Two Wrecks, Part 2: The Yongala

Last month, I wrote about a memorable dive trip to the Nord, an intact shipwreck just off the south-east coast of Tasmania. But lets face it, not many people go to Tasmania. That’s a shame, of course, since it’s one of the world’s truly beautiful places, but its just too far out the way to get many foreign visitors. Most people who travel to Australia do however end up in Cairns or Townsville in far-north Queensland, because from there you can reach one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef. And from there you can also take a charter trip out to see the Yongala, the most spectacular divable wreck in the world.

Yes, yes, the reef is great. Did over a dozen dives there. Loved ‘em all. But let’s face it: the reef is really pretty tame diving. Most of the charters that go out there have so many novice divers that the dives they lead are always short in duration, in protected waters, and limited to 18m depth. Lots of pretty fish. Beautiful colors. Absolutely nothing to scare you. However, there are also longer, more advanced trips offered, and for these they require proof of significant dive experience. One of these trips is to the Yongala; along with its big sharks, huge rays, schools of barracuda, 30m depths, and currents strong enough to blow you to New Zealand. And what a trip it is.

I was there in April of 1995 as part of my Dive Master certification course. I was taking the course with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, a large dive school and charter outfit that works out of both Cairns and Townsville, but I was in Townsville at their training facilities.

Anyway, part of the Dive Master certification is an apprenticeship program where you serve as an instructor’s assistant for the lower level classes. My second apprenticeship was with an Advanced Diver’s class that was going out to the Yongala for two days of diving at the wreck site.

We boarded the 22m motor catamaran Watersport on a Friday evening. Mike Ball has two boats out of Townsville: the larger, more upscale Spoilsport; and the older, smaller, slower, less luxurious, but a lot more fun, Watersport. Watersport’s clientele includes a lot more backpackers and mad-keen divers than the executive-laden Spoilsport, so it has a very casual atmosphere. Good food too.

You board Watersport in the early evening, then she motors to the site through the evening and overnight while you sleep. She arrives at about 4:30AM so you wake up at the site. The wreck site is in very open water, and land is barely visible in the distance on clear days.

So, how did the ship get wrecked way out there? Actually, no one is completely sure, as she is still inside the Great Barrier Reef, in that strip of north-eastern Australian coastal water that’s protected by chains of coral breakers to seaward. And there were no witnesses to the sinking because the Yongala was a major maritime tragedy and all hands were lost. I’ll let Mike Ball himself tell the story in this version I stole from Townsville’s tourism Internet site,

“She was an attractive ship, with wood paneling and stairways, and operated by the Adelaide Steamship Company since 1903, one of several on their northern run. Newspapers of the day wrote of her up-to-date appointments, her smooth ride, and her seaworthiness.” Mike Ball says.

On March 21, 1911 she sailed from Brisbane with forty-nine passengers and a crew of seventy-two. On the 23rd her crew unloaded freight at Flat Top Island and sailed for Townsville, her principal destination. “Minutes later the weather station at Flat Top received notice of a cyclone but ship-to-shore radio had only begun the year before and the Yongala didn’t carry wireless equipment.” Mike Ball continues. Four hours later, the sky heavy with storm clouds and the sea already violent, she was sighted in the Whitsundays and reported as heading north into the heart of the storm.

As Mike Ball explains, she was due in Townsville on the 24th but her late arrival didn’t cause any undue alarm as it was presumed that her master had changed course to avoid the eye of the cyclone. “But a week later and now well overdue, wreckage began to be found. First bags of pumpkins and a sailor’s shirt, then a life buoy and the music room door. Later finds included hatch gratings, mail bags, and the only body, a race horse on its way to compete in Townsville.” Mike Ball says.

The ship itself and all aboard disappeared and a Marine Board of Inquiry at the time delivered a report that concluded: The fate of the Yongala passes beyond human ken into the realms of conjecture, to add one more to the long roll of mysteries of the sea. “The mystery remained and stories of a ghost ship, covered in rust and identical to the Yongala, began to circulate. One well-documented tale was by two fishermen who chased her behind a headland near Bowen. When the two men came round the headland she had disappeared.”

Mike Ball’s expression is still serious as he continues: “Then in 1943, during World War II, a minesweeper found her in about 25 meters of water … not where she was expected to be from all previous reports, but where she should have been … right in line with the route most vessels take when heading for Townsville. She had been on course, heading for home and safety when she went down.”

Fifteen years later two Townsville divers located her again, complete with her dead crew and passengers, and brought up a safe found in the purser’s office. Its serial number was sent to the European manufacturer and it proved to be one supplied to the Yongala during her construction in England in 1903. Parts of the mystery…her location and the fate of those who sailed with her… were solved. The mystery of exactly why she sank still hasn’t been completely resolved.

