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THE CURSE OF THE YONGALA

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

The SS Yongala is recognised as the best shipwreck dive in Australia, but it is also one of the most cursed dive sites in the country. The curse obviously started when the SS Yongala sank in 1911 with the tragic loss of 121 people and continues today as many divers that have attempted to dive this shipwreck with attest.

 

I can’t remember when I first heard about the ‘Yongala Curse’, but it must have been from a frustrated diver returning from a trip who didn’t get to dive the famed wreck. This seems to be a common occurrence, and over the years I have spoken to many divers that have had one, two and even a dozen failed attempts to dive the SS Yongala due to poor weather or other circumstances.

 

I never really believed in the curse, as I had two wonderful trips to the SS Yongala in the 1980s, diving from the Mike Ball liveaboards Watersport and Spoilsport. But on my third trip in 1991 something strange happened that almost made me a believer. I had done two great dives from Spoilsport, capturing some great wide angle images. Before the third dive I went to change the roll of film only to discover there was no film in the camera for those two great dives! I have shot thousands of rolls of film and this had never happened before or since. I couldn’t explain it, just putting it down to all the excitement of diving this incredible shipwreck. Fortunately I still had several more dives to capture more images, so quickly forgot about the incident.

 

I didn’t get to return to the SS Yongala until 2010. We were both really looking forward to this trip, Helen because it would be her first visit and me because I was excited to be shooting the wreck with a digital camera. We had booked a day trip to the SS Yongala and then a four day liveaboard that would also visit the wreck, with Adrenaline Dive.

 

Arriving in Townsville the weather was perfect, but a front was due in a few days, however it didn’t look like it would affect our diving. The next morning our day trip to the SS Yongala got underway with blue skies, flat seas and no wind, so much for the curse. The three hour trip to the SS Yongala was slow and uneventful until we broken down within spitting distance of the Yongala mooring! We then drifted for two hours as the crew fixed a broken fuel pipe. Finally repaired, the crew announced that we had to return to Townsville for safety reasons. The curse had struck again!

 

We still had our liveaboard trip departing in two days. But the next day it was cancelled when the front came in early and stronger than expected. A double dose of the Yongala curse! We went home bitterly disappointed!

 

Four years later and were ready to attempt another trip to the SS Yongala after seeing that Mike Ball Dive Expeditions were operating four special trips in May. We booked on the first trip, which would give us two days of diving on the SS Yongala and a day on the wreck of the Lady Bowen on the way down from Cairns. Diving from the 30m long Spoilsport, one of the most comfortable and stable liveaboards I have ever been on, we thought there was no way we could miss diving the SS Yongala, as this vessel can easily handle 20 knot winds and 2m seas, which ended up being the forecast for our trip!

 

Departing Cairns we were still very optimistic that we would visit the SS Yongala, even after a rough first night travelling south. Day one found us anchored at Eddy Reef, off Mission Beach, for our checkout dive. The weather was terrible; 20 knot winds, choppy seas, grey skies and murky water, at least it was calm sheltered behind the reef. The crew located an interesting dive site and we all jumped in to explore.

 

This site was very pretty, ridges of coral in depths from 10 to 20m that were covered in sea whips, gorgonians, whip corals and soft corals. There was a lovely collection of resident reef fish; it was just a pity that the visibility was only 10m with lots of suspended particles.

 

Some of the divers elected to do a second dive here, but we thought we would wait for the afternoon dives on the nearby Lady Bowen shipwreck. The 70m long Lady Bowen was a four mast schooner that sank near Dunk Island in 1894. The shipwreck was only discovered in 1996 and rests in 33m of water. We had heard great reports about the marine life that swarms on this shipwreck, so were looking forward to diving it just as much as the SS Yongala.

 

Unfortunately with the rough conditions it took almost three hours to get to the Lady Bowen site, and then another hour to anchor and tie up to the wreck. In these conditions a smaller boat wouldn’t have even attempted to reach the wreck, but the size and stability of Spoilsport gave us an advantage here. Getting into the water at 4.30pm we only had time for one quick dive.

