It is known as Australia’s Titanic, and one of the world’s great maritime mysteries.
On March 14, 1911, a luxury passenger steam ship en-route from Melbourne to Cairns hit a Category 5 cyclone and vanished with 122 people on board. The SS Yongala had almost one hundred successful voyages under its belt, and as it departed Mackay, it failed to see last-minute flag warnings that it was headed into a monster storm (the ship’s new wireless transmitter had yet to arrive from England). After the storm, wreckage began washing up along the coast, the ship was declared lost, and an unsuccessful rescue effort launched. No ship or survivors were found. While a navy minesweeper detected a mysterious shoal in the area during World II, it was not until 1958 that the Yongala was officially discovered by salvage divers, along with the skeletons of passengers washed into the bow. More than half a century later, the SS Yongala is the largest, most-intact wreck in Australia. Located within the protected waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the ship’s main structure remains largely intact, lilting starboard just 14-metres deep at the top and 28-metres deep on the sand. The result is an artificial reef disco-dancing with marine life, and a sure-fire bucket list adventure for novices and experienced divers. Although I’ve had the opportunity to dive in Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Cook Islands and off the cold dark waters of Vancouver Island, I count myself firmly in the former, but the promise of the Yongala had me at bucket list.
Based on Alva Beach about fifteen minutes from the town of Ayr, Yongala Dive is the best and closest operator to the wreck, with a full dive centre offering certification, equipment rentals, and daily two-dive excursions. Boarding from the beach, their powerful skiff heads out into today’s lightly choppy seas, and I try to imagine the twenty-metre swells and cyclone winds that would have sunk the 110-metre Yongala. It’s a forty-minute cruise to the buoys that mark its burial site, and we’re briefed about the dive. We must remain alongside the wreck and no entry is permitted. The wreck is heritage-protected, subject to deterioration, and nobody wants to add more bones to the many that have been relocated to the inaccessible bow. Strong currents are common, and all descents and ascents must on the safety line. Since I am here in April, we can expect visibility to be around 10-15 metres. Yongala Dive is an advanced Eco-Tourism operator; no touching the wreck, coral or wildlife. We will use a backwards roll entry, turn around at 120 bar in our tanks, and must exit, by Queensland law, with 50 bar remaining in the tank. The average dive time will be forty minutes, with an hour-long interval before the second dive. Our group of divers from Australia, Germany and the US display the nervous fizzy energy of people on the cusp of a bucket list experience. The sky is blue, the currents are calm, the waters clear. Large batfish and a Hawksbill turtle breach the surface around us. The SS Yongala patiently awaits.
As with all wildlife excursions, you never know what you’re going to get, but let me assure you, you will see a lot of fish. More fish in one place than any of us – hardcore divers included – have ever seen. Coral cod and orange-pink coral trout, bluespine unicorns and banded angelfish, luminous blue and yellow fusiliers and huge schools of stripey snapper. Giant trevally and red bass, moray eels, bullet-quick tuna, barracuda, anemone, and we’re just getting started! Green and hawksbill turtles, guitar, ray and bull sharks, venomous banded and curious olive sea snakes, flowery cod, round face bat fish, colourful Maori wrasse, eagle and manta rays, and too many more. For over a century, the Yongala has become an island of life amidst a stretch of sandy ocean desert. It is an important feeding and cleaning station, a reef with soft and hard coral that has penetrated just about every nook and cranny. No sooner do I leave the line than a large and bizarrely shaped guitar shark cruises by. An olive sea snake dances below, and out of the corner of my eye, I spot a submarine approaching me. Only, this submarine has big eyes and rubber lips and dozens of fish hanging off it like thugs surrounding a Mafioso boss. It’s an enormous Queensland grouper, and barring sharks, easily the biggest fish I have ever seen. All this within the first five minutes, mind you. Open water certified divers are assigned a divemaster, and Trent guides over the collapsed aft mast. I peer into the engine room, the coral encrusted galley, at the decks slowly losing all semblance of manmade metal. The Yongala nameplate is no longer visible, but I do peer into a glass port window, and spot a blackened toilet. Large schools of small cardinals are everywhere, with giant silver trevally and black turrum snatching them out of their safety in numbers. Several times I find myself disorientated, encircled by shimmering schools. There are red emperors, damsels, darktail snappers, java rabbitfish, blackspot tuskfish, estuary cod, mangrove jacks, small and large mouth nannygai. After two safety stops, we surface for an hour, snack on cakes and fruit, and prepare for our second dive. This time I’m more relaxed, more familiar with the lay of the wreck. In the shadows of the bow and stern hide the massive, 500-pound groupers, not the least bit perturbed by our presence.
Several dive reports call the Yongala an open-water aquarium, and easily one of the world’s greatest dives. Back at the dive shop, our group shares the experience, and concurs . Of course, this is a dive story, and divers tend to exaggerate. That grouper, was it two, no three, no four metres? Did you see the manta ray, the black tip reef shark, or was it a bull shark? Bringing this diversity of marine life together is the wreck that divers the world over dream about. The going theory is that the Yongala hit a reef, quickly took on water, and in the fierce storm, sank so abruptly no life saving vessels were deployed. In the ensuing tragedy, this ship and so many lives simply vanished. Many generations later, all is not lost. Australia’s bucket list wreck remains off the coast of Queensland, waiting to be discovered.