Artefacts in-situ prior to excavation. Photo by Matthew Carter, November 2016

Nationality: Japanese

Vessel type: Motorised, steel mothership

Date lost: 10 July 1937

Cause of loss: Foundered in a squall

Number of Casualties: 2

Discovery date: N/A

Location/water depth: 26 metres

The Sanyo Maru is the wreck of a Japanese pearling mother-ship that sank in a squall off the Arnhem Land coast in 1937. Its role was to support the hundreds of men aboard a fleet of pearling luggers. These Japanese fleets were described by one visitor as ‘floating foreign townships’.

The Sanyo Maru as an archaeological site is unique within Australia. It is singular in its historic representation of a Japanese mother-ship from this period. It is unique in its ability to demonstrate, through the physical remains, aspects of design, operation and technology associated with this class of vessel and this industry, and demonstrate aspects of the lives of its crew and the lives of the lugger crews it supported.


An archaeological excavation, conducted in November 2016, in difficult dive conditions, recovered a rich assemblage of material associated with both ship operations and the daily lives of crew.

Modern pearling boat used to explore pearling history

The dive vessel used to support the 2016 expedition to the Sanyo Maru, a historic pearling mothership, was itself a pearling mothership (Paspaley’s Nalena Bay).

Photograph of the Asahi Maru (similar mothership anchored at same designated Japanese anchorage)

(Argus Supplement 6/8/1938 Supplement)

Item SM05 (John Carpenter) 

sketch of the wreck based on 2012 fieldwork

(James Parkinson) 

Archaeologist excavating (Stirling Smith) 


Objects of interest (artefacts, images or other collection items) associated with the shipwreck story.

77 artefacts excavated from the shipwreck in 2016 are currently being conserved at the WAM. The artefacts will initially go the ANMM for a period of time, in order to meet some key public education initiatives, but then the collection will be accessioned into the MAGNT permanent collection.  These include examples of ceramic dinnerware, lacquerware, stoneware jars, a medical kit and items associated with ship and dive operations including a ship’s lantern and dive gear.

AMMC Member Institution

Heritage Branch, Dept. of Tourism and Culture, NT Government

submitted by David Steinberg

Like this story? Vote now

Views: 515

Comments are closed for this blog post

© 2021   Created by Peter Rout.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service