Maritime heritage

Northern Territory (NT) maritime heritage includes, but is not limited to, all of the following:

  • Aboriginal occupation of the NT coastline
  • evidence of visits by the Macassan people who sailed from present-day Indonesia
  • shipwrecks
  • submerged aircraft and submarines
  • jetties, lighthouses and wharves built during European settlement
  • underwater historical infrastructure such as telegraph cables. 

Protecting maritime heritage

The NT Government administers both the NT Heritage Act and the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act. These both have a role in protecting the maritime heritage of the NT.

The Heritage Act applies in NT waters including harbours, rivers and estuaries. Read the law.

Under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act, all shipwrecks and associated artefacts lost over 75 years ago are automatically protected. 

Shipwrecks less than 75 years ago can also be protected under the same law. Go to the Australian Government Department of Environment website for more information on the Historic Shipwrecks Act.

World War Two shipwrecks 

A unique feature of the NT’s maritime heritage are its World War Two shipwrecks. All of the following ships were sunk in Darwin Harbour as a result of the first Japanese air raid in Australia on 19 February 1942:

  • British Motorist
  • Kelat
  • Mauna Loa
  • USS Meigs
  • Neptuna
  • USS Peary
  • Zealandia

Most of these wrecks were partially salvaged by a Japanese salvage company in the late 1950s to early 1960s. All wrecks are now protected by the Heritage Act. Read the law.

The Don Isidro and Florence D were both sunk by Japanese planes off Bathurst Island, north of Darwin on 19 February 1942.  

The wreck of the Florence D was discovered in 2009. Other ships and planes lost at sea during the war remain unlocated.

The wreck of the Japanese submarine, the I-124, which went down with all its crew on 20 January 1942 is located off the NT coast.

Cyclone Tracy wrecks

On Christmas Eve 1974 when Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin, 71 people lost their lives, including 16 at sea.

The fate of two vessels lost in Cyclone Tracy, the Booya and the Darwin Princess, remained a mystery until the discovery of the wreck of the Booya in Darwin Harbour in October 2003. 

The wreck of the Darwin Princess was located not far from the Booya in May 2004.

Both wreck sites are of symbolic significance as the place where people lost their lives in tragic circumstances. Five people died on the Booya and one person died on the Darwin Princess.

Shipwreck information

You can download brochures on all of the following:

Protected zones

Both the Heritage Act and the Historic Shipwrecks Act include penalties for interfering with protected sites.

A protected zone may be declared around a shipwreck under the Historic Shipwrecks Act, requiring a permit to enter. 

There are currently three protected zones with closed water orders in the NT:

  • the Japanese submarine I-124, lost off Bathurst Island in 1942
  • the Florence D, sunk by Japanese aircraft off Bathurst Island in 1942
  • the Sanyo Maru, sunk in a storm off the Arnhem Land coast in 1937.

There are also currently two sites in Darwin Harbour that have 'closed waters' controls over them by order of the harbourmaster. The Booya and Catalina 6. These areas cannot be entered without permission of the Heritage Branch.

You can dive on the wreck of the Booya in Darwin Harbour with permission from the Heritage Branch, but you cannot fish or anchor.

To find out if you are allowed to dive on a wreck or carry out other activities such as fishing, or if you need a permit to enter, contact the Heritage Branch.

Heritage Branch contact

Heritage Branch
Department of Lands, Planning and the Environment
GPO Box 1680
Darwin NT 0801 
Phone: (08) 8999 5041

Last updated: 28 April 2016