Victoria’s Beautiful and Tragic Shipwreck Coast

Victoria’s shipwreck coast stretches 172 kilometres from Cape Otway to Port Fairy. Along this spectacular coastline, filled with the history of over 200 shipwrecks, you will find rugged cliffs, impressive limestone rock formations, sandy bays, and raging surf beaches.

teddys lookout lorne
The Great Ocean Road, from Teddys Lookout at Lorne

The ‘shipwreck coast’ lies within the world famous ‘Great Ocean Road’ snaking along cliffs past stunning surf beaches, Gibsons Steps, Twelve Apostles, London Bridge, Loch Ard Gorge, etc. The Great Ocean Road ultimately spans 400 km. It begins in Torquay and ends at Nelson on the South Australian border.

Shipwrecks

Bass Strait was the major shipping route for ships to Victoria. The early wooden sailing ships, and later the steam-powered metal ships, took the Great Circle Route around Cape Town before heading across the Southern Ocean towards Bass Strait. The most treacherous part of the voyage was the ‘eye of the needle’ at Cape Otway. Over 200 ships sunk between Cape Otway and Port Fairy

shipwreck coast
Sinking of the Cataraqui

Australia’s oldest surviving lighthouse, the Cape Otway lighthouse, was built in 1848 in response to the loss, in 1845 of the Cataraqui and 400 deaths off the coast of King Island. The Cataraqui was a 73m long barque that left Liverpool bound for Australia. Aboard were 411 people emigrating from the UK and Ireland.

sinking of catarqui
The sinking of the Cataraqui

At 4.30 am, in stormy weather, the ship hit a reef on the west coast of King Island, less than 100 metres from shore. By morning, the 200 surviving passengers and crew still clung to the deck, but the ship broke in two mid-afternoon, flinging survivors into the raging waters. Only nine made it to shore floating on debris. One passenger and eight crew. They sheltered on King Island for five weeks before a passing vessel, the Midge, rescued them and took them to Melbourne. The admiralty then banned ships using Bass Strait until the lighthouse was constructed.

Cape Otway

Known as the ‘Beacon of Hope’, Cape Otway is Australia’s most significant lighthouse. The beacon shines out over the Bass Strait shipping lanes. Constructed of sandstone, it was so well shaped that no cement was required to hold the tower together.

cape otway lightstation
The Lighthouse

The lighthouse was the first sight of land for thousands of 19th-century migrants who had spent months travelling to Australia. The 84km gap between Cape Otway and King Island is known as the ‘eye of the needle’. Ships would hug the victorian coast to avoid being driven, in bad weather, onto reefs around King Island. However, reefs also around Cape Otway led to many ships foundering.

The lighthouse was extraordinarily isolated and received supplies only every 12 months until 1859, at which time they increased to twice a year. The lighthouse lantern was manufactured in London and consisted of 21 polished reflectors and lamps mounted on a frame. Originally running on oil, later converted to electricity, the light has been decommissioned and replaced with solar power.

cape otway lighthouse lens
Cape Otway Lightstation
Wreck Beach

Within the Great Otway National Park lies Wreck Beach. Considered a challenging walk, it’s 350 steps down to the beach where the Marie Gabrielle and the Fiji anchors lie. Both ships foundered at Wreck beach, and it’s not hard to see why. But, unfortunately, it’s only accessible at low tide and subject to large swells.

wreck beach
Wreck Beach Courtesy of Visit Victoria
Gibsons Steps

Continuing westward along the great ocean road and 27 kms from Wreck Beach is Gibsons Steps. Named after Hugh Gibson, manager of Glenample Homestead. Gibson liked to fish and cut steps into the sandstone cliffs to get down to the beach. The 86 steps are steep, safe at low tide, and provide incredible views and the opportunity to walk along the beach beside Gog and Magog.

gog and mahgog, gibsons steps
Walking with giants
Twelve Apostles

Just one km further on is the world-famous twelve apostles. The seven towering limestone stacks rise 45-50 metres up from the ocean floor. The eighth stack collapsed in July 2005. The stacks were originally known as The Pinnacles and Sow and Piglets, with Muttonbird Island being the sow and the stacks, the piglets. So the name officially became the Twelve Apostles. However, there were never twelve stacks.

Before the collapse 2005 and after 2010
twelve apostles
Twelve Apostles 2018
Loch Ard Gorge
aerial view of coast

Continuing, we come to the Loch Ard Gorge. Site of the most famous shipwreck along the coast.

