Dive tragedy over shipwreck


POLICE will prepare a report for the coroner following the death of a scuba diver who got into trouble after exploring the wreck of the SS Alert which sank off Cape Schanck in 1893.

The 55-year-old Seaford man was airlifted to The Alfred hospital on Saturday 23 January but could not be revived and died in the presence of family members last week. His death is not being treated as suspicious.

Scubabo Dive shop proprietor Josh Howell, of Queenscliff, whose boat had taken the diver and others out to the wreck, was shocked by the news.

“It is a tragedy,” he said, adding that he was preparing to attend the man’s funeral.

“I was extremely impressed by the professionalism of the crew and the other passengers and in the efforts they made,” he said.

“We are not exactly sure how [the death] even occurred. He was a hugely experienced diver. Something caused it but we are not sure what.”

Other peninsula dive shops contacted by The News said “rumours” of the incident had been circulating in their close-knit dive community but had not been confirmed until last week.

One said a helicopter had collected the distressed diver “from the boat” which could not leave the immediate area because other divers were slowly ascending from depths of 75 metres during their required decompression.

The remoteness of their position meant no other boats were nearby.

Another said the deceased diver would have “had to come up through all the diving ranks as well as specialised courses to be qualified for a dive of that depth”.

The 247 tonne, 51 metre SS Alert was built in 1877 for the gentle waters of Scottish lochs – not the wild waters of Bass Strait.

After a few years on the Melbourne-Geelong run the sail/steamer temporarily replaced the SS Despatch on the Gippsland-Melbourne run in 1893 while the Despatch was being refitted.

Setting out from Lakes Entrance bound for Melbourne via Port Albert she was struck by hurricane-force southerlies and mountainous seas and sank about 10 kilometres off Cape Schanck.

Of the 16 people on board, the only survivor was the ship’s cook who was washed ashore at Sorrento back beach clinging to a cabin door. He was revived by residents with brandy and the body heat of a Saint Bernard dog. Two bodies were also washed ashore.

The hull of the SS Alert lay undisturbed for 113 years until discovered in 2007 by a team from Southern Ocean Exploration.

First published in the Southern Peninsula News – 9 February 2021


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