Dotted with sunken ships from World War II, Cyclone Tracy and confiscated Indonesian fishing vessels, Darwin Harbour is surrounded by scenic mangroves and pristine tidal waters, meeting at Darwin’s cosmopolitan foreshore. Larger than Sydney Harbour, Darwin Harbour offers a range of recreational activies, supports a diverse range of marine ecosystems, has significant cultural heritage and is a vital transport hub for northern Australia.
The semi-submersible heavy lift ship Zhen Hua 33 arrived in Darwin Harbour on 19th August 2017 carrying the drill rig Noble Tom Prosser
Darwin Harbour opens to the north at a line from Charles Point in the west to Lee Point in the east into the Beagle Gulf and connects via the Clarence Strait with the Van Diemen Gulf. It contains Port Darwin, which is flanked by Frances Bay to the east and Cullen Bay to the west. It supports very high fish diversity with 415 fish species now known. Darwin Harbour provides a unique opportunity to see dugongs in the wild, because their favourite food is located off Casuarina and Vestey s beaches. Seagrass meadows are also the main diet of green turtles and provide habitats for many smaller marine animals including commercially important species such as prawns and fish.
The tides at Port Darwin are macro-tidal with a maximum tidal range of 7.8 m, a mean spring range of 5.5 m and a mean neap range of 1.9 m. The currents caused by these tides are complex and strong.
Darwin Harbour, which lends its name to the city that stands on its shores, was named after the naturalist Charles Darwin who sailed with Robert Fitzroy on the ship HMS Beagle around parts of Australia. However, Darwin and Fitzroy sailed in 1836 from King George’s Sound (Western Australia) directly to the Cocos-Keeling Islands, at the south coast of Java, and from there to Cape Town and back to England. They stayed thus away from Darwin Harbour by 3000 sea miles and did not know of its existence.
Cruising Darwin Harbour
The calm waters of Darwin Harbour and the balmy weather of the Top End’s dry season combine to provide the perfect environment for cruising. A number of operators run cruises around Darwin Harbour, catering for all tastes and requirements. These include looking at the wildlife (dolphins, dugong and birds), exploring the mangrove ecosystems in saltwater estuaries, or just simply taking in the serenity of a tropical sunset. Barbecue Lunch, Sunset and Table Service Dinner Cruises are offered; utilising a variety of craft, from catamarans to fully rigged schooners and pearling luggers, where the focus is on the natural environment.
The pearling lugger ‘Anniki’ once plied the waters of the Torres Strait as part of the thriving pearling fleet. Lovingly restored to her former glory, she now takes daily sunset cruises on Darwin Harbour. You can view a magnificent Darwin sunset aboard this beautifully restored classic pearling lugger as the crew retell the stories of the old pearling days and hoist her traditional sails.
The ‘Tumlaren’ is a beautifully restored 20- metre schooner that comfortably carries up to 45 guests. The Tumlaren was built in Lavender Bay, Sydney NSW in 1981, her design was based on the scaled down version of Dick Smith’s vessel that was taken to Antarctica, also designed by Bob Gordon. The Tumlaren is rigged to sail and schedules and weather permitting, guests may have the opportunity to experience sailing.
The ‘Alfred Nobel’ is a beautiful 30 metre spotted gum schooner built in Newcastle, NSW and has a superbly colourful history. She was built by the New South Wales government in 1951 as an Explosives lighter and after years of service in Sydney harbour ferrying ammunition. She was purchased by the Tucker Family of Tasmania in around 1975 to become a floating cabaret boat. She was then towed to Tasmania for the first of her many restorations.
The ‘Charles Darwin’ is a steel-hulled tri-deck catamaran originally named Shangri-La Princess. She was built in Adelaide in 1990 for the Stannard family, a well known name in the boating industry. She was built for use on the Gold Coast Broadwater , taking passengers from Surfer s Paradise to the Shangri-La resort on Stradbroke Island. After many years service, two further owners and two name changes, she was brought by Darwin Harbour Cruises in April 2010.
The Sea Darwin Harbour Eco experience varies from day to day and season the season. Allow your crew to use their local knowledge in using the tides, the weather and the season to showcase harbour activity. On each tour you will explore the unique diversity and dimension of Darwin Harbour, taking in the habitat, history and intrigue of what is happening on the day. Visitors will experience the sounds and sights of a city harbour abounding with contemporary interest, drenched in history and with an unparalleled tropical marine habitat.
A more adventurous alternative is to take a multi day boating or fishing safari to one of the outlying settlements such as Bynoe Harbour and Turtle Beach. Travel can be on board a luxury ocean going catamaran cruise, or a whole boat charter.
The SS Neptuna explodes at Stokes Hill Wharf during the Darwin attacks in 1942.
Darwin Harbour Wrecks
In February 1942, the Allies were reeling from a series of defeats at the hands of the Japanese. They had pulled some of their surviving naval escort forces south to protect a convoy assembling in Darwin that was making ready to send reinforcements to Timor. The activity was noticed by Japanese reconnaissance planes. By the 19th February over 45 ships were jamming the harbour. The Japanese struck with nearly 200 aircraft from four fleet carriers. Allied fighter aircraft were quickly destroyed on the ground and most ships were caught at anchor. Within 40 minutes a hail of bombs had badly damaged the town and sunk several large vessels. Most of the convoy was either destroyed or damaged. Some 20,000 tonnes of shipping went to the bottom. The Japanese lost only 7 aircraft.
