Growing up in Canberra, Jacquie Walton heard rumours of eerie and bizarre items lurking beneath the surface of Lake Burley Griffin.
“I’ve heard about cars and bodies in there,” she said.
“Also that people have thrown all kinds of stuff in, so I’m curious to know what’s there.”
After decades of wondering what could be found at the bottom of the city’s lakes, she turned to Curious Canberra for an answer.
I fleetingly considered throwing on some scuba gear and taking the plunge myself, but admittedly I’m not that brave. And Ms Walton assured me that I wasn’t alone.
“I’m more than happy to walk around it; I’ve cycled the lake, walked the lake and paddle-boated,” she said.
“But I will not get in the water.”
So, I set off to find someone who would.
Divers search for answers
Norm Green and Rowan Jeffs manage a north Canberra dive shop and spend their weekends teaching scuba courses on the NSW south coast.
They occasionally dive in Canberra’s lakes to complete construction work or retrieve items that’ve been lost in the water. But they rarely do it without good reason.
“It’s not the Great Barrier Reef,” Mr Green joked.
Bearing that in mind, I dipped my toe into the subject by asking about items they’d been approached to salvage in the past. While most were inexpensive, such as tools and toy boats, a diamond or two may be hiding in the murky depths.
“We didn’t even look for that one – it’d be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
He often refuses to search for small items, given how easily they sink into the soft sediment of the lake bed.
“If I put my hand in, it’ll sink to my elbow – so who knows what’s buried under there.”
This made Ms Walton even more intrigued.
“It adds to the mystery and excitement that there’s a whole community revolving around the lake, but what lurks beneath is still unknown,” she said.
Sticks and stones that look like bones
Ms Walton and I watched the divers enter the water, near the National Museum of Australia. In the water, it was an estimated 12 degrees.
After about 20 minutes, the two divers emerged with their hands full.
Mr Jeffs opened a small metal box, with ‘Property of the Australian Banks’ inscribed on top.
It looked rare and promising.
“I thought I might have found some sort of treasure, but no, just someone’s tools,” he said disappointingly.
But treasure was found.
Ms Walton’s eyes lit up when she saw a window pane featuring a dolphin under Mr Jeffs’ arm.
“I’m going to put this near my pond,” Ms Walton, a dolphin-lover, said.
As well as general rubbish, the divers found a large locked box, a power drill, a brick, silver cutlery, a padlock and a moss-covered bicycle.
“The bike had been there a while,” Mr Jeffs said.
“If it was in good [condition] I would have ridden it out of the water.”
During the dive, they found an object that could resemble a human bone.
Knowing that Ms Walton was especially curious about human remains, I turned to the territory’s water police.
Sonar equipment uncovers bodies, cars
Sergeant Brett Cunningham is one of the most experienced maritime team members with the Australian Federal Police.
He said police have retrieved about two bodies from Lake Burley Griffin each year, since it was filled in 1964.
In recent years police have been working with new sonar technology, which uses soundwaves to send an image of what lies on the lake bed to a laptop on board the boat.
This equipment has substantially reduced search times and boosted their ability to find items of interest too.
One time, police found five cars submerged in close proximity in a single dive. One was a stolen Valiant car dating back to the 1970s.
Sonar imaging has also uncovered evidence, such as safes, guns, knives, wallets and clothing, which have helped reopen investigations.
And despite his wealth of diving experience, even he is occasionally bewildered by what he stumbles across.
“When we did our diving course in ’97 we found someone didn’t want their floorboards from their house so they dropped them into the lake and we were diving all over them,” he said.
“Another time we were diving under Commonwealth Avenue Bridge looking for evidence and people thought it was a good idea to throw those amber construction lights in. We found about 40.”
As for Canberra’s other lakes, Sergeant Cunningham said there’s not much to be found, aside from piles of rubbish and “thousands of shopping trolleys”.
Who asked the question?
Jacquie Walton is a public servant who has lived in Canberra her whole life.
She grew up spending a lot of time walking and cycling around Lake Burley Griffin and always wondered what was found in its depths.
She joined our investigation and took home a souvenir.