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Isabella Watson

Wreck Dive Wreck Dive | Boat access Boat access

Inside Port Phillip Open Water Rated Wreck Dive Site

Three-Masted Wooden Ship | Max Depth: 4 m (13 ft)

Isabella Watson
Isabella Watson
© Unknown

The Isabella Watson, which lies on Nepean Reef, is historically significant as an example of an emigrant ship from the UK to Port Phillip. Its archaeological significance lies in the remainder of the ship's cargo that is associated with the wreck and has the potential to reveal information about mid C19th material culture. It is historically and socially significant for its association with the ongoing debate surrounding the Port Phillip Pilot Service, and for its association with 9 deaths.

Diving the Isabella Watson Shipwreck

Immediately to the west, about 40 metres from Nepean Reef and just north of Beacon Rock, is a sand hole among reef, in which lie the structural remains of a wooden ship. The solidly constructed keel/keelson and frames lie in one main section and one broken section, copper alloy fastenings, a large wooden winch, some lead pipe (possibly from the bilge pump), and glass fragments from bottles and window panes are visible if the site is not sanded over.

An anchor chain runs south from the site to an iron-stocked Admiralty-type anchor, which can be easily seen on the drying Nepean Reef, and which is consistent with the size of the Isabella Watson.

Isabella Watson Wreck Site Plan
Isabella Watson Wreck Site Plan | Source: Heritage Victoria

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.

Bass Strait Warning: Always keep an eye on sea conditions throughout any shore or boat dive in Bass Strait on Victoria's coastline. Please read the warnings on the web page diving-in-bass-strait before diving or snorkelling this site.

Isabella Watson Shipwreck History — Built in 1840

The Isabella Watson was a three-masted wooden ship rigged vessel of 514 l-ton (522 t), built in 1840, by Robert Menzies and Co, Leith, Scotland, on the dimensions of 118.4 ft (36 m) in length, a beam of 25.5 ft (7.77 m) and a depth of 18.4 ft (5.61 m). The vessel had undergone repair work in 1851, with its hull being yellow metalled. Classed A1 by Lloyds, the vessel was registered in Glasgow to owners Russell and Raeyburn.

The Isabella Watson was used as a convict ship, and later as an emigrant ship, bringing people to our shores in search of their fortunes on the newly discovered gold fields in Victoria. She had made a number of voyages to Melbourne since 1840 and is also known to have visited Hobart, Sydney, Singapore and Bombay.

Isabella Watson Sinking — Wrecked 21 March 1852

The Isabella Watson left London in late 1851, bound for Melbourne, with 41 passengers, and a crew of approximately 27, under the command of Captain John Fullerton. She also carried general cargo consisting of wine, brandy, spirits, beer, iron, vinegar, bottles, tin, and hardware.

After a fair voyage, the Isabella Watson arrived off Port Phillip Heads on 21 March 1852. Pilot Lawler was a little late in leaving Shortlands Bluff to meet the inward bound vessel and as the pilot was attempting to attract the captain's attention, the Isabella Watson was struck by a violent squall and wind change. With a strong ebb tide running an the squally conditions, the Isabella Watson was swept onto the then uncharted Corsair Rock, at around 5 p.m. on 21 March 1852. The starboard side was stove in, and the rudder and sternpost carried away, leaving the vessel unmanageable, forcing it ashore on the southern side of Nepean Reef.

With a heavy sea running the vessel's back was soon broken, with the total destruction of the hull imminent. This undoubtedly terrified all those on board, who implored the captain to let them leave in the ship's boats and against his better judgement, Captain Fullerton finally relented to the passenger's pleas, and ordered the boats to be launched. The captain's gig with two men and six women got away from the wreck and at first were thought lost in the heavy seas, but were later found to have safely made the beach nearby.

Another boat was launched into the water and eleven people had clambered into it, when the mizzen mast suddenly fell, hitting the boat and capsizing it. Six women and two men were drowned, with only three of the occupants of the second boat regaining the wreck.

During all of the drama, a whaleboat with pilots Toby, Tobin, Taylor and Caught left Shortlands Bluff for the wreck, in the hope of mounting a rescue. With heavy breakers washing over the reef, rescue from the boat to seawood was seen to be impossible, so the pilots landed just inside of Point Nepean, to attempt a rescue from the shore. Pilot Tobin then braved the heavy seas and swam to the wreck with a lifeline, that was then secured to the rocks. The 60 remaining passengers and crew were bought safely ashore from the wreck, Captain Fullerton being the last to leave the wreck.

After the survivors were landed on Point Nepean, the paddle steamer Aphrasia was sent to pick them up and take them up Port Phillip to Geelong.

See also, Heritage Council Victoria: Isabella Watson, and
Australian National Shipwreck Database: Isabella Watson.

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.


Isabella Watson Location Map

Latitude: 38° 18.002′ S   (38.300033° S / 38° 18′ 0.12″ S)
Longitude: 144° 38.785′ E   (144.646417° E / 144° 38′ 47.1″ E)

Datum: WGS84 | Google Map
Added: 2012-07-22 09:00:00 GMT, Last updated: 2022-05-18 11:07:04 GMT
Source: Book - Shipwrecks Around Port Phillip Heads GPS (verified)
Nearest Neighbour: Nepean Reef, 128 m, bearing 277°, W
Three-Masted Wooden Ship, 514 ton.
Built: 1840.
Sunk: 21 September 1852.
Nepean Reef, Port Phillip Heads.
Depth: 4 m.

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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