One of the world’s premier ocean exploration specialists has offered fresh hope to the families of cattleship workers lost in a huge storm in the East China Sea almost three years ago, saying it would be an “honour” to join any mission to retrieve a data recorder buried with the vessel.

The Panamanian Gulf Livestock 1 capsized on September 2, 2020, with survivor and chief officer Eduardo Sareno reporting the ship’s engine stalled before it was knocked over by a powerful wave generated by Typhoon Maysak.

Queensland vet and father Lukas Orda and NSW stockman William Mainprize were among the 41 workers to perish in the ocean tragedy.

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The pair’s families were left hugely unsatisfied by an incident report produced by the Panama Maritime Authority and argue the only way to understand what truly happened is to retrieve the ship’s data recorder.

In a huge boost to achieving their wish, Rob McCallum — a legendary expedition leader who was front and center of a successful global mission to dive a manned submersible to the deepest points in the Indian, Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic, and Southern oceans — was confident his team could nail down the Gulf Livestock 1’s location and retrieve the data recorder. Crucially, he is up for the challenge.

“As members of the maritime community we would consider it an honor to help bring closure to those who have lost loved ones at sea,” he told

McCallum recently made headlines as one of several experts who warned Stockton Rush about the dangers of his Titan submersible. The New Zealander, a divemaster who has also led expeditions to the Titanic, had worked with OceanGate as a consultant.

Similar to a plane’s “black box”, a data recorder is generally fitted to the bridge of a ship and tracks information that can be used to reconstruct a voyage or offer vital details from an accident including positioning, speed and some audio communication.

Legendary expedition leader Rob McCallum told he is up for retrieving the black box from the Gulf Livestock 1. Credit: Supplied
McCallum led a mission to dive a manned submersible to the deepest points in the Indian, Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic, and Southern oceans. Credit: EYOS Expeditions

Typhoon Maysak was blowing by southern Japan when the Gulf Livestock 1 ran into trouble, with the vessel launching a distress signal about 1.20am.

Any new search for the converted livestock carrier would start with the GPS trail, but McCallum — who plans and manages marine-based voyages with EYOS Expeditions and has 30 years of experience — was sure his team could overcome poor data and track the ship even if it had been pushed by ocean currents from its last known location.

‘Big target’

“Even in the worst case scenario, which is that the ship drifted for days and we’ve got no real idea where it is, a ship this size, we’d be able to find it. It’s a big target,” McCallum said.

McCallum has worked with the Australian authorities before, when sonar search company William and Associates (WASSOC) were contracted to find HMAS Sydney, German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran and Australian Hospital Ship Centaur.

He said he would use WASSOC’s resources and assets again if Australia, or an international body, was to give the retrieval the green light and offer him a call.

The bodies of NSW stockman William Mainprize, right, and Queensland vet Lukas Orda were never recovered after the Gulf Livestock 1 was overcome by a powerful typhoon in 2020. Credit: 7NEWS
The search for the missing Gulf Livestock 1 vessel was scaled back after 10 days. Credit: PA

He said there appeared nothing particularly complicated about the recovery, which he projected could be done for $US3-5 million ($A4.4- $7.34 million) depending on the size of the search area, the capability of the platform vessel and the type of remotely operated vehicle needed to dive down and secure the data recorder.

He said part of the groundwork would be trawling documents and speaking with authorities to identify where the black box was located on the ship and securing the right ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle).

McCallum said costs would be slashed further if they could shelve an underwater sonar search.

“In terms of the (black box) recovery, it’s just one of dozens of tasks ROVs perform every day,” he said.

Rob McCallum and Australian Tim MacDonald made history with a 10,925m ‘Anzac Dive’ to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Credit: Supplied
McCallum had warned OceanGate chief executive Stockton Rush about the dangers of the Titan. Credit: PA

McCallum estimated the recovery project could be achievable within six to nine months, if someone took ownership of it.

“Our approach is to work with the investigators, host nation and the nations of the lost, as a supplementary resource,” he said.

Japan’s Coast Guard led the initial search for survivors before scaling back resources after 10 days.

Rescuers could only locate cow carcasses, a life vest carrying the ship’s name, an empty raft and traces of fuel in the water, suggesting to experts the ship had founded.

A Filipino crew member of a Panamanian cargo ship is rescued by the Japanese Coast Guard. Credit: URUMA/PA

Orda’s father Dr Ulrich Orda has been vocal for years about the need to secure the data recorder but says Australian and international authorities have shown little interest in doing so.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) declined to comment, but Ulrich was encouraged by words from someone so prominent in the field that it could be done.

“We think the black box data will show that this wasn’t a normal sinking and give us answers,” he said.

“Why was this ship taken into a storm? Was there pressure on the captain?”

Young dad and Queensland vet Lukas Orda was one of two Australians to perish in the storm. Credit: Facebook

He has written to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to plead for an official investigation into the many questions he says are still unanswered.

“We also ask you to launch a search for the vessel, the location of the second lifeboat, and the location and retrieval of the black box. We know that this is possible,” Dr Orda said in his letter.

“And, if ever possible, the location and retrieval of the remains of the ones who perished. Please bring our boy home.”

The prime minister was approached for comment.

Gulf Livestock 1, which left Napier Port bound for China carrying nearly 6000 cattle, sank on September 2 after Typhoon Maysak struck at sea. Credit: VesselFinder

The Gulf Livestock 1 was transporting 6000 head of cattle from Napier Port in New Zealand to the Chinese Port of Jingtang during its final journey.

The ship’s operator was Gulf Navigation, based in the UAE.

Of the 43 crew onboard, three were rescued but one died after being found unconscious. Two Australians, two New Zealanders and 36 Filipinos were never recovered.

A 2022 report into the fate of the missing ship produced by the Panama Maritime Authority as the flag state of the sunken vessel is due to be reviewed by an International Maritime Organization (IMO) featuring committee flag, port and coastal states in the coming weeks.

The goal is to see what can be learned from the tragedy to ensure it never happens again.

Mechanical problems

Families of the Australians who worked on the ship lashed the document as a box-ticking exercise, saying it was inconclusive and offered little by way of closure. They’re also not confident anything meaningful will be gained from the IMO’s exercise.

DFAT previously cited privacy for not being drawn on the quality of the report, which has never been made public, or whether it would consider pushing for a new investigation.

However, it noted it had provided consular assistance to the two Australian families since the tragedy and would continue “for as long as required”.

The Gulf’s history of mechanical problems and breakdowns, as well as equipment and training issues, were revealed after it went down.

The ship was launched in 2002 and sailed under several names during its 18 years of operation.

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