Topics > Heritage > Maritime heritage

Managing maritime heritage

South Australia has a rich maritime history with more than 800 shipwrecks recorded along the coast and inland waters. Shipwrecks provide important insights into the state's maritime history and are havens for marine life. The remains of these vessels are also important education, recreation and tourism assets.


SA's shipwrecks are a non-renewable heritage resource. This means that once a wreck is damaged or disturbed, it cannot be repaired, and the historic and physical values are lost. Therefore the protection of these historic wreck sites is critical for the preservation of the state's maritime heritage and surrounding marine environments.

DEW is responsible for the identification, management, protection and promotion of SA's maritime heritage and encourages the responsible enjoyment of shipwreck sites throughout the state. A number of interpretive trails and publications have been produced to promote these valuable assets.


Objects associated with an historic shipwreck are declared as historic relics and enjoy the same protection as historic shipwrecks. These items remain protected regardless of whether they have been removed from the water or are still in their original location.

Whether you are a government institution, a museum, a private business or a private individual, if you possess an historic relic and/or wish to transfer the relic to someone else you must notify DEW.


Any shipwreck or associated object (such as a relic/artefact) that is 75 years old or older, or has been declared as an historic shipwreck by the Minister, is protected by either the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1981 (SA waters) or the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (Commonwealth waters).

In Commonwealth waters, this protection also extends to aircraft and any other declared underwater cultural heritage.

In special cases, the Minister is also able to list significant shipwrecks that are younger than 75 years old. Nominations can be made to Heritage South Australia and will be assessed based on the relative significance of the shipwreck.

Permits and notifications

All underwater cultural heritage, including historic shipwrecks and relics, are protected and it is unlawful to destroy, damage, interfere with, dispose of, or remove a historic shipwreck or a historic relic.

A permit may be required to conduct certain activities on or around historic shipwrecks. If you are visiting an historic shipwreck or other protected underwater cultural heritage and are unsure of your obligations, please contact Heritage South Australia to find out if a permit is required.

Research and publications

Several regional surveys have been conducted by DEW to identify underwater and land-based maritime heritage sites, often using information from the community.

These regional surveys have identified shipwrecks in both Commonwealth and State waters, and were conducted by DEW's maritime archaeologists, usually with the assistance of volunteers, students or other professional maritime archaeologists.

A number of these surveys have been published by DEW, including:

  • Shipwreck sites in the South-East of South Australia, 1838-1915 (1990)
  • Historic shipping on the River Murray (1993)
  • Shipwreck sites of Kangaroo Island (1993)
  • Shipwrecks of Investigator Strait and the Lower Yorke Peninsula (1997)
  • Shipwrecks of Encounter Bay and Backstairs Passage (1997)

Many of these regional surveys formed the basis for the development of nine shipwreck trails.

More specific research has also been conducted and published on:

  • The Water Witch wreck site: a report on the identification, survey and partial recovery of the wreck site
  • Muddy Waters: proceedings of the first conference on the submerged and terrestrial archaeology of historic shipping on the River Murray

Conservation works

During shipwreck inspections and assessment, shipwreck sites are considered in terms of what conservation work may be required to assist in their longevity and utilisation. This includes the identification and implementation of particular conservation treatments and, in certain cases, the recognition and production of conservation and management plans.

Stabilisation work is carried out on shipwreck sites to help conserve them. For example, at Victor Harbor the Solway, the wooden immigrant ship which brought some of the first German settlers to SA in 1837, has been totally covered with hundreds of sand bags, reducing the deteriorating effect of sand scouring and the damage done by Teredo worms.