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Empress of the Sea

Wreck Dive Wreck Dive | Boat access Boat access

Inside Port Phillip Open Water Rated Wreck Dive Site

Three-Masted, Square Rigged, Wooden Clipper Ship | Max Depth: 7 m (23 ft)

Empress of the Sea Painting
Empress of the Sea Painting
Artist: John Tudgay

Level: Open Water and beyond.

Empress of the Sea was a magnificent three-masted, square-rigged, wooden clipper ship built by prominent American ship builder Donald McKay in 1853. McKay was a leader in North American clipper design and intended to keep Empress of the Sea for his own use. Initially, the vessel sailed between America and the rich trading ports of the world. In 1858 it was sold to flamboyant and powerful ship owner James Baines. It then became part of the Black Ball Line, a shipping company which brought immigrants and cargo from Britain to Australia.

The Empress of the Sea is historically and archaeologically significant as it was one of Donald McKay's famous wooden clipper ships, i.e. representative of a particular design or type. It was also associated with both the Black Ball and White Star Lines of Australian Packets, which carried thousands of immigrants from Britain to Australia.

Diving the Empress of the Sea Shipwreck

The remains of the 130+ year old wreck of the Empress of the Sea are very fragile. Despite the nature of the site with its large timbers, massive tanks, chains and anchors, the wreck can be easily damaged particularly by boats dropping anchor directly on the wreck and divers carelessly pulling at timber and relics.

The Empress of the Sea lies in 5 m (16 ft) to 7 m (23 ft) of water, 700 m (2,297 ft) offshore from Nepean Bay, Port Phillip. The site covers an area 150 m (492 ft) long and 50 m (164 ft) wide. The bow lies towards the south-west.

Two large mounds of bluestone ballast rock (rounded river rock) lie to the north and south of the site. Protruding from these mounds are paired hull frames, remains of outer hull planking and the protective copper sheathing of the ship's hull.

Near the middle of the site, divers can see three large rectangular iron tanks and the ship's keel. Approximately thirty-five metres forward of the tanks divers can see a large chain mound, another iron tank and an anchor marking the bow of the ship. There are also a few iron buckets at the bow.

An information plinth put on the site by the Maritime Archaeology Unit can be found on the starboard side of the wreck adjacent to the three water tanks.

Empress of the Sea Dive Site Map
Empress of the Sea Dive Site Map | © Victorian Archaeological Survey

As the wreck site is large and spread out, a good way of exploring the wreck is on a drift dive, however, care must be taken because of the site's proximity to The Heads.

See WillyWeather (Nepean Bay) as a guide for the tide times and the height of the tide.

The Rip & Tides Warning: Always keep an eye on sea conditions throughout any shore or boat dive within "The Rip" (aka "The Heads"). This is a dangerous stretch of water, where Bass Straight meets Port Phillip, which has claimed many ships and lives. Please read the warnings on the web page diving-the-rip before diving or snorkelling this site.

Shipwreck History — Built in 1853

Empress of the Sea Sailing Card
Empress of the Sea Sailing Card
Source: WikiMedia Commons

Empress of the Sea was a three-masted wooden clipper ship of 1,647 tons, built in 1853, by Donald McKay, at East Boston, Massachusetts, USA, of white oak and pitch pine sheathed in copper. The ship was very large and measured 240 ft (73 m) in length, 43 ft (13 m), 27 ft (8.23 m) and had a gross tonnage of 2,200 tons.

Empress of the Sea had three decks and its three wooden masts were all square rigged. A feature of Empress of the Sea was a female figurehead of a queen with a globe, in white and gold which formed a beautiful ornament on the bow.

The ship's saloon accommodation was luxurious. It was finished in mahogany, and decorated with comfortable sofas and gold-edged mirrors.

Despite its vast size, Empress of the Sea was said to look as beautiful and graceful as a yacht. It was certainly one of the best fitted merchant ships in the world with strong spars, perfect style of rigs and sails finished without regard to cost.

Her maiden voyage was made from New York to San Fransisco in 121 days. In 1856, she was 115 days to the same place from New York. In 1857, same trip, only in 124 days.

Empress of the Sea Sinking — 19 December 1861

Empress of the Sea Burning
Empress of the Sea Burning
Source: State Library Victoria

In August 1861, Empress of the Sea berthed in Melbourne after an exceptionally fast voyage of 66 days from Liverpool. The vessel never again left Australian waters.

Some of the crew deserted the ship to seek their fortunes on the goldfields and new crew had to be found. The goldrush also lured farm labourers and city workers, creating a shortage in the labour market and a downturn in export trade. So, it was many months before Empress of the Sea had sufficient cargo and crew to return to England.

