The wreck of the HMAS Perth, an Australian naval vessel sunk off the coast of Java in 1942, has undergone extensive illegal scrap metal salvaging: To such an extent that 60% of the shipwreck is missing.

The news is extremely disturbing because of the catastrophic loss of life that took place: 357 Australian sailors died when the Perth sunk following a battle against the Imperial Japanese Navy (the Battle of the Sunda Strait). The wreck is the final resting place of these sailors.

From 14-17 May 2017, a team of Australian and Indonesian maritime archeologists – from the Australian National Maritime Museum and the National Research Centre of Archaeology Indonesia – conducted a joint dive on the wreck. Sufficed to say, they were shocked at what they found.

Kevin Sumption, director of the Australian National Maritime Museum, said “it is with profound regret we advise that our joint maritime archaeologist diving team has discovered sections of the Perth missing. Interim reports indicate only approximately 40% of the vessel remaining. The research team has found evidence of large-scale salvage on the site, including what appears to be recent removal of material from the wreck.”

Illegal salvaging has taken place on the wreck since the late 1970s, and in 2013, recreational divers reported damage to the wreck and the sighting of a salvage barge.

According to Mr. Sumption, “this dive, following on from multi-beam sonar work commissioned in late 2016 by ANMM and ARKENAS, confirms that the site has since been significantly disturbed. While some damage is a result of the Japanese torpedo strikes that sank the vessel in 1942, and the expected degradation of the site over the last 75 years, there are signs the removal of this material is a result of salvage with some salvage equipment visible around the site.”

A report is now being drafted by the Australian expedition team, in consultation with their Indonesian counterparts, to assess the damage and recommend a way forward to protect the remnants of the wreck.

It is vitally important that organisations and governments move quickly to deal with the issue. In fact, illegal salvaging of scrap metal from sunken ships is far from new in South East Asia. Last year, The Guardian reported that three British ships and a US submarine that sank in the war had almost disappeared due to salvaging.

HMAS Perth dive @ Australian National Maritime Museum

hmas perth gunners
Some crew members of the HMAS Perth astride one of the ship's guns © Wikimedia Commons/ Australian War Memorial

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