A graphic depiction of the horrors of shipwreck: the convict ship Waterloo off the Cape of Good Hope, 1842 (ALMFA, SLT)

Shipwrecks have been an unfortunate aspect of Tasmanian history since before European settlement. Indeed, the recognition of Van Diemen's Land as an island only came about following the wreck of the ship Sydney Cove in Bass Strait in 1797. Since then some 1000 vessels ranging in size from yachts and fishing boats up to two bulk carriers have been lost in our waters, and nearly as many lives lost.

With Tasmania lying in the path of shipping from Europe to eastern Australian ports, most large-scale disasters during the age of sail resulted from navigational errors. The worst all occurred on King Island: the emigrant ship Cataraqui in 1845 with the loss of 400 lives, the convict ship Neva in 1835 with 225, and the clipper British Admiral in 1874 with 79. Other notable wrecks through making landfall unexpectedly have occurred on Tasmania's notorious west coast. Once making landfall, hazards such as uncharted reefs have added to losses, such as among the many dangerous reefs awaiting unwary navigators in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel south of Hobart, and in northern Tasmania a series of reefs at Tamar Heads of which the Hebe Reef is the most notorious.

Before electronic communications, it was not uncommon for the survivors of wrecks to be stranded as castaways for many weeks, and occasionally even months, before rescue. The most remarkable of these episodes have been on the Bass Strait islands. After the Sydney Cove was beached at Preservation Island in 1797, nineteen survivors headed for Sydney in the longboat, only to be wrecked again on the Victorian coast. Only two of the original party survived this first overland journey by Europeans on the Australian continent, and gained assistance for those left at the wreck. Little less remarkable, however, were the five months spent on King Island by the hapless survivors of the barque Brahmin in 1854; or the three months' wanderings by the sole survivor of the barque Brier Holme, after being wrecked near Port Davey in 1904. As late as 1973, the crew of the freighter Blythe Star drifted for a week in a liferaft without being sighted by searchers.

Most losses around the Tasmanian coast have been smaller vessels that have been blown ashore while sheltering from heavy weather, or grounded attempting to negotiate the exposed entrances to ports around the coast. In more recent years most accidents, whether they be to small yachts or fishing vessels, or large interstate steamers and motor ships, can still generally be put down to navigational and control errors of one type or another. The most spectacular of these was the bulk carrier Lake Illawarra's collision with Hobart's Tasman Bridge in 1975, resulting in the loss of the ship and twelve lives, and uncounted expense and inconvenience to the unexpectedly divided city. Others have come as the result of stress of weather, especially in Bass Strait.

Interest in wrecks has increased in recent years due to the availability of underwater diving gear and the publication of several histories. Unauthorised looting of potentially priceless archaeological sites is prohibited by the Historic Shipwrecks Act.

Graeme Broxam