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QUEENSLAND’S CORAL WARSHIP - HMAS BRISBANE

By Nigel Marsh

 

The Yongala is easily the most famous shipwreck in Australia and is regularly listed in the top ten dive sites in the world. However, in the last few years another ship in Queensland has overtaken the Yongala in popularity; that ship is HMAS Brisbane.

 

It all started with a big bang! As I suppose many things do, but this bang sent the HMAS Brisbane to the bottom of the ocean in only two minutes!

 

I was in the crowd that day, July 31 2005, just one of the thousands that watched the 133m long guided missile destroyer disappear below the waves off Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, only 100km north of the capital of Queensland and the ship’s name sake - Brisbane.

 

Video shot that same afternoon by commercial divers, employed to check that all the explosives had detonated, confirmed that the ship was sitting pretty – perfectly upright on the sand in 27m of water. Watching the video on the news that night I thought it would be weeks before I got a chance to explore HMAS Brisbane, when she was to be officially opened to divers. But only two days later I got a call from Greg Riddell, of Sunreef Diving Services, informing me that they had been given permission to do an orientation dive on the ship and would I like to come along – silly question!

 

The next morning found me on Sunreef Diving Services’ dive boat and ready to explore HMAS Brisbane. We were only allowed one dive and no penetration, as not all the detonation cables had been cleared. I didn’t mind these restrictions as I was just eager to check out this new artificial reef. Arriving over the ship the winter weather couldn’t have been better, calm seas and blue water. We could clearly see the outline of the ship below, with the two funnels very prominent just 5m below the surface.

 

As this was the first recreational dive on HMAS Brisbane we gave Greg and his partner Paul White the honour of being the first in the water, as they had been working tirelessly behind the scenes to secure the ship for the Sunshine Coast after it was decommissioned.

 

It didn’t take long for me to follow them into the water and when the bubbles cleared I could easily see the bow of the ship 15m below. My buddy, Craig, and I descended onto the bow and headed straight for the five inch gun. Both the forward and rear gun turrets had been left in place and they make an impressive sight. After several photos we dropped over the front of the bow to inspect the ship’s pennant number, 41, and then stuck our heads into several of the access holes, thirty of which had been cut into the hull to allow safe access to all areas. It was very tempting to enter the ship, the interior so clean, but we restrained ourselves and swam along the side of the ship to the stern.

 

We then swam under the stern, seeing the prop shaft, minus the props, and then onto the stern deck to inspect the rear gun. Our slow swim back to the funnels took us passed the guided missile silo, now empty, and also numerous rooms, stairs and corridors. After a quick circuit around each funnel we arrived at the bridge area, or what was left of the bridge, the majority of it removed for the National War Museum in Canberra.

 

After fifty minutes it was time to surface from the weirdest wreck dive I had ever done. The ship was amazing to explore, but just so clean and stark, we hadn’t seen one fish. But that wasn’t to last for long.

 

Several weeks later HMAS Brisbane was officially opened to recreational divers and by that time the ship was already covered in a layer of algae. Barnacles and limpets had also started to cover the ship, providing a home to shrimps and crabs, while small schools of pelagic fish patrolled the decks and a few reef fish had settled into a new home.

 

By the time summer had arrived the ship had exploded with life, far quicker that anyone had expected. I didn’t even recognise the ship four months after the scuttling, there was little of the ‘navy grey’ paint to be seen, the covering of algae and molluscs too thick, and even corals and sponges had started to grow. But the biggest surprise was the volume and variety of fish. Schools of trevally, kingfish, yellowtail, mackerel and batfish were swarming around the ship, while the reef fish included rock cod, lionfish, leatherjackets, wrasse, angelfish, butterflyfish and sweetlips to name but a few. However, I was most surprised to find a striped anglerfish and three ornate ghost pipefish – how did they get here so fast?

 

By now I had also had a chance to explore the interior of HMAS Brisbane; the engine room, galley, crew quarters, boiler room and many more. With four levels and what seems like a hundred rooms, I still haven’t fully explored the interior of the ship. But one of my favourite rooms is the Operations Room, which still contains computers that were used to launch missiles – with buttons reading MSL IN FLIGHT, INTERCEPT, SURVIVED and KILL still visible.