Even with stories of ghost ships aside, the history is an intriguing one. The site is now a recognized historical site and the wreck itself is operated under a strict “look, but don’t take” policy. Neither are you allowed to enter the wreck’s hull, as all diving is restricted to the outside.

The Watersport ties to a mooring line that also serves as an ascent/descent line to the wreck. The surface current at the site can be quite strong, and so a line is needed to keep you from getting either swept away or exhausted.

The Watersport’s presence soon attracts a large shoal of orbiculate batfish (Platax orbicularis), which feed on the waste from her head. “Submarine seagulls” I started calling them. They will readily feed from your hand but you are discouraged from doing that as they get a little too friendly. And at about 70cm in length, they can be a real nuisance. There were also a large number of jacks (Carangoides fulvoguttatus) around, but they weren’t nearly as cheeky as the batfish.

Our first dive down to the wreck was, I admit, not very fun. My job, as instructor’s assistant, was to follow behind the class and make sure none of the students got lost. Everything was fine until one student began getting quite low on air, and we were still at 25m depth and quite far away from the ascent line. When he got down to his tank’s red line, I handed him my spare regulator. So, with two people drawing from it, my tank also emptied quickly. I don’t particularly enjoy being under water with an empty air tank, so I had to watch my gauge carefully to make sure we had enough air. As we approached the ascent line I could see we didn’t, so I handing the diver over to the instructor to draw from his tank. Basically the dive involved too much stress management to be any fun. However, two things struck me about the wreck: the incredible color of the soft corals and the fish! The water was very clear, about 25m visibility, but while looking down the length of the wreck you could only see about half that length as the view was lost in clouds of small damsel fishes, mostly the brown yellow-tail damsel (Neopomacentrus azyron).

The other dives we did were a hoot. Some were part of the class’s instruction, some were just for fun. One time, I just jumped in without my stinger suit or weight belt, and played along the ship’s upper deck. I was limited on that dive to a maximum depth of 16m as my earlier dives put me in danger of getting the bends if I went deeper. This was the only time I have ever dived without a weight belt or body covering, and the freedom was amazing. Being used to 12C water, I only brought a light Lycra stinger suit along, rather than a wet suit. The 25C water was quite comfortable without one. But everyone else was diving in 3mm wet suits (Wimps!). The stinger suit was protection against fire coral and the odd jellyfish that washed by in the current, but on that occasion, I left it behind and just threw on my tank, mask, and fins. Great fun.

Another instructional dive was down to the very bottom, to a depth of 30m. The purpose of this dive was to introduce the advanced students to deep diving in a controlled situation. They had to do some simple arithmetic problems at depth to illustrate that they were in fact suffering from nitrogen narcosis even if they didn’t feel it. My job was to hover above the class and make sure no one panicked and made a mad dash to the surface. While we were down there, one of the dive masters swam right down to us without a tank! I had of course heard of people who can free dive to 30m but had never seen it done before…I was quite impressed. For myself, however, I have never been able to equalize my sinuses and ears easily enough to dive very deeply on a single breath. Wish I could.

The neatest dive was a so-called “dusk dive”. Because of the refraction of light entering water, it gets dark quite early under water. The sun can be up, but if the angle is low enough, the light can not penetrate to depth. Therefore about an hour before sunset is a dusk period, when the only illumination comes from the blue sky above. At this time there is a changing of the guard, as both the nighttime fish and the daytime fish are active. It is also when the big predators do their hunting. We swam among huge bull rays (Myliobatis australis), a sawfish (Pristis microdon), a large school of giant barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), and one bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas). The last of these, by the way, has been known to eat the odd human, but by the time we saw him I was getting so used to swimming among fish that were bigger than me that he didn’t make much of an impression.

We also took the students on a night dive…wonderful stuff. The colors of the corals are at their best then because you take your light source with you, and have the full spectrum available to see them. We saw my only live sea snake (Aipysurus laevis) and lionfish (Pterois volitans) on that dive. After the dive, we were waiting to board the boat. The instructor went first, then the students in turn, and then finally me. Now, this was a pitch-black tropical night, out of sight from shore, and the only thing visible was one boat in an ocean of India ink. Below me was, I knew, a fair number of sharks. And I was just sitting there, floating at the surface with my feet dangling down. As I turned my head, a large hump rose out of the water right next to me. Aackk! But it turned out to be just a loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) coming up from air. We had met her before, a large female that grazes on the soft corals of the wreck. At about a hundred years old, she would have been a young adult when the ship went down in 1911.

Practically every fish to be found in the Great Barrier Reef is at the Yongala too. The list of what we saw is just too long to go through. The density of small fish was greater than anything I’ve seen on the reef, and throw on top of that the drama of the sea turtles, sea snakes, and big predators, and you have what, all the reviews say, is one of the very best dive sites in the world. I am counting the days until I can go back. ?