Diving the SS Yongala

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She Went Wild Ambassador: Sara Piper

The SS Yongala is an incredible tale in Australian history. A tragic story that has become one of Australia’s most renowned dives.

On the 23rd of March, 1911 the 110-meter-long passenger ship was steaming up the north east coast of Australia when it was hit by a cyclone. In times when radio technology was scarce, there were no distress calls received and only days later when wreckage began to wash ashore, was the worst feared.

Almost 50 years would pass before the ship was discovered 30 meters below sea level 46 nautical miles from Townsville. Whilst all 122 passengers perished, their story would live on, told through the gills of the vibrant marine ecosystem the ship has become.

I immersed myself in the mystery of Yongala with Adrenalin Dive, in Townsville. Skipper Paul and his team are a no-frills bunch – but who needs frills at -30 meters. With Adrenalin Dive, as with any good dive operator, safety is paramount. Boat and dive briefings are concise and thorough. With infamously strong currents, dive master’s words aren’t minced and buddy checks aren’t missed.  

A couple of hours after leaving Townsville there is no land in sight. The 20 or so divers on board are split into small groups based on experience and I opt to go with a guide.

My BCD is afloat with adrenalin and nerves - that unmistakable pre-dive excitement. With one giant stride the adventure begins.

Mask on. Reg in. Descend.

The mood is immediately set by the enchanting distant song of a humpback whale. In stark contrast a school of blue trevally whoosh past almost within arms reach. In the time it takes me to fill my lungs with the first excited intake of air, I’m transported to another world.    

Descending just a few meters reveals the ghostly shape of the wreck. She is almost completely intact, her mast still attached, protruding into the dark blue depths of the Coral Sea. She rests as if abandoned mid-battleship game, gently on a 45degree angle port-side-up.

Unlike that fateful night in 1911, today the Yongala is in full control. An entire ecosystem molded around her. A sight so incredible that not only human species come daily in awe, a never-ending parade of marine visitors of mind-boggling diversity pass by on repeat.

Vibrant soft sway to a silent tune on the upper deck where schools of tropical fish dance in unison; sea snakes like gymnasts’ ribbons flicker past; huge Maori Wrasse resembling swimming rainbow paddle pops casually stop in for a gander; and the car-sized grouper appropriately named VW hangs about at the bow like an oversized doorman.

On the second dive of the day I’m met by a completely different array of marine hosts, as if on a rotating roster of meet-and-greet.

I inadvertently join a snapper superhighway. We leisurely convoy south with the current before my new found friends merge left and head into the ‘fish-only’ lane of the wreck. In 2002 Yongala’s interior declared off-limits to divers as a means of conservation and also out of respect for the final resting place of those that lost their lives. Touching the wreck can result in a $5,000 fine.

I dance at a distance with a lion fish, admire a huge pastel puffer and again descend back under the bow to be greeted again by VW, who seems suspended in time and space where I left him on the first dive. Only his puffed-up trophy-wife lips show any movement. Staring in wonder, I estimate roughly four of me would fit into his belly. I don’t dare test his personal space.   

Having traversed the length of Yongala and back, I join a busy waiting room of divers on safety stop, gradually returning to a world where time is not warped and beauty seems a little less vibrant.

A few Go-Pro snaps later and it is here we leave behind this small part in Australian history. A tale of 122 lives cut tragically short but a story that will become as old as the sea itself.
For more info visit Adrenalin Dive, Townsville and Tourism Townsville.

Check out Sara's Dive video