Bathymetric Survey

MV Cape Pillar 9 April - 12 May 1987


by Vicki McRae, 1987


Boarding in Darwin we headed west to Joseph Bonaparte Gulf. We then travelled back across the top of Australia and down through the Great Barrier Reef and out to Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs 340kms off the Australian coast just north of Lord Howe Island and finished at Newcastle. A total of 5 weeks. Please refer to map below.


Map showing 1987 route of MV Cape Pillar from Darwin to sounding area in the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf then to Brisbane, the Reefs and finally Newcastle.


I had never been to sea before and on 9 April 1987 aboard the Department of Transport MV Cape Pillar with 7 fellow Natmappers from the Canberra Office (Bill Jeffery, Peter Kaczerepa, Maris Legzde, Geoff Starkey, Peter Walkley, Charlie Watson and Steve Yates) and 32 ship’s crew (all male) we headed west from Darwin to the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf.


Our aim was to relate water depths and ship’s position so that a contoured map of the ocean floor could be produced. The position of the ship was fixed by satellites utilising the SAT NAV system enabling the navigator to sail along a desired track. At fixed times an Echogram was automatically marked giving depths of the ocean floor and latitude and longitude recorded so that post plotting of manuscripts could be carried out. In order to reduce soundings to a common datum, mean sea level, tidal information was required from a Bottom Mounted Tide Recorder (BMTR); these values were then applied to the raw Echogram readings.


A 7 meter launch was equipped with a mini ranger/radar and echo sounder for inshore areas, shoal areas and shallow water, giving a bearing, distance and depth in relation to the fixed position of the ship.


A Gyrocompass was located either side of the bridge from which we obtained a compass bearing on the consort launch.


My first impression of the crew was that they were a rough bunch but as you got to know them and their personalities, they were fantastic. I couldn't have been more at ease and I was treated well and as an equal.


We worked a 4 hour watch twice a day around the clock and life on board was very comfortable. All meals were served in the ship's saloon and as much as I would ask for small helpings it was always twice the size of what you would eat at home. Most came home carrying a little extra weight.


The weather was generally overcast and we experienced a little rough weather as a result of Cyclone Kay, however, we did have about 5 days of sunshine.


While the ship was anchored and the smaller craft was recording in the shallower waters the crew had time to fish off the lower deck. Mackerel for dinner one night off the BBQ was the best fish I had ever tasted as was the Tuna that we ate raw in Japanese style.


After the completion of work in the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf we headed east through the islands at the top of Australia. Unfortunately, the weather was so foggy we did not get to see very much. Off Cairns we picked up a boat that had wheels for land travel called a LARC (Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo). Again, the weather was still raining and foggy so we missed seeing much of the Great Barrier Reef and travelled on to Brisbane.


After leaving Brisbane we headed to Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs taking 2 days and nights. These reefs are the southernmost coral reefs and we had with us 2 fellows from the Queensland Museum collecting and cataloguing fish and crustaceans. There had been no record of life on these reefs and they expected to find 400 different species of fish. Whenever we had the opportunity, we would collect shells and crabs for them. They had all the diving gear and a small Zodiac inflatable. They used a chemical called Rotenone that would create a cloud effect and would temporarily stun the fish making collection easy and with little chance of damage to the fish. Any fish not collected eventually lost their drowsiness and fully recovered. The heads of the larger fish were taken back as identification could be established by a bone in the back of the head. After collection they were roughly catalogued and stored in large drums of Formalin or alcohol ready for further identification or dissection in the museum.


The LARC was a large boat with wheels that enabled us to drive over the reef and carry all the equipment required. There was a sand cay on Elizabeth Reef that remained above sea level however most of the reefs were underwater. Our task was to locate the reef and so correctly position it on the map and the Magnavox Satellite receiving station was set up to fix a position and a survey station was built.


Various ship wrecks littered the reefs and provided direct evidence of the exploration of Australia, the first industries such as sealing, whaling and trading and of the perils facing convicts, migrants and travellers. The reefs which were located close to the shipping routes for Sydney to Newcastle and Brisbane to Asia and the American west coast of the Pacific have caused the demise of at least 25 ships since 1806. The reefs are predominantly subtidal and without the assistance of modern navigation techniques were difficult to detect in calm weather and at night.


The Yoshin Maru lwaki (also possibly the Kaineo Maru) was a Japanese fishing vessel who met her end in the 1960s. We positioned the Magnavox on this wreck and used the sand cay at the other end of the reef as a reference point.


