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Shipwreck found over a century after bodies of crewmembers washed ashore: "120-year-old mystery" solved

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In July 1904, the steamship SS Nemesis was transporting coal to Melbourne, Australia, when it ran into a powerful storm and vanished. All 32 people on board were considered lost, and in the weeks that followed, the bodies of crewmembers and debris from the iron-hulled ship washed ashore, but the location of the 240-foot vessel remained a mystery.

Until now.

The ship has finally been identified more than a century later. It was initially spotted when a company searching for sunken shipping containers came across the wreck by accident, the New South Wales Ministry of Environment and Heritage announced this weekend.

"The 120-year-old mystery of SS Nemesis and the 32 crew members lost at sea has been solved," government officials declared in a news release.   

Underwater camera image from SS Nemesis survey by RV Investigator - Midships showing deckhouse.  CSIRO

In 2022, a remote sensing company called Subsea Professional Marine was trying to find cargo boxes lost off the coast of Sydney when it came across the shipwreck by chance, officials said. The vessel, which could not be officially identified at the time, was about 16 miles offshore and 525 feet underwater.

Government officials suspected the wreck might be the doomed SS Nemesis but it wasn't officially confirmed until September 2023 when CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, was able to capture underwater imagery that definitively showed the distinctive features of the steamship. 

The CSIRO research vessel, RV Investigator, used advanced multibeam echosounders to map the wreck site and underwater cameras to obtain high-resolution images of the vessel. They showed the severely damaged vessel resting upright on a sand plain.

"Our visual inspection of the wreck using the drop camera showed some key structures were still intact and identifiable, including two of the ship's anchors lying on the seafloor," Phil Vandenbossche, a CSIRO hydrographic surveyor on board the voyage, said in a statement.

Drop camera image from SS Nemesis survey by RV Investigator - Ship's anchor with wobbegong shark.

After an up-close survey of the shipwreck, officials also pinpointed what likely happened to the vessel. They determined that when the SS Nemesis was hit by large wave off the coast of Wollongong, the engine was overwhelmed and the ship "sank too quickly for life boats to be deployed."

Government officials say they are now committed to finding family members of the Australian, British and Canadian crewmembers who went down with the 1,393-ton ship. About half of the crew on the British-built ship were from the U.K., including the captain, Alex Lusher, chief mate, T.A. Renaut, and second mate, W.D. Stein, officials said.

"Around 40 children lost their parents in this wreck and I hope this discovery brings closure to families and friends connected to the ship who have never known its fate," said NSW Minister for Environment and Heritage Penny Sharpe.

The video imagery collected by CSIRO will now be "stitched together" to create a 3D model of the wreck for further investigation, officials said.

"The loss of Nemesis has been described as one of Sydney's most enduring maritime mysteries and has even been described by shipwreck researchers as the 'holy grail,'" Sharpe said. "Thanks to collaborative work with CSIRO and Subsea, using modern technology and historical records, Heritage NSW has been able to write the final chapter of SS Nemesis' story."

The announcement of the wreck's discovery comes just month after researchers found the wreck of the MV Blythe Star, a coastal freighter that sank half a century ago off the coast of Australia.  The 10 crewmembers on board escaped from the ship before it sank, but three died before rescuers found the crew two weeks after the sinking. 

Only about half of the more than 200 shipwrecks off the New South Wales coast have been located, officials said.

SS NEMESIS Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
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