EXPERT divers have plundered the 123-year-old shipwreck of NSW's worst peacetime maritime disaster.
The SS Keilawarra, off North Solitary Island, collided with another steamer in 1886, killing at least 40 people.
In a modern-day act of piracy on a sophisticated scale, one of the safes aboard the Heritage-listed wreck has been cut open 75 metres down and its contents stolen.
Commercial shipwreck salvagers are believed responsible for the crime given the difficulty of using underwater oxy-cutting tools at such a depth.
Experienced local divers who discovered the heist have notified authorities but it's still unclear exactly how and when the safe was 'cracked'.
"Usually if treasure or anything of precious value is found on a shipwreck and illegally taken there's scuttlebutt that passes around diving circles - but up until now we haven't heard any rumours," Coffs Harbour diver Mark Spencer said.
Leading maritime archaeologist, NSW Heritage Branch deputy director Tim Smith, said the government was waiting on further evidence from the site.
"This is significant. Of the 1800 shipwrecks in NSW, only 10 per cent have been discovered and this was the only wreck we know of with a safe onboard," Mr Smith said.
Under Federal and State laws, divers caught tampering with shipwrecks face fines of between $100,000 and $1 million.
The wreck was officially confirmed as the Keilawarra by a dive team led by John Riley and Kevin Denlay on September 18, 2000.
A local professional fisherman, Darcey Wright, helped to pin point its resting pla having long suspected one of his favourite fishing spots was a shipwreck.
Chris Connell, from Mullaway Dive Quest, who was part of the successful expedition, says a lot of mystery surrounds the theft.
"It's a real disappointment, we had hoped the safe was relatively intact when we first reached it," he said.
Based on the damage shown in photos, corrosion scientist from the Western Australian Maritime Museum Dr Ian McLeod believes the safe was raided about three years ago.
Stan Young of the Wooli Dive Centre, who knows the site well, says whoever looted the wreck, sure knew what they were doing.
Since its discovery a decade ago, the wreck has been protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act.
HISTORY OF THE SS KEILAWARRA
The 784-tonne iron steam ship sank on December 8, 1886, about 8.30pm.
The Keilawarra was travelling north from Sydney to Queensland at the time, carrying passengers, food and alcohol supplies when it collided with the steamer Helen Nicoll.
Special cargo onboard included ship's anchors, cattle and two Melbourne Cup racehorses.
The 200-foot steamer sank within seven minutes - 40-odd passengers from both ships drowned.
Passengers on the smaller Helen Nicoll jumped ship onto the Keilawarra thinking their ship was sinking. In the aftermath just two of the ships' lifeboats were found ashore, along with two bodies later buried at Emerald Beach. In 2000, the wreck was rediscovered in 75 metres of water, near North Solitary Island. The safe is thought to have been raided by commercial ship salvagers sometime over the past three years.
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