The Runic was a 13 500 ton freighter aground on Middleton Reef. She ran aground in 1961 while on her maiden voyage from Brisbane to New Zealand. After several attempts to refloat her proved unsuccessful, the engines and other valuable equipment was removed. In 1963 the stern broke away from the main body of the ship. We set up the Magnavox on the stern section of the Runic and recorded satellite passes. Debris including large pieces of metal were strewn all around the wreck and unfortunately on our last day we destroyed a tyre on the LARC. There were plenty of turtles, clams and shells on the reefs and the Museum boys were able to collect a surprising number of samples.


The Fuku Maru No 7, a Japanese trawler was wrecked in 1963 and although the stern is almost completely destroyed there is a small protected area in the stern that is stocked with fresh water, blankets, ropes and emergency rations in the form of special hermetically sealed English chocolates.


In 1974, the New Zealand sloop Sospan Fach was swept onto Middleton Reef and the four crew spent 6 weeks sheltering on the wreck of the Fuku Maru until rescued. There was evidence of their presence in the form of crab and turtle shells.







MV Cape Pillar – Ship’s complement at Brisbane


Article from RESOURCE (Number 56 of 27 March 1987) the Staff Newsletter of the Department of Resources and Energy


Bathymetric Survey Experience – Ms Vicki Charman


Some brief notes on Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs and their wrecks


Some technical aspects of the Reef’s surveys

Bathymetric Survey Report : Cape Pillar Surveys :

No. 1 of 1987, 23 November 1986 to 12 May 1987.

(courtesy Charlie Watson)

Image Gallery

More images may be viewed via this link















27 March 1987                                                                                             NUMBER 56



Vicki to sail the high seas in 'Cape Pillar'


For the first time, a female technical officer is to undertake a tour of duty this year on bathymetric surveys aboard the MV Cape Pillar.


Vicki Charman, a Technical Officer Grade 1 in the Topographic Office in Dandenong, responded to the call for staff to do a tour of duty as an assistant watchkeeper under the Natmap field-staff exchange arrangement.


Vicki will join the Cape Pillar in Darwin when the crew changes on 9 April and will assist in surveys in the Bonaparte Gulf and around Middleton and Elizabeth Reefs, north of Lord Howe Island, before disembarking in Brisbane on 12 May.


The Cape Pillar is normally crewed on bathymetric surveys by an all-male complement of up to 40 seamen and Natmap officers. Fe­male passengers and wives of crewmen have travelled aboard her in the past, this is the first instance of a female technical officer's being included on the Natmap roster.


On completion of the field tour of duty, Vicki will spend a few weeks in the Canberra office compiling bathymetric mapping data from the surveys before returning to Mel­bourne.













Some brief notes on Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs and their wrecks


Elizabeth Reef and Middleton Reef are a pair of isolated oceanic platform reefs separated from one another by 45 kilometres of deep oceanic waters. They are located in the Coral Sea, with Middleton Reef being north of Elizabeth Reef, around 100 kilometres north from Lord Howe Island and 555 kilometres off the New South Wales coast, due east from Coffs Harbour. They are unique in that they represent the southernmost platform reefs in the world. These two features now form part of the Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs Marine National Nature Reserve.


The two reefs of are of similar size and shape. They are largely awash, with each having its own small sand cay which remains dry at high tide. The reefs sit atop a feature known as the Lord Howe Rise - a ridge of volcanic origins that runs from New Zealand northwest across the Tasman Sea. Nearby Lord Howe Island is the only other emergent part of the ridge. Despite their high latitude both reefs display a rich and diverse marine flora and flora, brought about by their location in an area where tropical and temperate ocean currents meet.


As well as their considerable natural values, a large number of shipwrecks gives the area considerable marine archaeological significance. They are protected by the Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs Marine National Nature Reserve, covering 1,880 square kilometres. The reserve was proclaimed in 1987 to protect the two reefs' important and fragile marine ecosystems.


Elizabeth Reef : named after the 140 ton, whaling brig (a sailing vessel with two square rigged masts) Elizabeth, under Captain H Browne, which was wrecked there in July or August, 1830. At times this reef has been called Seringapstam, Clark or Eliza Reef. Discovery of the reef however is usually credited to the ships Claudine and Marquis of Hastings in 1820.


Elizabeth Reef’s dimensions are 8.2 by 5.5 kilometres, and its sand cay is about 400 x 400 metres. At low tides much of the reef flat is exposed by the receding waters.


In January 1969, the 180 ton Japanese tuna boat Yoshin Maru lwaki (also possibly the Kaineo Maru) was wrecked on Elizabeth Reef.


Middleton Reef : named after Admiral Sir Charles Theodore Middleton, the reef was first discovered in 1788 by Lieutenant John Shortland in the Alexander, a transport on passage from Sydney to Batavia.


