South Australia’s oldest colonial shipwreck, which was rediscovered in 2018, has become the subject of a 3D virtual reality museum exhibit in a collaboration between Australian archaeologists and German designers.

The showcase at the Australian National Maritime Museum recreates the story of doomed vessel South Australian, which wrecked on December 8, 1837. 

It offers the perspective of maritime archaeologists diving to the wreck, and of visitors aboard the ship in waters off Victor Harbor before disaster struck.

The barque, which was being used as a whaling station, was full of whale oil and ready to set sail to Hobart before storms pushed it onto a reef. 

Dr Hunter aboard the research boat used at the start of the virtual reality experience.(Supplied: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation)

All those aboard survived, but the ship sank to the bottom of Encounter Bay and its location became lost. 

James Hunter from the Australian National Maritime Museum was one of those behind the 2018 search for the wreck site.

He has also helped shape the new exhibition, which incorporates comic book art, technology, logbooks, old records and years of research and data from the site.

Authentic reconstruction

The virtual reality experience puts the user on a research boat, anchored over the site of the wreck at Encounter Bay, before flashing back to the night of the storm through animated comic dioramas, taken from a soon-to-be-published graphic novel called The Loss.

Next, users can dive down to the authentically reconstructed version of the shipwreck site, exploring the history and artefacts.

Once finished, they return to the surface and find themselves aboard the recreated South Australian, lying at anchor in Encounter Bay, with the whaling station visible on shore.

Dr Hunter documenting the hull of South Australian in June 2019.(Supplied: Irini Malliaros/Silentworld Foundation)

“It’s 360 [degrees of vision] all the way round you. It’s pretty awesome,” Dr Hunter said.

The project is the culmination of a long-held love for the story of the wreck for Dr Hunter.

He was near completion of his doctorate in 2011 and was casting around for a new challenge when he started reading up on sailing ships and came across the story.

“I thought, ‘No way! How has no-one found this shipwreck?'” he said.

International collaboration

Dr Hunter said his interest became insatiable and he scoured the recovered logbooks from the ship, held at the State Library of South Australia. 

When he started working at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, he was able to put a consortium together with others from Flinders University and various institutions.

“We went out in 2018 and found the thing,” he said.

He said he was amazed by how much of the wreck was left, expecting that, as it had run up on a reef, it would have been “absolutely ground down to nothing”.

Graphic novel artwork of the broken anchor chains that resulted in the ship’s loss.  ( Illustration: Holger Deuter)

However, nearly the entire length of the articulated lower hull remained.

As the wreck continued to be explored, Dr Hunter kept investigating the history of the ship.

He also started working with Professor Holger Deuter from the University of Applied Sciences in Kaiserlautern in Germany, who designs virtual reality environments and is also a comic book artist.

From there, during the tedium of COVID lockdowns, the idea for a graphic novel about South Australian was born, as well as the basis for the exhibition and its mix of art, technology, and history.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be cool if we could make this into a visual medium?'” he said.

A rich history

A lot of work has gone into making the experience as authentic as possible, including the depictions of those on board.

Dr Hunter said there had even been some discussion about whether the visage of actor Robert De Niro would be a good basis for the face of the captain.

Sir John Jeffcott survived the wreck, only to drown four days later when a whaling boat overturned.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

Those on the ship when it went over the reef included whalers and the first Judge of South Australia’s Supreme Court, Sir John Jeffcott — who survived the wreck only to die four days later when an overcrowded whaling boat he was in overturned.

Also on board was John Hindmarsh Jnr, the son of the state’s first governor, who had more luck and survived both disasters.

The site of the wreck is regularly covered and uncovered by shifting sands.

Even though it was officially rediscovered in 2018, Department of Environment records noted a local man claiming he often swam in the 1940s to collect bolts from the seabed to use as solder.

That pains the archaeologist in Dr Hunter, who said he had also heard reports of people recovering whole ceramic plates from the wreck, but none had ever been seen by researchers.

The wreck lies in the waters of Encounter Bay, off Victor Harbor.(ABC News: Bec Whetham)

“If there happens to be anyone in Victor Harbor who has them, I’d love to see them,” he said.

Dr Hunter hoped the exhibition would travel to other museums and eventually become part of the National Trust Museum at Victor Harbor.

“It would be great for it to end up there, where the wreck is,” he said.

“That makes the most sense from my perspective.”

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