Stewards of a century-old wreck in the clear, blue waters south of Perth are scrambling to protect her after an explosion in popularity with divers, swimmers and Instagrammers.
- The iron ship Omeo ran aground south of Perth in 1905
- The area was long known only to locals before the nearby foreshore was redeveloped
- Visitor numbers have skyrocketed in the past two years, raising concerns over the protection of the historic wreck
The wreck of Omeo, which ran aground in 1905, lies just 25 meters from the shore of shallow Coogee Beach in the town of Cockburn.
Its accessibility and abundance of marine life make it a popular choice with scuba divers, and Instagrammers are drawn to its turquoise blue water for idyllic summer snaps.
“When it’s crowded, you should see it, there’s bustle,” said Edward Bruce, who regularly visits the beach.
“There are just people everywhere, there are flippers everywhere.”
An iron steamer first built in 1858, the structure is federally protected under the Commonwealth Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018.
A not so hidden gem
Long known only to locals and hidden by an adjacent industrial area, the wreck has become increasingly accessible due to ongoing redevelopment of the foreshore beginning in 2006. A new park area was completed in 2019 and a Omeo wreck dive trail opened in 2017.
Social media, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on travel and outdoor recreation, are thought to be factors in its surge in popularity over the past two years.
But continued reports of people standing and jumping from the wreckage structure have angered some long-time bathers and raised concerns about damage to the structure and the marine life that inhabit it. .
Although locals and authorities agree that most bathers behave with respect, those who don’t do damage to it.
The Town of Cockburn has twice called on the public to stop damaging the structural integrity of the wreck and disturbing marine life by touching it.
Lucy Johnston lives near the beach and said she sees people playing on the structure and climbing the back pole that protrudes above the water so they can jump off.
Ms Johnston said people generally don’t listen or react with “disdain” if she asks them not to play on the wreckage.
A bather who did not want to be named told the ABC on Wednesday that she had stopped asking people to get off the wreckage for her own safety, after a man reported being attacked last week.
The man wrote on social media about the alleged attack, in which he said several people held him underwater after he asked them to get off the wreckage, but he said declined to be interviewed.
Ms Johnston thinks the presence of officials to ask people to get off the wreckage and explain why it matters would help deter those who abuse it.
“If they want their grandchildren to be able to snorkel, you have to protect the wreck,” Ms Johnston said.
The Town of Cockburn recently erected a sign asking people not to stand on the structure.
Although the wreck is under the management of the Western Australian Museum, the city is involved in managing the public use of the site.
Throughout this week, city staff have been on the beach seeking input on how best to address the issue.
They posted a series of poster drafts and wrote suggestions on large sheets of white paper of divers holding their flippers and towels.
City environmental education officer Vicky Hartill said she thinks many people who stand or lean on the wreckage do so to feel safe or to rest from swimming. .
“The busier a place is, the more likely it is to happen, because it’s just about the number of visitors,” she said.
She thinks public education can help solve the problem in most cases.
Expected lack of respect
“[The problem is] more people at the very end of the spectrum who might not care about nature or infrastructure,” Ms. Hartill said.
“And we have to accept that to some extent within our society, so we have to watch and be smart.”
Ms. Hartill said the city wanted to strike a balance and avoid overloading the beach with signs.
The town of Cockburn, she said, is considering providing pontoons as an alternative place to rest or jump near the wreckage.
Matt Smith is the administrator of a diving social media page with over 44,000 members.
He said the wreck’s accessibility has many benefits, as he believes it encourages more people to try snorkeling and experience nature.
Mr Smith supports conservation efforts for the wreck but feels some damage is unavoidable due to its location.
“It’s a wreck that we need to allow people to use and explore, because I always hope it will inspire the next underwater journey,” he said.
“While we can talk about conservation needs, the reality is that it’s where it is in relation to the shore, it’s always going to be hammered by people.”
The WA Museum’s acting director of maritime archaeology, Dr Ross Anderson, said he was glad more people were snorkeling the wreck.
“But with the privilege of being able to access the Omeo so close to shore comes the responsibility of ensuring that we treat the natural and cultural environment with respect, especially as more and more people come to enjoy this unique attraction,” said Dr. Anderson.