Middleton Reef is a kidney shaped structure, about 8.9 kilometres by 6.3 kilometres. On the north side is an entrance into the interior lagoon which is protected by the hard algal ridge and extensive reef flat that forms the outer margin to the reef. Its sand cay, known as The Sound, measures 100 metres by 70 metres. Its shallow lagoon has a sandy to silty bottom that contains numerous patch reefs and areas of coral pavement.


The most obvious wreck at Middleton Reef is the 13 500 ton refrigerated freighter, the SS Runic (III). Built at Harland and Wolff, Belfast in 1949 for the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line, she was launched in October 1949. Entering service in March 1950, she was designed for trade between the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. At 561 feet (171m) long by 72.2 feet (22m) wide, she was powered by reduction geared steam turbines through two propellers, and had a service speed of 17 knots (31 km/h; 20 mph).


SS Runic (III) in her prime circa 1950s


On 19 February 1961, during her maiden voyage from Brisbane to New Zealand, Runic ran aground on Middleton Reef after sailing through the tail end of a tropical storm. She struck the reef at a speed of about seventeen knots, over riding the sharp coral for about twenty five metres before stopping, leaving almost three quarters of her length still in deep water. Despite attempts to refloat her, bad weather swung Runic around so she lay with most of her length on the reef and she started to flood. On 22 March, with a fierce tropical cyclone approaching, salvage efforts were abandoned and Runic was declared a constructive total loss. Her complement of 69 was evacuated onto the Shaw, Savill ship Arabic and taken to Sydney. For the next few years several syndicates stripped her of her engines and other valuable equipment. In 1963, her stern broke away leaving metal debris of all shapes and sizes strewn about the area.


On the southern side of the Middleton Reef is the wreck of the Japanese tuna boat Fuku Maru No7. Wrecked in 1963, she lies high and dry but is in very poor condition having been burnt out. The hulk was used as a food cache and possible shelter for many years.


The New Zealand sloop Sospan Fach was swept onto Middleton Reef in 1974. Four people - two girls, a boy, and a man - with no sailing experience, left Auckland, New Zealand, on the amateur built yacht for Australia, planning to sail three days north and turn left. The boat had no motor, radio, extra sails, or instrumentation. The skipper had a small compass and a toy sextant on which he had had no training. There was a one person lifeboat, one life preserver, and provisions for three weeks. Stranded for six weeks until rescued, they resided in the Fuku Maru.






Some technical aspects of the Reef’s surveys


Satellite positioning

The isolation of Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs made their positioning by traditional methods impossible. However, in the pre-GPS days, the then US Navy, NAVSAT/TRANSIT provided the solution. Utilising signals from a group of five satellites in polar orbits, the satellites transmitted its most recent uploaded orbital parameters and timing data, phase modulated, on two frequencies (400MHz and 150MHz). The use of two frequencies provided a means of eliminating ionospheric refraction from the data. Because of the relative movement of the satellite with respect to the receiver, the satellite’s emitted constant frequency was Doppler shifted upon arrival at the receiver and was thus now a continuously variable frequency. The varying received frequency was compared to a constant reference frequency in the receiver at discrete intervals. This comparison thus provided an indirect measure of the change in the distance between the satellite and receiver over each interval. Doppler measurements consisted simply of cycle counts of beat frequency over precisely timed intervals. The beat frequency being generated by subtracting a constant reference frequency from the variable received frequency. When the position of the satellite was known to sufficient accuracy, such information could be used to determine the location of the receiver. From observations of between 25 to 50 acceptable satellite passes, which could take between 2 to 5 days to acquire, a high level of positional accuracy could be attained.


The Doppler information for both frequencies, together with date, time, satellite number, number of passes, ambient temperature and pressure, were stored by the receiver for later processing. A less accurate position could be determined for the receiver using the broadcast ephemeris stored on each satellite. However, best positional accuracy could only be achieved once the precise satellite’s ephemerides were released. As described above, the broadcast ephemeris was uploaded to and then encoded on the satellite signal itself making it immediately available to all users for all satellites. It was generated from observations made over 36 hour intervals by a network of four US stations. Being derived from such a small tracking net and essentially predictive, its accuracy was considered to be lower than that of the precise ephemeris. The predicted orbit could not accommodate the satellite’s excursions of around 100 metres which occurred frequently. The precise ephemeris however, was derived from sets of observations made over 48 hour intervals by the TRANET. It was thus generally considered to be accurate to within 2 to 3 meters. Unfortunately, the precise ephemeris was only maintained on one, sometimes two, satellites. Further, the precise ephemeris had first to be determined so its broadcast was always delayed. A relatively long occupancy of a station was thus required for the acquisition of a prescribed number of passes.