The Loch Ard departed England on March 2nd, 1878, bound for Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne. Captained by 29yr old Captain Gibbs, it was packed to capacity with 17 passengers, 37 crew, and a cargo hold full of expensive goods.

the loch ard
The Loch Ard
Sinking of the Loch Ard

On June 1st, 1878, the ship sailed into dense fog, and when it lifted at 4 am they discovered they were much closer to the cliffs than they thought. The captain ordered as much sail as possible and tried to turn the ship out to sea, but the sails fell limp. Anchors were dropped but failed to hold, and despite all efforts, the ship hit a reef on Mutton Bird Island and sank in fifteen minutes.

Tom Pearce
Tom Pearce
Eva Carmichael
Eva Carmichael

Efforts to launch lifeboats in heavy seas failed, and all crew and passengers drowned save for two. Tom Pearce, a nineteen-year-old ship’s apprentice, clung to an upturned lifeboat and made it into what is now known as the Loch Ard Gorge, where he found shelter in a cave. After five hours in the sea, Eva Carmichael, also nineteen, drifted into the gorge hanging onto a chicken coop to keep her afloat. Tom heard her cries for help and swam back out. Bringing her to safely to the beach.

a cave at loch ard gorge
A cave at Loch Ard gorge

They sheltered in thunder cave that night, and in the morning, Tom set off for help, climbing the cliffs of the gorge. He came across two men working the farm, and while he returned to Eva, the farmhands went back to the homestead to get help. Eva and Tom spent six weeks recovering with Hugh Gibson and his wife Lavinia at Glenample Homestead (the same Gibson from Gibson’s steps) before Eva returned to Ireland and Tom returned to the sea. In the tragedy, Eva lost her entire family, of mother, father, three sisters, and two brothers. Still, only the bodies of her younger brother and sister were recovered, and are buried in the cemetery overlooking the gorge.

loch ard gorge
Loch Ard Gorge
Tom and Eva Lookout

The survivors have named two limestone stacks near the Island Arch and are viewable from the Tom and Eva lookout.

tom and eva lookout
Tom and Eva Lookout 2018
lookout in 1920
Image by William S Anderson, circa 1910-1935 before erosion made this arch into Tom and Eva pillars.
The Arch

Fifteen minutes past the Loch Ard Gorge is the arch. The arch would be spectacular on any other coastline, but it’s underwhelming with the competition it gets from all the other rock formations. Experts believe that with continued erosion, the arch will collapse and create a new pillar. With the viewpoint from the lookout – every image looks the same. It’s nigh on impossible to get a different or unique image of it.

the arch
The Arch
London Bridge

Travelling another 15kms along the great ocean road, past Port Campbell, brings you to London Bridge. Before 1990 the bridge arch was connected to the mainland, and you could walk out onto it. In January 1990, it collapsed and stranded two tourists for three hours on the new island until they were rescued by helicopter.

london bridge
London Bridge
The Grotto

The grotto is a beautiful rock formation that is a must see as you travel the great ocean road. This incredible, unique rock formation combines a cave, sinkhole and archway all in one. Unfortunately, eons of crashing waves and winds have caused erosion, creating a caved a sink hole in the limestone cliffs.

the grotto steps
The grotto from the clifftop

The grotto is a short walk along a boardwalk to the clifftop. From there, you can see the grotto arch and the stairs leading down to it. Take the stairs to the bottom, and the magical grotto opens up with its smooth rock pools and a view through the arch to the open sea. Unfortunately, there is a low wall cutting access to the pools off for safety reasons. While the wall theoretically prevents access to the pools, no one heeds it, and if you do jump the wall, be mindful that it’s easy to slip on the rocks, and they are quite sharp. Also, if the waves are crashing – you could easily get swept off the rocks.

rockpools at grotto
The Grotto pools
Port Fairy

The ‘shipwreck coast’ ends at Port Fairy. Around 30 ships were wrecked in and around Port Fairy between 1836 and 1876. In addition, port Fairy is infamous for ships dragging or parting with their anchors when a southerly or southeasterly gale blows.

The Port Fairy lighthouse was built in 1859 at the tip of Griffiths Island to allow ships to locate the bay.

port fairy lighthouse
Port Fairy Lighthouse, courtesy of Vintage Victoria
the shipwreck coast
The Shipwreck Coast

More info: Explore The Great Ocean Road

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