Citizen Science Shipwreck Style

As a passionate scuba diver and citizen scientist, dedicated to searching for and documenting new wrecks, I have been involved with a number of Citizen Science, and Community Maritime Archaeology projects.

As these are often initiated by divers and run outside of mainstream maritime archaeology, my take is that anyone can be involved in, and add value to, maritime archaeology (in its broadest definition). The main constraint is yourself, your own motivation, and your own time commitments. Community maritime archaeology is just a fancy name for archaeology run by and for the public. In my case, it is all about finding and documenting ships and shipwreck sites, and then making that information available to others. You don’t need to be an archaeologist to build upon, or at least capture baseline data. You just need the will and the way.

Take the Colonist for example, the ship lost as a result of a collision near Bradleys Head, Sydney Harbour, in 1861. I found the wreck in 2013 as a result of revisiting and reprocessing multi-beam data collected during the Shallow Survey Conference in 2003. Reprocessing other people’s data has become a bit of a hobby of mine. It’s cheap, easy and incredible what you can find if you put your mind to it. In this instance, I could tell from the data that something was there, but it wasn’t immediately obvious that it was a shipwreck. So I set about diving it. The archaeologists call this ground-truthing the data.

Colonist 3D

I got some mates together, and on Sunday night / Monday morning (12/13 May 2013) at 1:30 am we slipped into the harbour about three cable lengths off Bradley’s Head. Why 1:30 am? Because the site is situated on the northern side of the southern channel, leading into the Port of Sydney. We had to wait until the ferrys stopped running. This is also the quietest time on the harbour. We descended to a silty bottom in 20 metres of water and found the muntz metal outline that originally clad the outside of the hull, along with a pile of basalt, which was the final cargo of blue metal. The bow can still be made out (basically pointing to the harbour bridge) and some concretions nearby which we thought was anchor chain.

Six weeks later (and with Sydney Ports approval) we went back in the daylight to record it. This time, I swam a video of the site, and then set about making a photomosaic with my GoPro. Easy!! Some desktop research followed and straight away, we knew it was the Colonist.

So, once you have this kind of data, what do you do with it? I found that the best way to get information out there, is not to publish in academic journals or diving magazines (although these both serve a purpose), but by using OpenSource Software (OSS). OSS is computer software with its source code made available with a license, which allows the copyright holder to provide the right to study, change and distribute the software to anyone, for any purpose. Think Wikipedia!

Once I had dived the Colonist, I put all the information on Wikipedia. Be mindful that depending on where you live, you may also have an obligation to report the find to the government, which I did. That said, Wikipedia is more user-friendly than most government databases, and with over 326 million unique users a month, it’s probably the best known and most accessible OSS.


Anyone with the passion and drive, can start (or add) to the available information on any craft in history, using Wikipedia. This can be done from the comfort of your own living room, utilising contemporary sources such as period newspapers, Lloyd’s Register and the like. And, this information is openly available to all. The British Newspaper Archive, for example, has 400 titles and over 10.6 million newspaper, pages online, dating back to 1710. Trove, Australia’s largest repository of digitised newspapers is also incredibly useful. What’s more, this data can be analysed, synthesised and be further built upon, by anyone wishing to add additional supporting details, which to my mind, is a key aspiration of Citizen Science and Community Maritime Archaeology.

If you are a diver, like me, and want to do more with your diving, take some photographs next time you are on a shipwreck site, and make these available to others. Photos provide a good time slice of that site, at that particular moment. The first time you do this we get baseline data. If you keep doing it, it can show how a site changes over time. This sort of monitoring is key to the management of any site.

If you wish to go to the next level, you can easily provide increased levels of detail documentation on a particular site through simple modern photographic techniques such as Structure from Motion. This is what I did with the Colonist. It can be achieved through a simple camera system, such as a GoPro, and OpenSource Software, such as VisualSFM: A Visual Structure from Motion System.

Together these tools can be used to provide vast amounts of 3D information about a particular site, and  doing this is considerably easier than it looks (and sounds)! With a few baseline measurements, the software can produce a complete model available for photogrammetry (basically a picture that you can take measurements from) down to the millimetre range.

Feel free to have a look at and download a guide that myself, and a couple of others, put together on how to document sites using Structure from Motion. It called the Open Explorer Guide to Structure from Motion to Document Shipwrecks, and you can find it on the OpenROV forum. It’s free to download, and well worth a read – if I do say so myself!

I am not negating the role of training or organisations such as the Nautical Archaeology Society, or more formalised amateur avocational organisations, such as MAAV. There is definitely a place for both of these. I am simply indicating that individuals and small groups can contribute greatly at their own time and pace. All it takes is just the motivation to go out there and just do it. The ball is in your court as to your level of involvement. I would encourage you to pick up that ball and run with it! Hopefully you will feel motivated to go out and document some of our past (to whatever level you feel comfortable to) and make the information available to all.

If you are interested in attending the next Shallow Survey conference, its being run in Plymouth later this year. See Shallow Survey 2015 for details. If you are interested to learn more about my shipwreck research, check out my website NSW wrecks.



PS: Photography by Scott Willan and Damien Siviero. Multibeam data courtesy of Sydney Ports and DSTO.

About Scott Willan

Scott has been diving for more than 25 years. An Engineer, Scott has a passion for our marine history as well as the mechanics and machinery from both the age of sail and the age of steam.

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