually, three of the surviving men were able to scale the steep cliffs surrounding the bay. They wandered through the wilderness until they encountered a forestry worker who was able to take them to the nearest town on October 26, nearly two weeks after their harrowing ordeal began. Rescuers sent a helicopter to fetch the men who’d stayed back on the beach.

Underwater view of shipwreck
An underwater view of the Blythe Star shipwreck, which was found submerged nearly 500 feet deep off the coast of Tasmania CSIRO

The ship, meanwhile, disappeared without a trace. Despite many attempts to find it, the wreck’s location remained a mystery for five decades.

When researchers finally located the Blythe Star this spring, they saw that the wreck was teeming with life: Fur seals, crayfish, algae and seaweed had made it their home, per the Australian Associated Press. They were also able to make out the word “Star” on the ship’s bow.

What caused the Blythe Star to sink is still a mystery. Following the tragedy, Australia implemented robust maritime safety laws. Vessels are now required to report their routes and locations via the Australian Ship Reporting System; all lifeboats must also be equipped with radio beacons.

“This is something which I know is very comforting to the families of the men who died—that they didn’t die in vain,” says Michael Stoddart, a researcher at the Maritime Museum of Tasmania who wrote a book about the wreck, to the Guardian’s Donna Lu.

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Today, only one of the shipwreck’s survivors is still alive. Mick Doleman, now 68, was just 18—the youngest member of the crew—when the ship went down. After the wreck, he served as a branch official for the Seamen’s Union of Australia, then the deputy national secretary for the Maritime Union of Australia, according to a statement from the union.

Even today, he continues to advocate for better maritime safety conditions, report Liz Gwynn and James Dunlevie of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“There needs to be more attention paid to the wellbeing of seafarers,” he tells the broadcaster, “no matter what nationality they are, what cargo they carry, to make sure they are looked after and cared for.”

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