Ironically, it was the Japanese who returned in 1959/60 to salvage the wrecks for scrap, but there are still plenty of reminders of the day when mainland Australia was attacked. Several Catalina flying boats and other World War II debris also rests in the harbour depths. The wrecks are in difficult areas with variable visibility and strong tides, but they are evocative wrecks that mark an important point in our history, and they are still popular dives.
Within the East Arm itself are remnants of six Consolidated Catalina flying boats. Three were assigned to the U.S. Navy’s (USN) Patrol Wing Ten, and three were operated by the Royal Australian Air Force. The USN aircraft were responsible for conducting reconnaissance and patrol duties in northern Australian waters, but were caught at their moorings when Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin on the morning of 19 February 1942. Three Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters strafed the Catalinas during the first wave of the assault, causing two to sink almost immediately. One remained afloat and was ultimately destroyed by a Japanese dive bomber. Incredibly, no loss of life occurred with any of the American aircraft, although one was undergoing maintenance at the time of the attack, and its ground crew was strafed on at least two separate occasions. Today, all three USN flying boat wrecks are located on the seabed where they sank and are in varying states of preservation.
Above: USS Peary was refuelling from the 6,891 ton tanker British Motorist when the air attack on Darwin began. Both were heavily hit in the first minutes of the raid, here they have drifted farther apart and are sinking. Despite five bomb hits USS Peary had continued firing at the attackers for the full 40 minutes that the first main attack group of 188 aircraft were over Darwin.
Darwin Harbour also contains the wrecks of American military vessels, as well as Australian ships employed by the merchant marine during the Second World War. The highest loss of life of any vessel attacked during the Bombing of Darwin was that of the American destroyer USS Peary, which was struck by five bombs including one that detonated the ship’s forward ammunition magazines. The damage to Peary was extensive and 88 officers and ratings perished with the vessel, but incredibly some crewmen returned anti-aircraft fire at their attackers until the raid ended. Two other American military vessels, the troop transports USAT Meigs and USAT Mauna Loa, were also attacked and sunk by Japanese dive and torpedo bombers. Thankfully, the loss of life was significantly less aboard these ships only one Meigs crewman was killed as a result of the raid, and all of Mauna Loa’s complement of 44 escaped unharmed. Ironically, the superstructures of all three wreck sites were removed by a Japanese salvage company during the 1950s, but their lower hulls were left largely intact and undisturbed. Consequently, both Meigs and Mauna Loa still retain portions of the military cargoes they carried when they sank, including complete armoured personnel carriers, motorcycles, military trucks, gas masks, small arms, and various types of munitions.
The 145 metre long, 6891 ton steel tanker British Motorist was on its way to refuel the USS Peary when it was hit by two Japanese bombs and sank on its side. Half of the ship was exposed at low water. This allowed post-war Japanese divers to heavily salvage the vessel and all but her engine room was removed. Due to her massive size, the remaining section is still modestly substantial. She lies a short distance from the Darwin wharf and consists of a jumble of artefacts on a silty bottom. She is occasionally visited by divers. Some snapper and rock cod can be seen.
The USS Meigs was a 140 metre long, 12,000 ton American transport vessel. She was the largest ship in the harbour and drew Japanese planes like bees to honey. She was hit by 20 bombs and then constantly machine-gunned. After a 40 minute battering they finished her off with two torpedoes. At very low tides the masts and cranes once broke the surface. The wreck is a remnant left behind after extensive salvage in 1960. She was basically cut off at the waterline. The wreck is now a vast jumble of steel on a silty bottom on a north-south orientation. She is still huge and takes about 3 dives to cover. The most recognisable parts are in the bow where a Bren Gun carrier can be found. Several trucks are almost buried. A large pile of railway iron lies in the mid-section. Rifle ammunition dumps are common. It is home to many kinds of fish including cod, barracuda, snapper and angel fish. Gorgonia fans and sponges cover parts of the wreck.
The 5,436 ton American transport ship SS Mauna Loa lies only a kilometre from the Meigs. She was hit by two bombs that broke her back and set her alight. Five men were killed. She settled on a sand and silt bottom about three kilometres from the Darwin Wharf. She is similar to the eigs, a jumble of debris after the ship was heavily salvaged in 1960. There is also plenty of ammunition as well as old motorcycles in the former holds.
SS Zealandia was an old steel merchant ship of 123 metres length and 6,600 registered tons. She was a well known local ship and was in the harbour to take refugees south. The ship ducked a few bombs, but one hit in the No.3 hold and set her alight. The fires reached ammunition in the No.1 hold and it started to cook off and explode, then the fire hoses failed. Only two were killed as the ship slowly settled on the silty sand bottom with the tops of her masts showing. Although a lot of the ship has been salvaged, there is is the usual jumble of structures and cargo items. The ship is covered in soft corals and is home to good fish life.
The Kelat was built in England in 1881 as a glamourous 1,849 ton iron sailing ship. By 1941 she was an unwanted hulk in Fremantle. The Navy filled her with coal and towed her to Darwin to refuel the convoys. She had not long arrived before the attack. Zero fighters machine-gunned her full of holes. Everyone had more pressing things to do than to try and bail out an old hulk and she took two days to sink. Now she is a jumble of small relics well spread out over a shallow 100m x 20m area. This is a relaxing dive with some smaller marine life to investigate.