M24 1901

Credit: Liam Allen

What is Maritime Heritage?

What is Maritime Heritage?

Maritime Heritage relates to the history of human involvement with the ocean, coast and inland waterways.  Our waterways have had a significant impact on the development of NSW and the shaping of our national identity.  They have supported exploration, trade, industry (including transport, food production and tourism), immigration and leisure activities and inspired great works of art and literature.

The maritime-related places, practices and trades that make up our maritime heritage not only serve as a reminder of the past but continue to contribute to the character and economy of NSW today.  Many items of maritime heritage are protected by Commonwealth, State and Local legislation and planning systems.  

Maritime Archaeology

Maritime archaeology is a sub-discipline of the archaeology field. Maritime archaeology is the study of past human cultures and interactions with oceans and waterways and many of our maritime heritage places have archaeological components. Types of maritime archaeological sites include:

  • Shipwrecks, and their associated relics
  • Maritime and riverine infrastructure and relics
  • Underwater aircraft crash sites and associated relics
  • Submerged Aboriginal sites.

Historic Shipwrecks are protected by Law

In NSW, our maritime heritage can be protected by both State and Commonwealth legislation. The NSW Heritage Act 1977 protects historic shipwrecks in State waters, and the Commonwealth Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (UCHA) protects historic shipwrecks in Commonwealth waters.

Heritage Act 1977

Shipwrecks located inland (within rivers, harbours, lakes, enclosed bays and dune areas), which are more than 75 years of age or of recognised local or State significance are protected under the Relics Provisions of the NSW Heritage Act 1977 (State).  They cannot be disturbed in any way without prior approval of the Heritage Council of New South Wales.

Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 

Those wrecks situated in open waters, below the low water mark along the coast and over 75 years are protected from interference or damage by Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018. The Approval to disturb any sites located adjacent to the coast of NSW must be approved in writing by the Executive Director, Heritage NSW, Delegate for administration of the Act in NSW.  Any disturbance must follow approved archaeological assessment processes.

On 24 August 2018 the Australian Parliament passed the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (Underwater Heritage Act). The Act will come into effect on 1 July 2019, replacing the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 (Historic Shipwrecks Act).

This new Underwater Heritage Act will continue the protection of Australia’s shipwrecks, and broaden protection to sunken aircraft and other types of underwater cultural heritage.

The new legislation continues much of the successful policy framework established under the Historic Shipwrecks Act and implements the recommendations from the public Review of the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and consideration of the requirements arising from the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (the UNESCO 2001 Convention).

The Act gives clarity to the present and ongoing jurisdictional arrangements for protecting and managing Australia’s underwater cultural heritage in line with the 2010 Australian Underwater Cultural Heritage Intergovernmental Agreement.