Who'd have thought salvaging a shipwreck would prove more risky than surviving the shipwreck itself?
This week's Cursed Coast – Western Australia, where else? – involves two shipwrecks and the strange things three men did to survive.
The Bungaree (also called the Bungara) was an 89 ton schooner carrying supplies of sugar, coconuts and tea south from Batavia (modern day Jakarta) to Fremantle. Captain Cornford made an unusually fast voyage from Batavia – only 23 days – ably assisted by a winter storm blowing in from the northwest. He estimated that he was a little north of Rottnest – a safe distance from the coast, by all accounts. Between the heavy rain and strong winds, he hadn't seen land or the sun in four days by the 13th June 1876.
Unlucky thirteenth for him – at four thirty am, the Bungaree struck heavily on a reef.
In the darkness, the boat began to fill with water, but it was too dark to see land and no one knew where they were. Their safest option was to stay with the ship – even if she was slowly sinking.
Day broke and their luck lifted just a little. Land was in sight – and just over a mile away. The ship had struck Sisters Reef – 20 miles south of Rottnest and much closer to the coast than Cornford thought. The mistake may have saved their lives – if they could reach shore in the heavy seas.
At 9am, they tried to launch the boat – but it was quickly swamped in the waves. Hauling it back, they tried again…and again. Three times it was swamped before the crew managed to climb aboard. A well-placed wave washed the life boat over the reef and into slightly calmer waters. Bailing constantly, all eight men managed to make it safely to shore. Cornford headed to Fremantle to break the news to the owners of the boat – the Batemans. They sent a boat back to Rockingham to see what could be salvaged, as the Bungaree wasn't insured, but she'd completely broken up and there were bits of her and her cargo strewed along the beach.
Cargo ripe for salvage and several boats were sent to do so.
Pitts, Pomelos, Dunn and the Dinghy
On the 21st June, a vessel so small it didn't even have a name, crewed by three men – including Mr R Pitts and Edward Dunn, left Fremantle to assist with the salvage of cargo from the Bungaree, that had washed ashore at Becher Point in Rockingham. They loaded their boat with salvaged coconuts and pomelos, before leaving Becher Point on 23rd June 1876.
More bad weather set in – it was the time of winter storms – so they decided to anchor on the leeward side of Penguin Island. Their boat dragged its anchor and was stove in during the night, marooning them on the island 2km offshore from the mainland. The three men had no food, so they ate penguins, hoping the weather would clear up and another boat would come by to rescue them.
Saved by a Zebra
On Sunday the 25th June, the crew of the Zebra was hard at work, salvaging the Bungaree debris from the shore. On their way home to Fremantle, they noticed two men making distress signals on the shore of Penguin Island. Instead of picking the men up, they waited until they returned to Fremantle and reported the men to the Water Police.
Superintendant Stone sent a boat straight away to rescue the three men, which brought them safely back to port on the evening of the 26th.
How did three men survive comfortably on Penguin Island for three days – and why didn't they attempt to walk the sandbar back to land, waiting for rescue instead?
Ah, now that's where I should explain a little more about Penguin Island. At the southern end of the moving patch of shoals called Shoalwater in Rockingham, it's the only island there with a potable water supply – if you can call a brackish, discoloured well potable.
It's a limestone island, riddles with caves that slowly fill up with sand unless they're excavated regularly. One self-appointed island manager did just that – a man named Seaforth MacKenzie. Taking up permanent residence in one of the largest, he made the caves as habitable as possible for people to stay in on holidays. They were also used as residences for people during the Depression in the 1930s.
Now, the caves have slowly filled with sand again or caved in, with little warning, so visitors are warned not to venture inside. Of course, the warnings only work on those who can read the signs – but I'd say a 150kg male Australian sea lion is enough warning for anyone, even if he paid no attention to the danger.
Some say that, like Mermaid Reef far to the north, Penguin Island was named after a survey vessel, but the survey vessel Penguin wasn't even in West Australian waters in 1876. This island was definitely named for the birds.
The Smallest Penguins in the World
Penguins don't just live in Antarctica – some of the smallest penguins in the world – called alternately little, fairy or blue-backed penguins and Eudyptula minor in Latin – live on the coastal islands of southern Australia.
Their backs are deep blue, like the colour of deep water. They spend all day at sea fishing, coming ashore in the evenings to their sand dune burrows, except in the hottest part of summer, when they moult all their feathers at once. They're not waterproof then, so they can't fish or swim because they'll sink. Between June and their December moult, though, they're nesting – laying and incubating their pair of eggs or taking care of the fluffy little hatchlings.
The island is now a nature reserve, home to a small penguin sanctuary where injured penguins are rehabilitated and returned to the wild, where possible. Where it isn't…they become part of the Discovery Centre display, so that tourists can see the penguins during the day.
The sandbar is above the water at particularly low tides, but the rest of the time, there are gaps with very strong currents running through them, as the remaining sandbar channels all the tidal flow through those narrow gaps. That makes them very dangerous for anyone to cross who isn't prepared to be swept off the sandbar and into deeper water – perhaps to their deaths. And yes, people have died attempting to walk the sandbar, with hundreds rescued by Surf Lifesaving volunteers every year.
That's it for this week's Cursed Coast. Next episode…will be a mystery.