The Magic of Diving Shipwrecks in North Queensland
Imagine yourself surrounded by shimmering blue. Hovering in space, holding onto a rope made out of what looks like red velvet. You see a silver flash out of the corner of your eye, but by the time you’ve spun your head around, whatever it was has vanished into the background. You’re not alone, but feel like you’re in some sort of parallel universe, where your movements and intentions mean nothing. Then your companion looks at you with eyes framed in thick black rubber and motions you to move. The way you’re heading, despite the energy trying to pull you sideways off course, is down into the blackness below.
Just five minutes before, you were getting ready in the tropical Queensland sunshine, on a little speedboat filled with smiling, excited people and one trademark sarcastic captain. You checked your gear that was going to allow you to enter and survive in the alien environment below. Everyone’s chatting about the beauty of the day, the luck with the weather and footie scores last night. Again, you’re told you cannot possibly support Collingwood. You jump right in, water fills your suit, you duck your head under, give the OK and start your slow descent along the buoy line. How quickly the world changes, like you’ve stepped through some sort of Stargate to the other side of the universe. As you climb in reverse, one hand at a time, along the algae-covered rope, no one will hear you if you scream, you see only one colour and you hear only a faint hum over the sound your own breathing. But suddenly, you spot something. At first you think your eyes are trying to trick you, as you strain to make sense of the blue around you. But one handhold further and a shape starts to appear. It gets bigger and darker and you suddenly realise that what you’ve been staring at with your measly little human eyes is a real, living, pulsating structure hidden deep under the ocean surface high above. What you’re looking at is a gigantic shipwreck, a home to thousands upon thousands of ocean dwelling creatures, from the tiniest seahorse to the largest bull shark. And out of the blue, you feel incredibly small.
Our recent expedition to Far North Queensland brought us face to face with racehorses, cattle station owners, curious kangaroos and a croc or two. After spending 5 days in the dusty outback, we were ready to dive one of the world’s best wreck dives, the SS Yongala. The passenger ship was originally built in Newcastle, UK before starting service in April 1903 in Adelaide. It carried passengers and cargo around Australia and was the first ship to sail the 5000km direct route between Fremantle and Brisbane. Despite being inspected and ‘in excellent trim’ on its 99th voyage and Captain William Knight’s reputation as one of the company’s most capable men with 14 years of service without incident, the Yongala sank en route to Cairns in March 1911. All 122 aboard were killed, but the only body ever found was that of racehorse Moonshine, which washed up on a nearby beach. Due to there being no surviving witnesses, the cause of the tragedy was never fully determined, but it was likely that the ship either sank in a cyclone that other ships nearby managed to circumvent or hit a submerged rock.
Eerily, the wreck lay undiscovered for nearly 50 years. Shortly after its disappearance, stories of a ghost ship started circulating locally. Not being deterred (and maybe even encouraged by the possibility of loot), local fisherman Bill Kirkpatrick started investigating the obstacle he had encountered whilst fishing for shells in 1958. After several failed attempts involving one of his mates with a hard-hat diving suit, a professional diver was engaged in a salvage operation. Needing to formally identify the wreck before being able to claim salvage rights, the team brought up a safe, which contained only grey sludge, but the serial number of which was finally identified as belonging to the Yongala in 1961, finally sealing the fate of the doomed ship.
The ship was originally named Yongala in South Australia, after an aboriginal Nadjuri name of a small town, which translates as “good water”. Due to having sunk on a relatively shallow sandy ocean floor, with good access to sunlight and its lying undiscovered for decades, the Yongala has stayed true to its name by becoming a haven for ocean life. The top of the wreck lies at 16m below the surface and is grounded at 30m on the seabed. With a length of 109 meters and as one of the world’s largest, most intact historical shipwrecks, it has become a hugely diverse ecosystem, and thus a world class dive site within the protected Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
From enormous stingrays to guitar sharks, Giant Trevally, sea snakes, batfish, morays, huge turtles, barracuda, car-sized Queensland groper (see the image above of our rat next to one) and if you’re lucky bull sharks to manta rays, the marine life that calls the Yongala home is simply breathtaking. As the wreck is a marine grave (bones and all) and strict conservation practices are in place, this incredible dive site is being preserved carefully for future divers and its marine inhabitants. If you worry it’s spooky, the wreck is, but it’s also incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring. 10,000 divers each year pop their heads above the ocean’s surface after exploring the Yongala and re-enter the universe that we know with a new sense of wonder. So the question is, when will you take the leap?