Wreck of the SS Bonnie Dundee


Resting in 35 metres of water approximately 4 kilometres east of Caves Beach lies the remains of the coastal steamer SS Bonnie Dundee. The Bonnie Dundee foundered quickly after a collision with the infamous steamer Barrabool near the entrance to Lake Macquarie on the 10th of March 1879. On that fateful March night four female passengers and a 16-year-old cabin boy would lose their lives while the male crew escaped the sinking steamer in the only undamaged lifeboat.


The SS Bonnie Dundee was owned by brothers Bruce Baird Nichols and George Wallace Nichols of Sydney. While the Nichols brothers were born in Sydney they moved to Dundee in Scotland at the age of six where they completed their education. The brothers returned to Sydney in 1864 and for a period of time worked in their fathers shipping office.

The brothers later formed their own business as shipping agents and in 1871 became ship owners starting the first rapid passenger and cargo service between Sydney and Ballina in Northern New South Wales.

Up until 1877 the brothers generally used second hand and locally built timber vessels for their operation. In 1876 the Gourlay Brothers shipyard in Dundee, Scotland was commissioned to build a new iron hulled ship which would be be a prototype for future Nichols brothers vessels.

Construction and Launch

The keel of the new vessel was layed down in late 1876 and designated yard number 80 by her builders. The hull measured 130 feet in length, 10 feet 6 inches deep and 19 feet wide. The ship featured a compound steam engine which turned a screw propeller.

On the afternoon of the 2nd of March 1877 the new ship was named the Bonnie Dundee by Miss Jane Nichol of Dalhousie Terrance, Dundee, a cousin of the Nicholl brothers, and launched onto the river Tay.

Sideview of SS Bonnie Dundee from original shipbuilders plans

Sideview of Bonnie Dundee from original builders plans – Courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum.


On the 28th of March 1877 the Bonnie Dundee departed Scotland on her maiden voyage to Sydney under the command of  John Greig of Aberdeen. The Bonnie Dundee travelled via the Suez Canal making stops in Sri Lanka, Brisbane and the Clarence river before arriving in Sydney on the 18th of July 1877.

Inward passenger list from the maiden voyage of the SS Bonnie Dundee.

Inward passenger list from the maiden voyage of the Bonnie Dundee.

Upon arrival in Sydney the Bonnie Dundee was immediately pressed into service carrying general freight and passengers between Sydney and the North Coast of NSW.

The ship settled into her new role with little trouble until the 17th of May 1878. When towing another ship, the Rob Roy, out of the Clarence River. The towline broke and the Rob Roy ran aground becoming a total loss.

The Collision

After being in service for little over eighteen months the ship departed Sydney on the afternoon of March 10 1879 bound for the Manning river under the command of Captain Alexander Stewart. On what would tragically turn out to be her last voyage.

SS Barrabool

SS Barrabool – Courtesy of Australian National Maritime Muesum

Having earlier left the Port of Newcastle the 948-ton steamer Barrabool was heading south on a journey to Melbourne. At 7.35pm the crew of the Barrabool sighted the Bonnie Dundee’s lights at an estimated distance of 5 kilometres to the South. As the two ships drew closer it became clear to the Barrabools crew that the Starboard navigation light of the Bonnie Dundee was showing. Indicating that the Barrabool was to the starboard of the Bonnie Dundee.

The two ships approached each other on a course where they would pass starboard to starboard. At close range the Bonnie Dundee’s port hand light flickered into view, the two ships were now on a collision course. The Barrabools captain ordered the engines to full reverse and the rudder hard to port but it was too late. The Barrabool collided with the Bonnie Dundee roughly amidships on the starboard side, leaving a crater a metre deep. As the two ships lay momentarily locked together, some of the crew of the Bonnie Dundee believing that their ship was mortally wounded, jumped onto the bow of the Barrabool. Whilst attempting this jump sixteen-year-old cabin boy George Pardell fell back onto the deck of his ship. He was knocked unconscious and drowned.

Scene of collision between SS Bonnie Dundee and SS Barabool.The two ships with engines reversing, quickly separated. The captain of the Bonnie Dundee in a vein hope of saving his ship ordered the engines full ahead in an attempt to beach the vessel. After giving this order the ship suddenly listed heavily to port, so he stopped the engines and ordered the crew to abandon ship.In an instant the remaining crew piled into the one remaining life boat, the second having been crushed in the collision. They only just had time to release the launching gear before the Bonnie Dundee slipped beneath the waves. Left on the bridge was the captain and the four women passengers. A young child was hurled into the lifeboat by the stewardess Mrs White, moments before the ship sank.

