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WHEN THE STARS ALIGN ON THE SS YONGALA

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

The SS Yongala is rated as one of the best dive sites in the world and for good reason as this Australian shipwreck is home to more marine life than you will see anywhere else on the planet. Unfortunately the shipwreck is also affected by strong currents, poor visibility and rough seas, which I have experienced on previous trips to the SS Yongala. However, on our most recent visit the stars aligned, with perfect conditions making for some of the most spectacular diving we have ever experienced!

 

The SS Yongala lies 12 nautical miles off the Queensland coast and is accessible via day boats from either Townsville or Alva Beach (near Ayr). But a couple of times a year Mike Ball Dive Expeditions relocated their luxury liveaboard Spoilsport to Townsville to allow extended exploration of this amazing shipwreck. We recently joined a three day reef/wreck trip in May that gave us a day and a half to dive the amazing SS Yongala.

 

Boarding Spoilsport on a Thursday night was like meeting up with an old friend, as we have done several wonderful trips on this 30m long catamaran, which is one of the best liveaboards in the world. After meeting the crew and fellow passengers we departed Townsville, our first stop Wheeler Reef.

 

The next morning we woke at Wheeler Reef to sunny skies, light winds and slight seas. The reef dives at this site were just magic; 30m visibility, lovely coral gardens and bommies to explore and abundant marine life. During our dives we encountered white-tip reef sharks, turtles, Maori wrasse, garden eels, stingrays and a large school of barracuda.

 

After the night dive we headed south-west, to the site that everyone was eager to dive – the wreck of the SS Yongala. Early the next morning we got up to check the conditions. We wanted calm seas, no current and blue water; a rare combination on the SS Yongala, but fortunately for us the stars aligned as we had all three.

 

The first dive was just mind blowing - 25m visibility and fish everywhere. We started at the stern and did a complete circuit of the 109m long ship. The ship is still in remarkable condition, considering that it had been hit by Cyclone Yasi since our last visit and has been sitting on the bottom for 104 years. While the ship itself is fascinating to explore the main reason to dive the SS Yongala is to see marine life and plenty of it, and on that front it didn’t disappoint.

 

Everywhere we looked there were fish; schools of batfish, snapper, trevally, sweetlips, baitfish, fusiliers, damsels and many others. But we also encountered Maori wrasse, angelfish, coral trout, mangrove jacks, barramundi cod, red emperors, rock cods, parrotfish, tuskfish, rabbitfish, rainbow runners, gropers and mackerel. But the biggest residence were the three huge Queensland gropers, all over 2m in length.

 

On the first dive we also saw a dozen turtles, countless sea snakes, spotted eagle rays, stingrays, several black-tip sharks and even a bull shark. But the highlight came right at the end of the dive when a very rare smalleye stingray, surrounded by cobia, made a brief appearance. This giant ray, the largest and rarest of the stingray family, was over 2m wide and this was only the second time this species had been recorded on the shipwreck.

 

The second dive was just as good, but this time we spent some time checking out the features of the ship. The SS Yongala was a passenger/cargo ship that plied the waters around Australia for the Adelaide Steamship Company. On the 23 March 1911 the ship was on a voyage from Melbourne to Cairns when hit by a cyclone. The SS Yongala probably sank very quickly as all 123 people on board were tragically killed, and no bodies were ever found. The bones of these unfortunate souls could once be seen in different parts of the ship, but today these remains have all been entombed in a secluded part of the ship so they can rest in peace. Declared a historic shipwreck in 1981, the SS Yongala today rests on its starboard side in depths from 15 to 29m.

 

Although you are not allowed to penetrate the shipwreck (to help preserve the structure) we could still see portholes, toilets, a bathtub, the engines, masts and the large rudder as we explored the ship. There are also winches, bollards, lifeboat davits and other items to be seen, but being completely covered in the most dazzling corals they can be difficult to distinguish. In fact the corals that cover this shipwreck are another feature, with black coral trees, soft corals, candelabra gorgonians, sponges, ascidians, tubastra corals and forests of sea whips decorating much of the ship.

 

Each dive we did on the SS Yongala was completely different, the visibility declined during the day to 15m, but the ever changing parade of marine life left us spellbound. On one dive we encountered a loggerhead turtle cuddling up to a tawny nurse shark, while on another dive we encountered a massive school of giant trevally. Other highlights were a school of queenfish, a squadron of barracuda and a pack of feeding blacktip sharks.

 

Diving the shipwreck at night was the creepiest experience, knowing you are exploring the tomb of 123 souls. If you could put that out of your mind you could enjoy looking at the decorator crabs, shrimps, coral crabs, lionfish, moray eels, flatworms and sleeping fish. But we had to be careful where we shone our torches as gangs of giant trevally were using our lights to pick out prey, charging over our shoulders or between our legs whenever we accidently highlighted a small fish.

 

Our three day trip on Spoilsport ended all too quickly. We had seven incredible dives on the SS Yongala, and were very fortunate that the stars had aligned so we could experience this wonderful shipwreck at its very best.

 

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