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Did you know that there are several shipwreck sites in Sydney Harbour? Here are the stories of just four that might surprise you! 

Beyond the waterfront mansions and modern cruisers of Sydney Harbour are the littered remains of historic vessels – each with their own fascinating stories to tell!

1. The Centennial (1863-1889)

The Centennial is one of the largest shipwrecks in Sydney Harbour. Built in 1863 in Glasgow, the iron-hulled steamer Centennial was 66m long and weighed 897 tonnes. The ship spent several years operating between Australia and New Zealand as an international cargo carrier, until one fateful voyage from Sydney to Wellington on 23 August 1889 when it was struck on the starboard bow by the collier SS Kanahooka near Bradley's Head.

Carl Lessing, the ship's commanding officer, attempted to run the Centennial aground on Taylor's Bay Beach, but time was against him. The ship sank in just 3 minutes. One crewman drowned. All of the ship's 52 passengers and the remaining crew members were rescued. 

Read more about this shipwreck site in this blog by the museum's Curator RAN Maritime Archaeology, Dr. James Hunter

Video by Dr. James Hunter, Curator RAN Maritime Archaeology


The museum's maritime archaeology team regularly dive shipwreck sites as part of an ongoing initiative to document selected historic shipwreck sites using digital photography and videography. In the above video, Lee Graham swims along the Centennial’s surviving starboard side and inspects a large section of broken hull plating. 

2. Itata (1883-1906) 

At 4:40 am on 12 January 1906, a dramatic fire broke out on board Itata while it was preparing to journey from Newcastle to South America with a cargo of nitrite and coal (two items not recommended to be packed together, as nitrite is quickly soluble and can catch fire easily). 

One hour later, the ship was totally destroyed. Itata was moved from its wharf to a nearby beach for safety, but during this process water seeped into the remaining nitrate creating a series of massive explosions. It's reported that the booming noise could be heard from sixteen miles away. The ship's 350 tonnes of coal cargo continued to burn in the vessel's hold for over a week.

Following the fire, Itata's burnt remnants were later sold and towed down to Sydney with the intention that it would be converted into a transport barge. Sadly, these plans didn't work out, and today the scuttled wreck of the Itata lies in Salt Pan Creek, Long Bay, Middle Harbour, a favourite diving spot for shipwreck enthusiasts.

The shipwreck of Itata
The shipwreck of Itata, Middle Harbour, Sydney

3. Centurion (1869-1887) 

Lying just inside North Head is the wreck of the Centurion, the largest timber shipwreck site in Sydney Harbour.  

Built in Scotland in 1869, the Centurion was a beautifully outfitted clipper ship, later transformed into a square-rigged barque. 

In 1887 while sailing through Sydney Heads on its way to Honolulu via Newcastle (to carry a load of coal), another ship, the Manhegan, stopped its passage due to being moored in the centre of the heads' entrance. The steamer Phoebe had been guiding Centurion, but became entangled in the larger ship's ropes. In the ensuing accident Centurion sustained a massive hole and sank inside Cannae Point.

The site of the Centurion's final resting place is now a very popular diving spot, with the wreck spread over 40 x 15m and at a depth of 19m.

Centurion Wreck Dive from Marine Explorer on Vimeo.

4. SS  Royal Shepherd (1853-1890)

The 37-year-old steamer the Royal Shepherd, sank in just ten minutes in 27m of water after a collision with the collier Hesketh in July 1890.

The vessel operated between Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and NSW as a passenger ship, general cargo carrier, cattle transport, sewerage dumper and finally a collier. 

     Anchor of the Royal Shepherd steamer.

When it sank, the captain and crew just managed to clamber onto Hesketh’s towering bow as their vessel sank beneath them.

The remains of the Royal Shepherd currently lie in approximately 29m of water, due east of South Head, Port Jackson.

SS Royal Shepherd. ANMM Collection ANMS0805038
SS Royal Shepherd. ANMM Collection ANMS0805038

Harbour Cruise: Shipwrecks of Sydney Harbour
If these stories intrigued you, and you'd love to learn more, join us for a family-friendly cruise voyaging to these four Sydney Harbour shipwreck sites. The cruise includes delicious morning tea and lunch and tales of intrigue from your host, the museum's Curator RAN Maritime Archaeology Dr. James Hunter.
Book your spot now!

Danielle Voss

Danielle Voss is the Content Producer at the Australian National Maritime Museum.