Blue Water Recoveries Ltd was founded in May 1995 to provide consultancy services for a client, Deepsea Worker Limited (DWL), that was involved in the salvage of valuable metal cargoes from modern shipwrecks sunk in deepwater. The company was formed by Mark Cliff and Bob Hudson to advise on the use of technology that had been developed for the successful salvage of 1.3 million silver coins from the wreck of a US Liberty ship the John Barry. The wreckage of the John Barry had been surveyed by David Mearns whilst working for the American subsea contractor Eastport International.
David Mearns soon joined the management team of BWR who provided expert advice and management services to DWL in all areas of their business, including historical research, navigation analysis, shipwreck location and survey, cargo recovery, equipment development and the sale of recovered cargoes.
An important first step was the acquisition of a unique shipwreck database from the former Managing Director of Risdon Beazley Ltd, the most successful salvage firm of the 20th century. BWR’s research team built on this database and started to search for and find 12 deepwater shipwrecks containing over 23,000 tonnes of valuable metals such as tin, copper, cobalt, platinum, gold and silver. Guinness World Records has certified that one of these wrecks, the Rio Grande, is the deepest ever found at 5,762 metres.
For cargo recovery BWR developed a unique salvage grab and cargo handling system that was operated from a modified DP drill-ship and was capable of lifting up to 200 tons from 6,000m depth. Cargo totalling 2,600 tons was recovered from some of these wrecks, including the Alpherat lying in 3,770 metres thus establishing another Guinness World Record. Poor metal prices and a dramatic increase in the value of DWL’s drill-ship led them to sell the vessel in the spring of 1997 and exit the salvage business. BWR retained the intellectual property rights to the shipwreck database and found shipwreck locations with un-recovered cargoes.
Following the break-up of DWL, BWR reorganised and focused its consulting work on the research, location and archaeologically sensitive recovery of historic shipwrecks. In the summer of 1998 BWR culminated its first project by successfully locating the wrecks of two Portuguese Naus that were part of Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India in 1503. These wrecks are probably the earliest colonial period ships ever found.
On behalf of another client, BWR also oversaw the purchase, conversion and operation of a survey vessel (Challenger 1), which was hired by the undersea telecommunication cable industry to conduct geophysical and geotechnical surveys of proposed fibre-optic cable routes. From 1999 to 2001 the vessel was successfully used on 7 major cable route survey projects around the world. BWR managed the vessel during this period and all related marketing, sales and contract administration. The vessel was sold in 2002 following the sudden downturn in this industry.
During this period, BWR continued to conduct shipwreck search and investigation projects for other clients. A major project in 2001 was the location and filming of the wrecks of HMS Hood and DKM Bismarck for a series of television documentaries shown on Channel 4 in the UK and PBS in the USA. This ambitious £2m project was conceived, developed and managed by David Mearns and had a hugely successful outcome. Both wrecks were quickly found, the project attracted national attention in all media and the films and the associated book were critically acclaimed with extremely high viewing figures and sales. A third Guinness World Record was set for the live internet streaming of video shot by a remotely operated vehicle of Hood’s wreck at 2,800 metres.
Today, BWR remains actively involved in developing large-scale shipwreck and marine projects for television, salvage, archaeology and science. A recent example was a multi-disciplinary scientific investigation of the creation of the Indian Ocean Tsunami for a BBC1, Discovery Channel and ProSieben documentary, which involved the successful filming of earthquake ruptures on the seabed at a depth of 4,500 meters. The National Geographic Society has been an important sponsor of a project being led by David Mearns that aims to locate the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance sunk in the Weddell Sea of Antarctica.
In 2007, David Mearns commenced another project to search for the wreck of a WWII Australian light cruiser, HMAS Sydney II. The Sydney was lost in mysterious and controversial circumstances following a brutal battle with the German auxiliary cruiser HSK Kormoran on 19 November 1941 with the loss of all 645 hands, which represented the greatest loss of life in an Australian warship and the largest Allied vessel to sink with all hands during the war. The Kormoran was located on 12 March 2008 and HMAS Sydney was found shortly afterwards on 17 March 2008 by a project that David successfully led on behalf of the Finding Sydney Foundation. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the successful location of the Sydney to a grateful nation the following day. The project received joint federal government, state government and private funding supported by John Howard, the former Prime Minister of Australia.
Following the successful discovery and filming of the wrecks of Kormoran and Sydney, interest was heightened in a search for another controversial wartime loss; the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur, which on 14 May 1943 was sunk illegally by the Japanese submarine I-177. Of the 332 medical personnel and civilian crew on board only 64 survived while 268 perished. By the end of 2008 the Australian Federal and Queensland State governments had jointly contributed $4 million towards a search, and in March 2009 BWR won a competitive tender process against 10 other bidders to provide project management services for the Finding Centaur project with David Mearns being appointed the project manager and search director.
Following eight solid months of historical research and planning, the search for Centaur commenced in December of 2009. The wreckage was detected on the very first search line and after collecting additional high-resolution sonar imagery David Mearns was able to confirm six days later that his team had located the wreck of AHS Centaur lying at a depth of 2,060 metres. Visual confirmation of the wreck was conducted in January 2010 during a series of four ROV dives directed by David. The video and photographic investigation yielded approximately 1,400 still photographs and over 20 hours of high-definition video footage of Centaur’s wreckage, including iconic images of the red crosses painted on the ship’s sides, Centaur’s bronze bell with the name CENTAUR facing upwards, and an Army Slouch hat lying eerily in the debris field. On behalf of the 2/3 AHS Centaur Association, David’s final act was to place on the wreck a bronze memorial plaque incorporating a Roll of Honour with the names of all 268 men and women who were lost.
On November 1st, 2010 Australia’s Governor-General Quentin Bryce announced that David Mearns was to be awarded with an honorary Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to Australia by locating HMAS Sydney II and AHS Centaur.