Maddy McAllister: The Shipwreck Detective

BY MICHAELA FARNHAM

Shipwrecks are puzzles waiting to be solved. They are full of history, and of course, a whole bunch of marine life! This week we spoke with Maddy McAllister, an Australian underwater archaeologist, hearing a bit about her job as a shipwreck detective.  

Post-dive Maddy off the coast of Melbourne after discovering a new wreck site. Photo Maddy McAllister ( @shipwreckmermaid )

Post-dive Maddy off the coast of Melbourne after discovering a new wreck site. Photo Maddy McAllister (@shipwreckmermaid)

Hey Maddy! Tell us a bit about yourself.

Hey!
I’m an Aussie underwater archaeologist. I grew up in Western Australia in a little coastal town called Busselton, but I’m now working as a maritime archaeologist for the Victorian State Government (based in Melbourne). I’ve got a Bachelor of Archaeology and a Masters of Maritime Archaeology. I also just completed my PhD in underwater photogrammetric 3D modelling of shipwreck sites.
I’m a recreational and commercial SCUBA diver and I’ve recently found an obsession with freediving. I’m a keen beach volleyballer and I also have an adopted dog – Albie the staffy x husky who comes on most of my beach adventures.

You’ve built your life around the ocean. What drew you to it in the first place?

For as long as I can remember I’ve been drawn to the ocean. I’m not sure why, although I’m sure the other ocean lovers will agree with me when I say that maybe it’s in my blood?
I grew up near the ocean and it’s always been my favourite place to be. I could often be found exploring, swimming and dreaming down at the beach. My absolute favourite thing to do is just snorkel and swim through the water – best feeling in the world!

 

Maddy diving on the  Correio da Azia  shipwreck site off Ningaloo. One of her most intense dives she has done. Inspecting the site (only in 2m of water on a breaking reef about 1km offshore! Photo WA Museum ( @wamuseum )

Maddy diving on the Correio da Azia shipwreck site off Ningaloo. One of her most intense dives she has done. Inspecting the site (only in 2m of water on a breaking reef about 1km offshore! Photo WA Museum (@wamuseum)

You initially wanted to become a marine biologist, what made you decide to study underwater archaeology instead?

Growing up my mornings, weekends and holidays were often spent down the beach, swimming, snorkelling and exploring the coast and the ocean. So I naturally thought marine biology was the way to go. From a very young age I would go fishing at dawn with my Grandad or head out to sea in his boat. My Grandad told me many stories about shipwrecks, tales of seafarers and ocean explorers (most I now know weren’t true at all!) and I grew up loving the idea of nautical tales and shipwrecks.


It wasn’t until I was 15 that I learnt I could combine my two loves and become a maritime archaeologist. In 2005, as a freshly certified diver, I dragged my Dad along to a weekend course in maritime archaeology at the WA Museum and I’ve been hooked ever since!


What does a day in the life of an underwater archaeologist look like?

There is a misconception that we spend all day every day out on the water diving on shipwrecks. But, as with any good science, for every day we get in the field there are at least another 7 spent in the office or lab cataloguing artefacts, analysing data and putting the pieces back together to understand a site. Shipwreck sites are complex arrays of artefacts that need to be carefully mapped and recorded to know all that we can about them. So, while I love getting out and diving (and I wish I could do it everyday), I also love the ‘detective’ work that we have to do. Identifying a shipwreck site is one of the best feelings after so much hard work recording it and researching all you can.

Lastly, I would say a huge amount of what we do involves telling these stories to the pubic –one of my favourite parts!

Maddy and the team working on the Rapid shipwreck (1811) off Ningaloo reef. They were covering the site with a shadecloth to protect remaining timbers. Photo WA Museum ( @wamuseum )

Maddy and the team working on the Rapid shipwreck (1811) off Ningaloo reef. They were covering the site with a shadecloth to protect remaining timbers. Photo WA Museum (@wamuseum)

How do you hope your voice and work will influence others?

I was lucky enough to have some incredible role models and mentors throughout my childhood and education. I would love to inspire, guide and challenge the next generation to do what they absolutely adore.


In terms of maritime archaeology, I think there are so many misconceptions about what we do and real research – as opposed to treasure hunting and salvage of sites for profit. So, I hope that I can be a voice to show the public how rare, incredible and irreplaceable shipwrecks are. These sites represent a window to the past that can reveal incredible details lost in time.


Above all, I would particularly love to inspire girls to chase their dreams. I was often told maritime archaeology had no jobs and wouldn’t earn me a lot of money but, I followed my dreams and ended up in the perfect role.

Maddy performing a post dive assessment and quick cataloguing of the finds before heading back to base camp. Photo WA Museum ( @wamuseum )

Maddy performing a post dive assessment and quick cataloguing of the finds before heading back to base camp. Photo WA Museum (@wamuseum)

What is the coolest thing you have discovered underwater?

Ahh this is such a tricky question! Some of the best things that I have seen are not what most people would find cool. There is something about coming across a shipwreck and seeing the timbers of the hull – which have been buried for hundreds of years – and they look like they were cut down yesterday. Water can preserve artefacts extremely well in the right conditions.


I have worked to recover some silver coins from a shipwreck. They had become ‘unstuck’ from the reef and would have been lost over coming months if we had not raised them. Some of the best shipwreck discoveries were excavated long before I was even born. Leather shoes were excavated from a Dutch shipwreck (Batavia) that sunk off Western Australia in 1629 – they still have the imprints of their owners feet preserved in the worn shoe soles!

Shipwrecks are full of history, but also of marine life! How important are shipwrecks as marine ecosystems, and what types of organisms do you normally find living there?

Absolutely!

Shipwrecks form artificial reefs and eventually become crucial aspects of the marine environment. My number one favourite critter to find on a site is an octopus! They love the hidden crevices and holes throughout shipwreck sites. However, we are often joined by very inquisitive wrasse (maori wrasse) that hang around your head when we excavate – they keep an eye out to see if we disturb anything they would like for dinner!


On a particular trip exploring the  Correio  shipwreck, Maddy and her team were filmed for a documentary about it. Photo WA Museum ( @wamuseum )

On a particular trip exploring the Correio shipwreck, Maddy and her team were filmed for a documentary about it. Photo WA Museum (@wamuseum)

What is one thing you wish someone had told you a long time ago?

Don’t get disheartened if you fail at first! Most of us do! If you really love something push through and keep working for it - your passion will shine through.

What are some tips you would give to someone wanting to become an underwater archaeologist like you?

Volunteer for everything! Get as much experience in the field working with maritime archaeologists that you can. At the same time, volunteer for the boring stuff; sorting, cataloguing and auditing collections are a brilliant way to get hands on knowledge.

If you can, go to maritime archaeology conferences. They are held in most countries (and big international ones travel to a different city each year). Maritime archaeologists are a small bunch and we love to get together to show our peers our new research and discoveries – don’t be afraid to go up and talk to people whose work inspires you.

Follow Maddy - @shipwreckmermaid