 

The rough surface conditions and a surface current made it difficult to get down the mooring line. The descent into dark waters seemed to take forever, the water was blue, but the visibility was barely 8m in the gloomy conditions. Descending in a group I lost sight of Helen, one minute she was behind me, the next in front, at least I thought she was.

 

Arriving on the bottom I was instantly impressed by the fish life; zooming around me were huge giant trevally and smaller batfish and big-eye trevally. The wreck looked pretty broken up, but many features could still be identified. I shot a few quick photos and scanning the wreckage around me could see brown-spotted gropers, sweetlips, snappers and millions of glassfish, they seem to cover the entire wreck. Believing that Helen was in front of me, as I could see a pair of yellow fins in the distance, I started to explore the wreck, thinking I would catch up to her shortly. There was plenty to see, reef fish everywhere, a huge Queensland groper, a large black-blotched stingray and also lots of olive sea snakes. Other divers also reported a loggerhead turtle and a leopard shark.

 

I did a quick lap of this compact wreck, expecting to encounter Helen at any second, but there was no sign of her. I wasn’t really worried about her, as she is a very experienced diver, I was more puzzled as to how we had got separated. If I was in shallower calmer water I would have surfaced and done a lost buddy procedure, but it seemed a little dangerous doing that in these conditions from this depth. So I quickly returned to the stern of the wreck where the mooring was attached, only to find it gone. I joined up with two other divers and we did a free ascent, fortunately locating the mooring line as we got closer to the surface.

 

Finally surfacing I was relieved to see Helen on Spoilsport. The crew then had a hectic time getting everyone back safely on board in the rising seas. As I climbed the ladder the crew had to remove a hitchhiker I had picked up, an olive sea snake wrapped around my reg!

 

I then discovered that Helen, and many of the other divers, hadn’t even got onto the wreck, as when they reached the bottom they discovered the mooring line wasn’t attached to the wreck! Could it be the curse of the Lady Bowen!

 

That night we headed south to the SS Yongala, another rough night bashing into 2m seas. The next morning we woke to a gentle rocking and blue skies. It was Helen’s birthday and it looked like curse had been lifted and we would dive the SS Yongala. Unfortunately once on the deck we could see we were anchored behind a reef, nowhere near the SS Yongala. Then trip director Nick informed us that earlier in the morning they had given up trying to get to the SS Yongala as the seas were now 3m and the winds over 30 knots. We were instead anchored at Keeper Reef, but if conditions improved we would head to the shipwreck later.

 

The crew found a lovely dive site, which they called Helen’s Happy Place, to honour her birthday and make up for missing the SS Yongala. This turned out to be a wonderful reef dive, towers of coral in depths from 2 to 25m, swim throughs, caves, pretty corals, abundant reef fish, turtles, reef sharks and 20m visibility.

 

We enjoyed two dives here and in the afternoon, when the conditions hadn’t improved, we moved to nearby Wheeler Reef. Here we enjoyed an afternoon dive and a night dive on a wonderful coral reef; encountering reef sharks, stingrays, moray eels, lionfish, pipefish and numerous invertebrate species.

 

At dinner we were still talking about our chances of diving the SS Yongala the next day, but all hopes were dashed when the Skipper Trevor announced that the terrible conditions were to continue and it was unsafe to dive the SS Yongala. We were all disappointed, but knew it was the sensible thing to do, so would have to enjoy plan B (at least we had a plan B) of diving the local reefs.

 

The next morning we returned for an early morning dive at Helen’s Happy Place, which was again just magic in these horrible conditions, before doing our final dive at another part of Keeper Reef that the crew nicknamed Elsewhere. This site was wonderful, huge bommies in depths from 15 to 25m, a great assortment of reef fish and a few white tip reef sharks.

 

Heading back to Townsville we were all feeling a bit frustrated at missing the SS Yongala, but felt fortunate we were on Spoilsport and still able to dive some beautiful reefs in the roughest conditions I have ever seen on the Great Barrier Reef. So the curse of the SS Yongala is reinforced with another tale of woe, we just hoped that the three other planned trips to this wonderful shipwreck had better luck than we did!

 

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