From 1991, academics from The University of Western Australia consistently predicted the location of the wrecks of HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran to within a few nautical miles of where they were found days ago.
Professor Kim Kirsner and Associate Professor John Dunn, both cognitive scientists, applied their knowledge of human memory and language to sift through accounts provided by the survivors of the HSK Kormoran to reconstruct the position of the wrecks.
In a paper presented to the successful HMAS Sydney Search in 2003, Professor Kirsner recommended that the search be conducted in a square centred on 26 degrees, 10 minutes south, and 111 degrees, 10 minutes east. The Kormoran was found at 26 degrees, 5 minutes south, and 111 degrees, 4 minutes east -- about 12km from the proposed position in a planned search area of more than 6,000 square kilometres.
Professor Kirsner also briefed search coordinator and international shipwreck hunter David Mearns during his visit to Perth in 2004. One of the directors of the search, who had reviewed search definition data over the life of the Finding Sydney Foundation, emailed Prof Kirsner last night to say "you were right on the money" with his 2003 prediction, describing the position as "within spitting distance" of where the Kormoran was found.
"The search has been a fascinating saga. The lack of a smoking gun that clearly identified where the Kormoran had sunk created space for a wide range of alternative theories that ranged from the relatively sober to the fantastical," Professor Kirsner said. "Included in the latter were claims that the wrecks lay hundreds of kilometres to the south or close to the shore near Geraldton."
Part of the reason the wrecks were not found sooner was the failure to believe the accounts provided by the survivors of the Kormoran. Yet the 70 reports, which included a large number of errors and inconsistencies, formed the basis of the UWA scientists' analysis through cognitive reconstruction.
"By carefully examining the full set of accounts, we were able to identify systematic features of the errors and inconsistencies and to reconstruct the Kormoran's position, of which each report was merely a distorted reflection," Professor Kirsner said.
"This approach is similar to that used by palaeontologists to reconstruct an ancestral missing link that explains the current range of species."
Bob Trotter, Director of the HMAS Sydney Search, acknowledged the UWA scientists' work on the day the shipwrecks were found 2.5km under water, 10 nautical miles apart, 110 nautical miles off Shark Bay after more than a quarter of a century of debate about their location.