Dashed on a reef in the croc-infested Timor Sea, SS Brisbane's fate appeared to be consigned to a watery grave near Darwin.
Nearly 140 years since the ship's captain missed Darwin Harbour and ran aground at Fish Reef in 1881, researchers have returned to the wreck site to document it for the next generation.
Drones have been used to map the site, a first for the Northern Territory, to give an accurate portrait of the final resting spot of a once first-class mail freighter.
"The Brisbane was coming back down through the Indonesian archipelago and trying to find Darwin Harbour," marine archaeologist David Steinberg said.
"[The captain] just went straight through, missing Darwin Harbour altogether and hit a reef of Quail Island at high tide.
"They got themselves off that, realised they were in the wrong place, tried to get out, and hit Fish Reef - and that's where it stayed."
The ship was left stranded and its surviving crew and Chinese passengers rowed to shore. © ABC News ImagesDrones and photogrammetric technology document a Top End shipwreck almost 140 years since the captain lost his way and ran the ship aground.
Its cargo of opium and tea - originally bound for the NT goldfields - was unloaded and much of SS Brisbane's fineries were stripped, salvaged and sold.
"This was a luxurious ship, so it had first-class mattresses, tables and card tables, and beautiful gilded mirrors," Mr Steinberg said.
"All those things came off and there was a series of four or five auctions in Darwin.
"Every second house in Darwin had something from the Brisbane."
Wreck mapping a first for the region
The wreck was never moved or properly mapped, until 19 years ago, when Mr Steinberg and a team of researchers travelled by boat to the site near Bynoe Harbour.
"We ventured out to map this site and understand its significance," he said.
"It's a beautiful site to visit, but it's a complex site.
"You have to go at a very low spring tide when the water retracts and the reef is exposed and you can explore the wreckage." © ABC News ImagesDrones and photogrammetric technology document a Top End shipwreck almost 140 years since the captain lost his way and ran the ship aground.
Mr Steinberg said initial mapping of SS Brisbane was done "old school", with tape measures and grids during a small window when the water had retracted.
"It's very evocative to explore - you have this big 19th century machinery, anchors, winches, windlasses [and] a big section of the bow just on the reef," he said.
"And in addition to all that industrial machinery, you still have fragments of ceramics, and little Chinese coins here and there."
The team's recent return to the site was commissioned by the NT Government and used drone and photogrammetric technology to map the wreck once more. © ABC News ImagesDrones and photogrammetric technology document a Top End shipwreck almost 140 years since the captain lost his way and ran the ship aground.
Photogrammetry brings together thousands of photographs of a site and mosaics it as one.
"It's game-changing because it gives you an incredible level of detail," Mr Steinberg said.
"The accuracy is within centimetres and we're talking about a wreck that's broken up on a reef that covers hundreds and hundreds of metres.
"For the human eye to see all of this complex wreck in one go is just terrific."
Archaeologist and drone operator Silvano Jung said the team used a helicopter to travel to the site, to avoid an arduous eight-hour return boat journey from Darwin and ensure they were present for the small tidal window needed to map the wreck.
"I thought, 'let's just zip out there in a chopper and deploy a drone, and see how that goes'," he said.
"That was a little bit challenging . but we managed to pull it off."
The new footage reveals the detail of SS Brisbane's two-metre tall boiler, plating, machinery and more, with hopes it will eventually be studied by students and made available to the curious public.
There are around 250 shipwrecks in seas around the NT but the SS Brisbane wreck is the first to be mapped using the drone technology.
The wreck and its artefacts remain protected under the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018.
An NT Government spokesman said the public was encouraged to visit the site "and practise a 'look but don't touch' approach".