On 18 December 1861, under the command of Captain J (Bully) Bragg, Empress of the Sea finally left Hobsons Bay with 12 passengers and 45 crew, some of whom had little or no seafaring experience. The ship was also carrying a very valuable cargo — £80,000 of gold, 2,711 bales of wool, 100 casks of whale oil, whale bone, bags of leather and woollens, wheat, flour and 180 tons of copper ore.

Late that evening, the vessel arrived at Queenscliff where Captain Bragg and his first officer went ashore to find more crew. While they were away, at 4 am on 19 December 1861, a fire broke out in the forward hold and quickly spread through the Empress of the Sea.

A Port Phillip Pilot, Mr Kennedy, who was on board Empress of the Sea, and another passenger, took command and ordered the crew to run the ship's pumps to send water down to the hold. Unfortunately the pump handles could not be found and the crew had to resort to passing buckets of water by hand.

The fire was soon out of control. The Pilot decided to beach the ship at Point Nepean in order to save the cargo and hull. He steered the vessel toward the shore where it grounded in shallow water. Lifeboats were lowered and the passengers, crew and gold were off-loaded. The passengers and most of the crew rowed towards Queenscliff. Another boat with five crew and the gold could be seen disappearing towards The Heads. A Pilot boat managed to apprehend the crew and their "loot" and direct them towards Queenscliff.

The ship rolled over onto starboard side by the force of the tide and the shifting ballast. The port side was burnt to the copper.

A Court of Inquiry held shortly after the wrecking, found that the fire was a deliberate act of arson. Goldman, the German quarter master, was the chief suspect. He had previously been convicted for murder but his sentence was reprieved on the gallow's scaffold. In spite of the suspicions circulating in the press, there was insufficient evidence to convict him.

See also, The New Clipper Ship Empress of the Sea, of Baltimore,
Heritage Council Victoria: Empress of the Sea</a>,
Australian National Shipwreck Database: Empress of the Sea, and
Dive Information Sheet: Empress of the Sea (1853-1861).

This vessel is one of the many historic shipwrecks included in Victoria's shipwreck-discovery-trail. Qualified divers can explore the wrecks of old wooden clippers, iron steamships and cargo and passenger vessels located along the coast and in Port Phillip. Some of these wreck dives are suitable for beginners, even snorkellers, while other wrecks require the skills and experience of advanced divers.

Heritage Warning: Any shipwreck or shipwreck relic that is 75 years or older is protected by legislation. Other items of maritime heritage 75 years or older are also protected by legislation. Activities such as digging for bottles, coins or other artefacts that involve the disturbance of archaeological sites may be in breach of the legislation, and penalties may apply. The legislation requires the mandatory reporting to Heritage Victoria as soon as practicable of any archaeological site that is identified. See Maritime heritage. Anyone with information about looting or stolen artefacts should call Heritage Victoria on (03) 7022 6390, or send an email to

Boon Wurrung / Bunurong country
Boon Wurrung / Bunurong country

Traditional Owners — This dive site is in the traditional Country of the Boon Wurrung / Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation. This truly ancient Country includes parts of Port Phillip, from the Werribee River in the north-west, down to Wilson's Promontory in the south-east, including the Mornington Peninsula, French Island and Phillip Island, plus Western Port. We wish to acknowledge the Boon Wurrung as Traditional Owners. We pay respect to their Ancestors and their Elders, past, present and emerging. We acknowledge Bunjil the Creator Spirit of this beautiful land, who travels as an eagle, and Waarn, who protects the waterways and travels as a crow, and thank them for continuing to watch over this Country today and beyond.


Empress of the Sea Location Map

Latitude: 38° 18.050′ S   (38.300833° S / 38° 18′ 3″ S)
Longitude: 144° 39.613′ E   (144.660217° E / 144° 39′ 36.78″ E)

Datum: WGS84 | Google Map
Added: 2012-07-22 09:00:00 GMT, Last updated: 2022-05-06 13:16:30 GMT
Source: Book - Shipwrecks Around Port Phillip Heads GPS (verified)
Nearest Neighbour: Nepean Bay Inner East - Radar, 395 m, bearing 196°, SSW
Three-Masted, Square Rigged, Wooden Clipper Ship, 2,200 ton.
Built: Boston, Massachusetts, 1853.
Sunk: 19 December 1861.
Nepean Bay, Port Phillip.
Depth: 5 to 7 m.
Dive only on: SWF, SWE, Flood.

DISCLAIMER: No claim is made by The Scuba Doctor as to the accuracy of the dive site coordinates listed here. Should anyone decide to use these GPS marks to locate and dive on a site, they do so entirely at their own risk. Always verify against other sources.

The marks come from numerous sources including commercial operators, independent dive clubs, reference works, and active divers. Some are known to be accurate, while others may not be. Some GPS marks may even have come from maps using the AGD66 datum, and thus may need be converted to the WGS84 datum. To distinguish between the possible accuracy of the dive site marks, we've tried to give each mark a source of GPS, Google Earth, or unknown.


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