After the sinking Captain Stewart was dragged into the dangerously overloaded lifeboat. There were no signs of the women. A lifeboat that had been launched from the Barrabool collected some of the crew from the Bonnie’s lifeboat. At this stage no one thought to mention the missing women and the boats returned to the Barrabool to unload the passengers. Upon realising the women were missing a search party was sent out to look for them and soon found the body of Sarah Brown. The crew of the Barrabool attempted to revive her for an hour but all efforts failed. After searching the debris for more than an hour and a half, no more bodies were found and the search was called off.


In total five lives were lost in the disaster. Three days later the body of one of the women washed up at Catherine Hill Bay and the remains of the cabin boy George Pardell, were discovered some weeks later inside a large shark, which had been caught off the Barrenjoey headland.

Damaged Barrabool following collision with the SS Bonnie Dundee - pitcture courtesy of University of Newcastle

Damaged Barrabool following collision with the Bonnie Dundee – pitcture courtesy of University of Newcastle



A Marine Board of Inquiry was held into the disaster. Thomas Crawford the First Mate on the Bonnie Dundee and in command at the time of the accident, was found to be entirely at fault. His ticket was suspended for six months from the date of the accident. The board exonerated Captain Alexander Stewart of responsibility.

Diving the wreck of the SS Bonnie Dundee

Today the remains of the Bonnie Dundee lay 3.2 kilometres east of Moon Island on a sandy bottom in 35 metres of water. She sits in two pieces facing north-northeast and resting on an even keel. The two sections are separated by a 20-metre expanse of sand.After heading out over the Swansea bar and clearingMoon Island, head for GPS location 33 06.327, 151 42.252 WGS84. These marks will put you over the stern section of the wreck.Due to its small size and the occasional strong currents experienced in the area anchoring can sometimes be quite difficult, if not impossible when trying to pick in with a reef anchor.

The stern is the most significant part of the wreck, stretching from the rudderpost to just in front of the main boiler; it consists of the floor plates, beams and bulkheads. The side plates and superstructure are long gone, leaving the boiler and engine exposed. Components of the steering gear lay broken on the floor behind the engine, and the rudder post amazingly still stands as it did in 1879, after nearly 130 years on the bottom. The rudder itself has long since disappeared and the propeller is covered with sand, but a small amount of digging will reveal its blades.

Forward of the main boiler lies a small auxiliary boiler that appears to have fallen from the upper decks as they have disintegrated over the years.Moving forward of the main boiler, the ship disappears into the sand, only a few ribs and hull plates sticking out of the sand mark where her sides once stood.

Anchor at bow of SS Bonnie Dundee wreckAbout 20 metres further forward is the remnants of the bow section; a large structure that once formed part of the bow protrudes quite prominently from the sand.  Occasionally when the sand has been washed out you can see where the hull plates form the point of the bow. An anchor also remains in this area.

The wreck of the Bonnie Dundee now plays host to a massive array of sea life. Quite often when you descend onto the wreck all that is visible is a writhing mass of bullseyes, yellow tail, and mado. It is regularly necessary to perform ‘shark runs’ into the masses of fish to clear the way to photograph the wreck. Large wobbegong and Port Jackson sharks commonly rest on and around the wreckage, which also provides many hidey-holes for the resident Moray eels. Other regulars sighted are squid, giant Australian cuttlefish, leather jackets, red morwong, trevally, silver drummer, sea pile and kingfish.

In December 2005 I was actually attacked by a group of four king fish whilst videoing near the propeller cavity. I was filming a group of mado and stripey when all of a sudden they scampered. At the very instant the thought of ‘what the hell’ popped into my head, something crashed into the back of my head hard. I turned around with the camera still rolling, and saw four king fish beating a hasty retreat into the blue. See the video below.

This wreck is often blessed with exceptional visibility, on many occasions we have had vis in excess of 20 metres, The day that the above photos were taken you could see the ripples on the surface from 35 metres.

This wreck is one of my favourite dives in the area, it’s a short boat trip from Swansea, it’s at a nice depth, it is small enough to cover in the one dive, and has some great sea life on it. All in all a top dive site. Due to the depth and currents sometimes present here, this is not a dive I would recommend for beginners.