Ground breaking technology could protect Protector

Earlier this month, the South Australian Maritime Museum and researchers from across Australia travelled to Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef to conduct a ground-breaking archaeological survey of the former Australian warship Protector.  This is the first project in the world to virtually document the complete lifespan of an historic vessel.

The research team used a combination of digital video, 3D photogrammetry, and laser scanning to capture Protector in the virtual realm, as the majority of the surviving hull is exposed above water during low tide.  This cutting-edge technology was complimented by archaeological surveying methods that were employed to physically document the lowermost portions of the hull, collapsed hull sections, and other site features that are largely or completely submerged.   The University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Visual Technologies (ACVT) is currently developing software capable of generating 3D digital and physical models of historic objects from archival photographs, and is using Protector as a test-case.  Archaeological and 3D digital data obtained during the survey will be used in conjunction with the digital models generated by ACVT to present a complete record of Protector between 1884 and 2013.

Her Majesty’s Colonial Ship (HMCS) Protector was purchased by the South Australian colonial government in response to fears of foreign invasion, and arrived in Port Adelaide in September 1884.  For the next 40 years, Protector served with the South Australian colonial navy, Commonwealth Naval Force and Royal Australian Navy, and participated in two major conflicts: the Boxer Rebellion (1900) and World War I (1914-1918). During World War I Protector served as a tender to the Australian submarines AE1 and AE2, guarded the port of Rabaul in New Guinea, and conducted minesweeping patrols in Australia’s coastal waters.  It also reported on the wreck of the Imperial German Navy cruiser SMS Emden, which had been forced ashore at the Cocos-Keeling Islands during battle with the Australian warship HMAS Sydney (I) in November 1914.  

In 1924, Protector was decommissioned from naval service, and converted for the storage and transport of bulk cargo.  During World War II it was requisitioned by the U.S. Army and reactivated for military service.  In 1943 it collided with another vessel and was abandoned at the Queensland port of Gladstone.  The hulk was subsequently purchased by Captain Cristian Poulson and relocated to Heron Island as a breakwater.  Since then Protector has evolved into an icon of the Heron Island landscape and is regularly visited by holidaymakers as well as staff and visiting scholars affiliated with the University of Queensland’s Heron Island Research Station.

In a serendipitous twist, the researcher spearheading the ACVT project, Prof Anton van den Hengel, is a direct descendent of Henry Perry who served on Protector during the Boxer Rebellion. The SA Maritime Museum holds several of Perry's mementos.

The project was developed to support a South Australian Maritime Museum exhibition commemorating the centenary of the start of World War I.  The exhibition will highlight the role of Protector in the conflict.  The detailed digital and physical models generated by Lester Franks and the ACVT will be used to illustrate Protector at critical phases in its military and non-military careers.  These models - with other archaeological data collected during the field investigation will be used to explore and answer questions about the vessel’s construction, conversion, modification, and deterioration.  Data derived from the research may enable relevant government agencies to effectively assess Protector’s surviving fabric, determine its heritage significance, and develop future plans for its management and interpretation.  It will also ensure a three-dimensional record of the surviving hull in perpetuity - an issue of critical importance, given that Protector is the last vessel of its kind anywhere in the world.

Please follow the link for more information and images


The project is supported by Australian Research Council Linkage Project (LP130101064), the Commonwealth Your Community Heritage Program, and the Silentworld Foundation.