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A RETURN TO THE SS YONGALA ON SPOILSPORT

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Twenty four years. I couldn’t believe it was 24 years since the last time I dived the amazing shipwreck SS Yongala. As I stepped into the water I wondered what changes I would notice to the wreck and if the marine life would be as prolific as I remembered it. Little did I realise that I was about to do one of the best dives of my life!

 

The last time I dived the SS Yongala was off the same vessel, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions wonderful liveaboard Spoilsport. Back in 1991 Spoilsport was based in Townsville and visited the shipwreck almost weekly on its very popular Coral Sea/Yongala trips. But after relocating to Cairns, Spoilsport now only visits the SS Yongala on specially scheduled trips in May each year.

 

Last year we joined one of these trips to dive the SS Yongala and experienced the worst weather we, and the crew, had ever seen on the inner Great Barrier Reef - 4m seas and 40 knot plus winds. The conditions were far too dangerous to dive the SS Yongala, but we still managed to do some lovely reef dives. Not to be beaten we booked on again this year for a three day trip, and fortunately the weather was just perfect.

 

Boarding Spoilsport at Townsville’s Breakwater Marina on Thursday afternoon it was great to be back on board one of the best liveaboard boats in the world. Spoilsport is a 30m long catamaran that accommodates 24 guests in very comfortable cabins. After meeting our crew and fellow passengers we cast off for the overnight trip to Wheeler Reef.

 

The first day of the trip was spent diving Wheeler Reef, exploring bommies, walls, gutters and coral gardens. The diving was actually very good, and we encountered reef sharks, turtles, stingrays, prolific reef fish and a large school of barracuda, but everyone was just counting down the hours until we got to the SS Yongala as this was just the entrée, not the main event.

 

Overnight we headed south, the seas were a little lumpy, but calmed by the time we reached the wreck site. Almost everyone was up before dawn, keen to see what the conditions were like, and they looked superb – light winds, slight seas and very blue water. I had previously done about twenty dives on SS Yongala and the best visibility I had experienced was 10m, but this looked a whole lot better.

 

At the dive brief  trip director Kerrin gave us a quick history of the ship. The SS Yongala was a 109m long passenger ship that sunk in a cyclone on the 23rd of March 1911 with the loss of 123 people, and now rests on its starboard side in depths from 15 to 29m. We then quickly geared up and entered the water to find the visibility was at least 25m. On the short surface swim to the mooring we encountered batfish, giant trevally and one inquisitive black-tip shark. I don’t know who was more excited as we descended, Helen on her very first dive on the SS Yongala (after three failed attempts) or me finally returning after 24 years.

 

Once underwater the dark shape of the SS Yongala quickly came into view, as did millions of fish! Swarming around the stern were countless fusiliers, cardinalfish and damselfish, and feeding on them was a hungry pack of turrum trevally. But also hanging around the stern were angelfish, mangrove jacks, parrotfish, Maori wrasse, coral trout, estuary gropers and three massive Queensland gropers. We dropped to the sandy bottom at 29m and looked under the stern to find even more fish, hundreds of painted sweetlips and also a few olive sea snakes.

 

So far the ship looked exactly as I remembered it, covered in lovely corals and packed with marine life, the only thing that was different was the great visibility, allowing me to see more of the ship than I had ever seen before. With the ship lying on its starboard side we had the choice of either exploring its deck side or the hull side, we choose the deck side as there is so much more to see.

 

Swimming along the deck we swam past the aft masts and the rear cargo hold, but much of the machinery and structure on the deck was hard to identify as it is completely covered in wonderful corals – soft corals, gorgonians, black coral trees, tubastra corals, sponges, sea whips and ascidians. Wedged in between the corals was a hawksbill turtle busy eating sponges, while in the rear cargo hold was a sleeping loggerhead turtle. As we swam along the ship every few seconds we encountered another swarm of fish; schools of snapper, sweetlips and fusiliers, while constantly swimming past were batfish, mackerel and trevally.

 

Going passed the mid-ship area we looked into the hole where the funnel once attached to see the engine room, now home to several estuary gropers and a much larger Queensland groper. Every few minutes we encountered a turtle or a sea snake, both species either sleeping, feeding or heading to the surface for a breath of air. Overhead was also a constant parade, with giant trevally and Spanish mackerel speeding past, and a group of spotted eagle ray gliding by at one stage.

 

The last time I dived the SS Yongala you could penetrate the ship, but that activity has now been banned to help preserve this historic shipwreck. This wasn't really a problem as you could easily see into many parts of the ship, plus there was just so much to see and photograph outside.

 

Reaching the forward cargo hold we were buzzed by a black-tip shark and in the distance could see a patrolling bull shark. The Queensland gropers had obviously been following us as they suddenly appeared out of the blue once more then headed off towards the bow.

 

Reaching the bow we found it covered in a silver halo of baitfish, but every few seconds the shimmering cloud of baitfish would part as the tiny fish were being bombarded by trevally. While exploring the bow a cowtail stingray glided in from the blue and we were joined by a family of Maori wrasse.

 

Return along the hull side of the ship, we found the corals on this side of the ship dominated by a thick forest of sea whips. Reef fish, batfish, Maori wrasse and coral trout glided between the sea whips, and several olive sea snakes were also well disguised amongst the similar looking sea whips.

 

As we swam along the hull large sections of bare metal could be seen, the coral coverage stripped away by Cyclone Yasi in 2011. The crew of Spoilsport had informed us about this cyclone impact. At first we thought it might make the wreck look a little bare, but with so much coral covering the rest of the ship it was nice to be reminded that we were diving on a shipwreck and not a reef.

 

Continuing along the hull side, and ignoring the masses of marine life for a few minutes, we peered into the bridge, first class dining room and checked out the toilets in the second class bathroom. We also found a row of portholes with their glass still intact. Returning to the stern it was time to ascend.

 

We slowly made our way to the 10m mark to do our first safety stop, but Helen lingered a little longer and was rewarded when a large stingray suddenly appeared from the blue. This huge ray was surrounded by cobia and had a smaller pink stingray riding its back. I tried to swim down to get a photo, but as quickly as it had appeared it disappeared. Helen managed to get a few photos, and lucky she did as once we got back on board Spoilsport one of the instructors, Ollie, identified it as the rarest and largest stingray in the world, the smalleye stingray. Ollie had previously seen one on the SS Yongala, but this was the first time one had been photographed. What a way to end a spectacular dive.

 

Over the next day and a half we did six more dives on the SS Yongala, and each one was just as good and produced something special – a tawny nurse shark and loggerhead turtle snuggled up together, a pack of black-tip sharks, a group of queenfish, gangs of giant trevally feeding at night, a massive school of barracuda, marble rays, white-spot shovelnose rays, countless sea snakes and a fat sleeping tasselled wobbegong.

 

The dives we did on the SS Yongala were spectacular and reinforced why this special shipwreck is rated as one of the best dive sites in the world. And one of the big advantages of diving this historic shipwreck from Spoilsport is that you can dive the wreck as many times as you like and see the changes to the marine life throughout the day and night.

 

We had an incredible three days on Spoilsport and would recommended Mike Ball Dive Expeditions special SS Yongala trips to anyone that wants to see this shipwreck at its best. And I know I will not be awaiting another 24 years for a return visit!

 

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