Diving Australia’s Titanic

Photo Courtesy Yongala Dive

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. 

Photo Courtesy Yongala Dive

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.  

Cruise Down the Inside Passage

Bigger than the next three largest US states – Texas, California and Montana – combined, Alaska challenges the American consciousness like an unscratchable itch. It’s so massive, so underpopulated, and so untamed, there’s no wonder it attracts everyone from free spirits and survivalists to hardened criminals, hoping to disappear into the snow and under the radar. It also attracts cruise ships, sailing the Inside Passage alongside crystal-blue glaciers, snowcapped mountains, deep fjords, icebergs, whales, and soaring bald eagles. Before we board the Coral Princess, a floating palace of luxe, lets head inland to see the wild for ourselves. It is early September, and the hard sun of summer has lost its shine, but the fall foliage is exploding, as if angels tie-dyed the tundra in honour of a Rastafarian princess.

We trace the Kenai Peninsular, looking for beluga whales at Beluga Point, before making our way along the fjord to the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge. Guy, my well-named guide, downloads information about the area, the wildlife, the culture, the abundant natural wonders. He speaks earnestly and could say anything, because, well, he looks a lot like John Cusack. The scenery is balm for the dry, cracked heel of the soul. We stop at a couple roadside attractions – a visitor centre where we learn about the US Congressmen who vanished without a trace while flying to Juneau; a Conservation Centre where we stare at huge stuffed grizzly bears, elk, caribou, black bears and a couple lynx. With 50,000 grizzlies and even more black bears, bears are a subject of fascination. Just about every local I meet tells me what to do should I encounter one. Be big! Be small! Run! Don’t Run! One would think a bear is sits in wait behind every tree waiting to pounce with a bear hug.

We’re not on the cruise yet, but the service that has made Princess such a successful luxury travel brand is on full display at their lodge. Outstanding food, friendly and efficient service, great company. This evening’s accommodation is the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, one of five inland lodges Princess owns and operates in Alaska. You can leave a wake-up call if North America’s tallest mountain emerges from the cloud, or should the northern lights explode in the night sky. Mount McKinley, known in the native tongue as Denali – The High One – is the only 6000m+ peak in North America, and one of the Seven Summits that challenges all serious mountain climbers. Alaskans proudly point out that McKinley is taller than Everest, if you account for its elevation from sea level.

Denali National Park is the grand attraction for inland Bucket listers, and the adjacent town, Denali, opens only during the summer season. During winter, the one traffic light turns off, the Subway and shops close down, and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge (Alaska’s largest hotel), shutters up for the freeze. Denali is a launch pad for a national park that covers a staggering 24,585 square km, accessed by only one road. To get a sense of the size, we hop aboard a helicopter for a view from above. Fireweed and foliage erupts with the reds, oranges and yellows of autumn. The taiga, a Russian word to describe the boreal forest that forms the largest biome on Earth, is a palette of colour. The firs, pines and spruce of the taiga only grow several weeks a year, appearing stunted compared to their more temperate cousins. The helicopter glides over purple glaciers, grazing Dall sheep, stark gray mountains, and untamed valleys too remote for human encounters. The fall colours only pop for a couple weeks at the end of summer, an advantage of visiting at the tail end of the season, even as the days and nights become significantly cooler. With little fanfare, the Denali Express that shepherds passengers from the Princess Lodge to their awaiting cruise ship in Whittier has to be among world’s most beautiful short train journeys. Customized cars with panoramic windows, full bar, dining service and affable interpretors roll amongst taiga, rivers, mountains and fjords. It’s a practical means to get passengers from point A to point B, but a worthy journey to make just in itself. Especially when the sun’s rays crack the clouds, beaming a yellow yolk over the luminescence of fall.

Readers might be surprised that I enjoy modern cruiseships. I like that I can travel without moving, that I can actually relax without a million things to do, just like (The shock! The horror!) a real life vacation. Admittedly I view the manicured onshore experiences with a sense of bemusement, but I appreciate the romance of holing up in a stateroom with my wife. It’s fun dressing up for formal nights, and wine can flow far the presence of car keys. Sure, the excess can be overwhelming. The split-level world of passengers indulging in over-abundance served by hard working crew from developing countries is a stark contrast. It is an industry that synchs up the needs of its guests (I want to be treated like kings) with the wants of its crew (I want to make enough money in six months that I can go home and buy a house). The late, great David Foster Wallace wrote about it better than I ever could in a brilliant essay called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Like all travel, the success of cruising is as much about the people you’re experiencing it with as the ship itself. I’ve been on several cruises, met wonderful people, and had a wonderful time. Worth noting that David Foster Wallace went cruising by himself, spent much of his time alone in his room, and made little effort to connect with anyone around him.

Over the course of the week, my wife and I make fast friends with other couples, and together we dine with the gusto of huns. Andre, the ship’s knowledgeable South African sommelier, pairs each dish with wine that tastes better after his able descriptions. Another South African, Vaughn, takes such delight and enthusiasm in his service it permeates the food. These, and other crew veterans, leave no doubt that they love what they do, year after year, or else they simply wouldn’t be doing it.

On the bridge, we meet the captain, a portly Italian who swings the biggest anchor on board. Below, everything is maximized for space efficiency, but the bridge is spacious, almost minimalist. There is a control panel in the centre, and two identical mini-panels on either side for port docking. Buttons and monitors and gauges and knobs and computers – it looks like something out of Star Trek. It must have inspired the USS Enterprise, as it did the Love Boat, based on a Princess Cruise ship in the Caribbean. The Coral creeps up to the Hubbard Glacier onto Glacier Bay, where massive glaciers tower over the sea, ice calving, creaking and cracking into the waters below. Compressed snow squeezes out the oxygen in the water, giving glacier ice its mint blue tint. We grab our robes, cheese and wine, sit on the balcony, and enjoy the chill in style.

