AUTHORITIES have seized 154 kilograms of cocaine from inside the hull of a cargo ship in Melbourne.

This is the second seizure of its kind in recent months; authorities announced in September that more than 200 kilograms of cocaine was found in the sea chest of a ship docked in Melbourne.

In the most recent seizure, the Australian Border Force used an underwater remotely operated vehicle at Melbourne’s Appleton Dock to search a vessel when it arrived from South America to the Port of Melbourne on 7 October 2023.

The ROV identified a suspicious attachment on the ship’s hull below the waterline.

Specialist divers from the Victoria Police Search and Rescue Squad retrieved four packages of cocaine wrapped in plastic from inside the sea chest.

The packages contained about 154 kilograms of cocaine. The Australian Federal Police estimates this amount of cocaine was worth an estimated $61 million in “street deals”.

AFP officers seized the illicit drugs, along with a suspected tracking device, and launched an investigation to identify the source of the cocaine and its intended destination.

Police said this area of the ship is not accessible to general crew on the ship.

There have been a number of attempts to conceal border controlled drugs in the hull of cargo ships in recent months, according to the AFP. It warned criminals that law enforcement continues to disrupt attempts to hide illicit drugs in the hulls of ships.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Hilda Sirec said authorities are tracking the rising trend of transnational serious organised crime groups attempting to smuggle illicit drugs into Australia by hiding them underneath the waterline of cargo ships.

“My message to organised crime is that your modus operandi is busted. We know when illicit drugs are coming in and where they are stored,” Assistant Commissioner Sirec said.

“In the past two years alone, a number of high-profile alleged offenders have been deported or extradited to Australia to face serious illicit drug trafficking charges. Some of these offenders are facing sentences of life imprisonment.

“We also want to warn the divers, who are hired by criminal syndicates, to retrieve illicit drugs in the hulls of ships.

“They are also placing themselves in serious danger because retrieval often involves diving through dark, busy shipping channels with limited safety equipment. It’s just not worth risking your life or your future for.”

Assistant Commissioner Sirec said the AFP, ABF and Victoria Police were working together and would not rule out further arrests.

“The focus of our ongoing investigation is identifying and locating the transnational serious organised crime groups responsible for this attempted import, and the people working for them in Australia to receive and distribute these drugs,” she said.

Clint Sims, ABF Commander maritime and enforcement south, said cocaine shipments were being seized at Australia’s border at record levels.

“The Australian border is a strategic national asset and remains fundamental to our national security and economic prosperity,” Commander Sims said.

“That is why the ABF works closely with our law enforcement partners to ensure that the border remains a hostile environment for criminals attempting to import illicit drugs.

“With the deployment of advanced technology such as ROVs, the ABF is well-placed to detect, disrupt and deter those who seek to import harmful drugs into Australia.”

Victoria Water Police Inspector James Dalton said authorities can identify illicit drugs, even if efforts have been made to conceal their origin.

“This sends a strong message that if you are attempting to import drugs or illegal goods via ships into Victoria we will detect them,” he said.

“Anything we can do to deter this activity we will do and will ensure the people involved are held to account.”

AFP said members of the public can report information anonymously to Crime Stoppers via 1800 333 000 and online via the Crime Stoppers website.