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HMAS BRISBANE - CORAL WARSHIP

By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

Six years ago a dramatic incident happened off Queensland’s Sunshine Coast when a ship blew up and sank. Fortunately, no one was injured as the ship disappeared beneath the waves. That ship was the former Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Brisbane, and after six years on the bottom it has been transformed into an amazing artificial reef.

 

Of course the HMAS Brisbane was deliberately sunk in July 2005, and has since become a major tourist attraction for the Sunshine Coast, with divers travelling from across the country and from overseas to dive the old warship.

 

When we first visited the HMAS Brisbane underwater, only three days after she was scuttled off Mooloolaba, she was very clean and there was no marine life to be seen. We still enjoyed a fabulous hour exploring every nook and cranny of this 133m long guided missile destroyer.

 

The ship rests in 27m on a sandy bottom and is safe for divers of all levels of experience, and on a recent visit we was interested to see how much the ship had changed.

 

‘You will not recognise her’ Paul White of Sunreef Diving Services informed us just before we jumped into the water. And Paul was right.

 

As soon as we entered the water we were mobbed by a gang of curious batfish that circled around us. Looking down we could see the ship below, the visibility was superb, 20m of blue water (the visibility can vary from 5m to 30m plus, but averages 12m to 15m). Once on the ship we could see that the hull was now encrusted in algae, ascidians, anemones, sponges, soft corals and even numerous hard corals were developing. The sponges and soft corals were the most colourful - reds, oranges, pinks and yellows, wonderful splashes of colour and a complete contrast to the grey paint of the hull when we first dived the HMAS Brisbane. Some of these corals are quite large, making you think that the HMAS Brisbane has been on the bottom for thirty years, not six years!

 

As we slowly swam along the decks of the ship we encountered a diverse range of reef fish species that now call the ship home. You would think you are diving on a tropical reef, rather than a warship, when you see angelfish, butterflyfish, moon wrasse, anemonefish, blennies, boxfish, surgeonfish, rabbitfish, scorpionfish, lionfish, fairy basslets, morwong, parrotfish and countless other species darting about. Watch out for the damselfish though, as they have found the ship a perfect spot to lay eggs and attack divers that get too close!

 

Another highlight were all the invertebrate species that reside on the ship. A close look between the coral and sponges revealed a diverse range of nudibranch species, and tiny commensal shrimps can also be found in the protective folds of anemones. But also keep an eye out for crabs, crayfish, hermit crabs and octopus.

 

The ship also gets plenty of pelagic visitors, like kingfish, snapper, trevally, barracuda, amberjacks and Spanish mackerel. It was wonderful to see so many fish thriving – a reflection of the fact that the ship is a marine sanctuary with a total ban on fishing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to stop some ignorant fishermen judging by the fishing lines snagged on parts of the hull.

 

Exploring the HMAS Brisbane is a fascinating experience. Suitably qualified divers can enter the ship via one of the many access holes cut into the hull. The interior of the ship was made safe for divers prior to scuttling, with all wiring and doors removed. Exploring the interior you can checkout the engines, the galley, the missile control room and an endless maze of rooms. A good torch is recommended, but allow a week of diving if you want to thoroughly explore the ship.

 

Seeing some of the points of interest can be difficult at times due to the millions of cardinalfish that swarm inside the hull. These cardinalfish are so thick you literally have to part them like a curtain to enter some rooms. Slowly stalking them in the shadows can be lionfish, using their fins to corner their prey.

 

For divers with a little less experience a guide from Sunreef will lead you around the exterior of the ship. Playing follow-the-leader, you will see all the points of interest around the ship, and also some of the resident creatures, like octopus and colourful nudibranch. This tour generally takes in the funnels, the side passages, the missile silo, the bow, the stern and the radar tower. However, the most popular features are the stern and bow gun turrets, with everyone wanting their photo taken with these big guns.

 

Under the stern and bow are the deepest parts of the wreck at 27m and the best place to see large stingrays, shovelnose rays and even huge Queensland gropers. We only saw one groper hanging around the stern, but this giant fish was massive, over 2m long and extremely fat. ‘We have seen up to nine gropers at one time’ Greg Riddell of Sunreef informed us later. Sunreef Diving Services take divers daily to explore the HMAS Brisbane and local reefs on their fast and comfortable dive boat ‘2 EZY’.

 

Also under the stern are jewfish, red emperor, snapper, flatheads and numerous reef fish. Scuttling across the sand can be hermit crabs and nudibranchs, but we have also seen a few unexpected surprises here, including a group of ghost-pipefish and small anglerfish.

 

We ended our dive hanging around the funnel, just enjoying watching all the fish cruising about their home on this huge magnificent artificial reef.

 

The HMAS Brisbane is not the only attraction for divers off Mooloolaba as there are coral reefs to investigate at the Gneering Reefs, Murphy’s Reef and Mudjimba Island. However, most divers want to keep going back to the HMAS Brisbane, to explore this coral warship that is now a Queensland dive icon.

 

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