As with all cruise itineraries, there’s a variety of on-shore experiences on our journey south to Vancouver. In Skagway, we take a short ferry to the town of Haines, where a South Carolina implant named Ronnie leads us on Kawasaki Mule convoy up a mountainside. In Juneau, we’re greeted with a magnificent blue-sky day. The locals in the Alaskan capital, accessible only by boat and air, tell us they haven’t seen the sun in weeks. Poor weather kills our on-shore zodiac ride in Ketchikan, or was it a huge night out, culminating in a room party, a late night dip in the private Sanctuary pool area, and a real “holy crap, ain’t life great” moment starboard at Guy’s favourite Deck 8 hangout.

Over thirteen days we’ve seen outrageous natural beauty, undertaken some unforgettable adventures, all the while being wined and dined like only a cruise ship passenger can. Travellers became colleagues and colleagues became friends. As every cruise veteran will tell you: there are big ships, and there are small ships, but the one that truly counts, are friendships.

The Best Winter Experiences in Canada

Canadians don’t let snow, ice and freezing rain get in the way of a good adventure. Travelling to every province and territory to research our sister book, The Great Canadian Bucket List, I discovered exceptional winter experiences to add to the list of things to do in Canada – or anywhere else – before you die. Here’s my round-up of the best winter experiences in Canada:

Skoki Lodge, Alberta

Winter guests cross-country ski a challenging 11km to reach Western Canada’s oldest backcountry lodge. No roads, no 4×4’s – just a path through pristine wilderness inside the Lake Louise Ski Resort, located within Banff National Park. Awaiting you is the rustic wooden Skoki Lodge, built in 1931 and selected by early mountaineers for its remoteness, scenic beauty, and access to exceptional ski trails. No running water, no electricity, no bathrooms either – just a homely throwback to yesteryear, where friends and strangers explore the outdoor beauty of winter, indulge in fabulous meals, then gather round the fire with great stories and a cup of hot chocolate.

Polar Bear Safari, Manitoba

Each fall, the outpost town of Churchill receives unusual guests. Among them are scientists, researchers, and wildlife enthusiasts armed with cameras. Nearly one thousand visitors are polar bears, waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze in order to head north and feast after their long, summer fast. The world’s most southerly population of polar bears migrate around Churchill, which is why the town has closed-circuit cameras, bear traps, and a bear jail for bears that get a little too close. It also has tour operators like Frontiers North and Churchill Wild, with customized elevated tundra buggies that take you safely into the tundra to get up close and personal with the world’s largest carnivore. Having a polar bear fog up your camera lens with its hot breath is definitely one for the Bucket List.

Heli-Sking, British Columbia

When a helicopter becomes your own personal ski chair, dropping you on top of mountains with deep, virgin powder stretching in every direction, it’s hard to go back to your local hill. CMH Heli Skiing’s 11 lodges, operating in BC’s Columbia Mountains, attract eager clients from around the world. Joining a group of Americans, Brits and Australians, I quickly understood why. Averaging about 12 runs a day through terrain that freezes a grin to your face, powder skiing or riding is the closest activity I’ve experienced to flying – and I’ve paraglided on 4 continents. It takes a while to get the hang of deep powder, and strong winds and avalanches can ground both helicopters and skiers, so you’ll want to book at least three to five days to tick this one off your Bucket List. Admittedly your whirlybird ski-chair does not come cheap, but with a guaranteed amount of untracked vertical feet, the exhilaration is worth it.

Winter Carnival, Quebec

Shake your booty at Rio’s Carnaval, collect your beads in New Orleans, but whatever you do, don’t miss out on the world’s largest winter festival. For over half a century, Quebec City’s annual Winter Carnival has attracted millions of revellers to its celebration of snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures. Festive parades, snow carving, slides, rides and competitions greet visitors to the city’s Battlefields Park, where locals and guests wear the traditional ceinture fléchée, a colourful French-Canadian sash. Stroll down Grande Allée and pull up to an ice-bar for some caribou – a hot mulled wine with whiskey. When the thermometer plummets below -15°C and crowds are still on the streets cheering acrobats on decorated floats, you can feel the chill of winter shrivel.

See the Northern Lights, Northwest Territories

In a UK poll that asked 22 million people what destinations or activities top their Bucket List, 27% (the second highest percentage) said they want to see the northern lights. One of the best places in the world to do this is in Yellowknife. The city lies beneath a halo-like ring known as the aurora oval, where lights flare in the sky with an increased intensity. With few geographical obstructions, and a high percentage of clear winter nights, the northern lights are particularly active from mid-November to mid-April. Experience aurora watching in comfort thanks to tour operators like Aurora Village and Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures, who provide heated viewing decks, hot drinks, and comfortable chairs in cabins removed from local light sources. Watching green, red and blue lights dance across a clear northern sky is a natural spectacle that belongs on Canada’s Bucket List too.

Go Dogsledding, Yukon

The huskies, labradors and tough-as-nails Yukon mutts found in Whitehorse’s Muktuk Kennels are the happiest dogs I’ve ever seen. Lovingly named, cared for and exercised, the kennel’s 125 dogs can’t wait to you pull you on a sled into the surrounding valley. You’ll quickly learn that dogsledding is all about teamwork. If the dogs are not happy, you’re not going anywhere. Fortunately, Muktuk’s friendly mushers are there to guide you. As for your team, they’ll reward you with licks, howls and even cuddles. Muktuk’s dogs make loyal, well-trained pets, and runs an adoption program for their retired dogs. It was -30°C the afternoon I spent sledding with eight delighted northern dogs, but some experiences will forever warm the soul.