Using two receivers located at different stations but operated simultaneously so that a common set of satellite passes were observed allowed the received data to be edited so that only those portions of the satellite’s orbital arcs that were fully common to the participating stations were used to generate the coordinates. When separations between stations were not large compared with the altitudes of the satellites, the otherwise dominant effects of errors in the ephemerides tended to be nearly the same for each station. As a result, the relative or differential position of stations could be determined to a considerably higher degree of accuracy than their absolute position. This procedure was known as Translocation.


In the simplest approach to Translocation one receiver remained at a fixed station, usually of known location on a given datum, and a second receiver occupied a station whose coordinates were required. Observations were recorded simultaneously with both instruments recording the same satellite passes. Once the coordinates of both stations were computed the coordinate difference between the known and unknown station would be more accurate than the absolute station coordinates, because systematic errors in orbit parameters were cancelled to a certain degree. If two Doppler receivers were used in pairs, with one receiver positioned over a known control point, the relative positions of unknown point could be determined to submetre accuracy, with data from approximately 25 acceptable satellite passes recorded at each of the unknown points. Translocation was expandable to use any number of receivers provided one was always operating at the known location while the other receivers were operating at their remote locations.


Reef surveys

Adopting the translocation methodology for these surveys, at both Elizabeth and then Middleton Reef, two satellite receivers made by Magnavox (MX1502) were positioned. During the whole time a third satellite receiver operated in Canberra, on top of Natmap’s Cameron Offices. This station (CAMERON 3) was the fixed, known station for the survey. Two receivers were required at each reef so that two positions could be established and from that information an azimuth could be determined. With position and azimuth known the aerial photographs of the reefs could be fixed and oriented for plotting detail.


At Elizabeth Reef a ground mark, with a brass plaque engraved NM/OS/109, was established on the sandy cay and before leaving covered with 1 metre high rock cairn. This became one MX1502 site. The second MX1502 site was the unmissable wreck of the Japanese tuna boat Yoshin Maru lwaki.


At Middleton Reef a ground mark, with a brass plaque engraved NM/OS/110, was established on the exposed coral at low tide. The sites for the MX1502 receivers was the wrecked stern section of the Runic and wreck of the Japanese tuna boat Fuku Maru No.7.


The final geographic coordinates of the required points are shown in the table below along with the number of satellite passes used in their solution and the calculated distance and azimuth (WGS72) between the coordinated points :



Latitude (DMS)

Longitude (DMS)


Distance (m)

Azimuth (DMS)

Elizabeth Reef (NM/OS/109)












Elizabeth Reef (Yoshin Maru lwaki)








Middleton Reef (NM/OS/110)












Middleton Reef (Runic’s stern)












Middleton Reef (Fuku Maru No7)








CAMERON 3 (fixed, known site)















Image Gallery


Vicki’s images of her 1987 Bathymetric Voyage


Aerial photograph (north to bottom) of Elizabeth Reef showing wreck location and ground mark (green triangle) NM/OS/109.

Aerial photograph (north to bottom) of Middleton Reef showing wreck locations and ground mark (green triangle) NM/OS/110.





On MV Cape Pillar during Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs’ survey (L-R standing) Peter Kaczerepa, Maris Legzde, Vicki Charman, Bill Jeffery, Geoff Starkey, Steve Yates, (front) Peter Walkley and Charlie Watson.

Elizabeth Reef : LARC alongside Magnavox with its receiving antenna on the scaffold over the ground mark (NM/OS/109); the MV Cape Pillar is in the far background; Peter Kaczerepa has blue jacket and Vicki the yellow.

Elizabeth Reef : Ground mark with identifying plaque NM/OS/109.

Elizabeth Reef : Peter Kaczerepa (left) and Vicki (right) covering the ground mark with rock cairn.

Elizabeth Reef : Wreck of the Yoshin Maru lwaki (also possibly the Kaineo Maru)

Middleton Reef : Magnavox receiver and power supply on the Yoshin Maru lwaki.

Middleton Reef : Wreck of the Fuku Maru No7.

Middleton Reef : Fuku Maru No7’s name visible.

Middleton Reef : Wreck of the ‘split’ Runic.

Middleton Reef : Bow section of the Runic.

Middleton Reef : Bow section of the Runic.

Middleton Reef : Installing the Magnavox receiver and power supply on the stern section of the Runic.

Middleton Reef : Ground mark with identifying plaque NM/OS/110 and witness post.

Middleton Reef : Steve Yates (observer) and Peter Walkley at the ground mark (NM/OS/110), sighting to the Fuku Maru No7 with the bow section of the Runic in the background.

When the work is done “Some boys will be girls”!