Nature & Wildlife

Every shipwreck tells a story

‘Three hundred miles north-east from Darwin, and only ten miles off our uncharted northern coastline, is a floating foreign township whose existence is unsuspected by Australians.
Its population exceeds that of any northern town.
This is the Japanese pearling fleet of the Arafura Sea’
The Advertiser (Brisbane), 2 July 1938

Thirty kilometres off Australia’s Arnhem Land coast lies a Japanese shipwreck. Its story includes secrecy, tragedy, wild storms and unexpected relationships with Aboriginal peoples. Once lost and forgotten, the wreck of the Sanyo Maru now features in a new exhibition launched at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Now lying 26 metres below the surface, the Sanyo Maru was a Japanese pearling mother-ship that sank in a squall off Arnhem Land in 1937. Artefacts in the exhibition reveal the personal lives of its crew and the divers aboard who harvested pearl shell, a growing Japanese industry prior to the start of the Pacific War in 1941. Never previously displayed, these artefacts include personal items, dinnerware, lacquerware, surgical kit and diving gear.

The Sanyo Maru exhibition shares the story of a Japanese crew far from home. This ship provided a lifeline for hundreds of pearl divers, from sake to letter from Japan. It is also the story of a ship dangerously overloaded and caught in a sudden storm.

Sanyo Maru was also part of a growing fleet that challenged Australian authorities, while maintaining peaceful relations with local Aboriginal peoples. After it sank, the location of the shipwreck was forgotten until archaeologists and Aboriginal researchers discovered a key clue locked away in historical records.

What did archaeologists do when they dived on the wreck – and what did they learn? What do the artefacts that they found tell us about the lives of these forgotten sailors and divers? What does it take to become a maritime archaeologist and uncover stories like the Sanyo Maru?

Dive into the depths off northern Australia and see the remains of the largest ship of a forgotten fleet.

An Australian National Maritime Museum touring exhibition developed in conjunction with the NT Heritage Branch, Northern Territory Government.

The Museum also acknowledges the support of Paspaley and Bhagwan Marine during the fieldwork, and the Western Australian Museum and the Australian-Japan Foundation for their support in the conservation of the artefacts recovered from the shipwreck.

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government’s Visions of Australia program.