 

Each year I have dived HMAS Brisbane it has got better and better, and today it is easy to see why it rivals the Yongala for popularity. After six years on the bottom HMAS Brisbane is now a coral warship, coloured by a variety of soft corals, sponges, ascidians, bryozoans, hydroids and hard corals. Anemones are also common and home to anemonefish, commensal shrimps and the odd porcelain crab.

 

The hardest choice I now have before each dive is which lens to take as the ship is a haven for both small critters and larger creatures. On the critter front there are octopus in almost every hole, mantis shrimps in other holes, and also boxer shrimps, moray eels, hermit crabs, decorator crabs and a very diverse range of nudibranchs. Recently two painted anglerfish have taken up residence on the rear deck, but these well camouflaged fish are not always seen, blending in perfectly with their habitat.

 

Reef fish abound in huge numbers on all parts of the ship, representing almost every tropical fish family. Rock cods are common in the interior of the vessel, but they can be difficult to see as the interior of the ship is often overflowing with cardinalfish, so thick at times that you have to part them like a curtain to enter each room. Lionfish inturn feed on these cardinalfish so you have to be careful where you place your hands, and always check doorways as they like to linger overhead.

 

Other residents of HMAS Brisbane include ‘Myrtle’ the hawksbill turtle, a very photogenic turtle that has no fear of divers, and spotted eagle rays that cruise around the decks and can often be seen hovering at the numerous cleaning stations. The most impressive residence are the gropers, with both brown-spotted gropers and larger Queensland gropers commonly seen. On one memorable dive I counted over a dozen giant Queensland gropers, all around 2m long, hovering in the water column in front of the bow. Where these giant fish came from no one knows, but they seem to have adopted the ship as their new home.

 

The sand around the ship is also home to stingrays and flatheads, and over summer leopard sharks and large white-spotted shovelnose ray gather around the stern. Other surprise visitors to HMAS Brisbane include dolphins, humpback whales, manta rays, sea snakes, grey nurse sharks and even a sunfish, making for quite a menagerie of marine life on this old warship.

 

HMAS Brisbane has proved to be so popular there is even talk of securing another retired warship to sink beside her, which would only add to the popularity of one of Australia’s must do dive sites.

 

HMAS BRISBANE HISTORY

HMAS Brisbane was the second Australian warship to carry the name and was built in the USA and launched in 1966. A Charles F Adams class guided missile destroyer, she measured 133m long, 14m wide and displayed 4500 tons. She was nicknamed ‘The Steel Cat’ as she was fast and manoeuvrable, with a top speed of 35 knots. HMAS Brisbane and her crew did two tours of duty off Vietnam, providing support to the US Seventh Fleet. She fired over 15,000 rounds from her five-inch guns during her deployment. She also served in the first Gulf War and after a long career was retired in 2001. When tenders were called for her future the successful bidders were the Sunshine Coast Artificial Reef Group, helped by the success of the three previous navy ships that had already been scuttled as dive sites; HMAS Swan and HMAS Perth off Western Australia and HMAS Hobart off South Australia. It turned out to be a very rocky road to get her underwater, delays caused by arguments over cleaning costs, insurance and misinformation about her intended scuttling site ate up two years (a problem that also plagued the latest warship to be scuttled HMAS Adelaide). Work was finally allowed to begin to clean her and make her safe for divers, and when the big day finally arrived she went down without a hitch, perfectly placed off the Sunshine Coast.

 

SUNSHINE COAST ATTRACTIONS

You could spend several weeks diving HMAS Brisbane and not see all she has to offer, but this area of Queensland has other underwater attractions. Just nearby the ship are the Gneering and Murphy’s Reef, both of which are covered in hard corals and populated by a diverse range of reef fish, pelagic fish and invertebrates. A popular holiday destination, the Sunshine Coast has a wide range of accommodation, from holiday flats to penthouse suites, shops, bars, restaurants and some wonderful beaches. Other attractions include Underwater World, where you can dive in the shark tank, Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo and the hinterland with its wineries, cheese factory and many markets.

 

Dive Operators -

 

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