A tomb teaming with life

Captain John Silberberg | VOLUME 29, ISSUE 5
Just over 103 years ago, a large iron steamship with 72 passengers aboard mysteriously sank off Townsville. These days the Yongala is a piece of protected history and a thriving marine sanctuary.
These days the Yongala is a piece of protected history and a thriving marine sanctuary. Photography: Julia Sumerling, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions

There's an atmosphere that surrounds a wreck. A wreck can seem somehow out of place. It's a symbol of nature's ultimate power and a reminder of the frailty of humankind's creations. Even our mightiest structures, built with the latest technology and materials, will eventually succumb to the ocean's relentless power.

The fate of the steamship SS Yongala is a case in point. A mass of iron, she forged her way across the world's oceans, carrying cargo and passengers. She sailed the Great Australian Bight for much of her career, facing winter gales and the storms of the southern ocean. On her 99th voyage, she was sailing north through the Great Barrier Reef when a cyclone overpowered and sank her, a loss that devastated the isolated north Queensland communities as friends and family, employers and employed, simply vanished.

We're off the Queensland coast. Townsville is out that way and land is somewhere over there - unseen, beyond the horizon. The sea reflects the steely-blue of the sky, broken by the occasional white-capped wave. The motion of the boat is repetitive, almost hypnotic. Some of us relax and conserve energy, while others check their gear.

The slowing of the engines signals our arrival. I look over the side, attempting to pierce the depths. I'm here to dive on the wreck of the Yongala and expectations are high. I jump off the back of the boat and pull myself along a rope to the buoy that sits above the wreck. The current is noticeable and it takes some effort to move along the line. Peering into the depths, I see shapes darting around, but can't quite make out the wreck.

One last check and I descend through what looks like fish soup. Giant trevally swim above a cloud of smaller fish, and marble rays glide overhead. A green turtle feeds on the corals growing on the wreck. Everywhere I look there are fish.

Cyclonic sinking

The Yongala sank in 1911 when a cyclone overwhelmed her. She remained undisturbed for almost 50 years, until a group of amateur divers set about identifying the wreck. They were the first to marvel at the sealife that established her reputation as Australia's best wreck dive. Today, she is the most-dived wreck in Australia, visited by more than 6000 divers a year.

If the Yongala was just a wreck dive, she wouldn't attract the same attention - there are wrecks that are easier to get to and offer more attraction for hardcore wreck divers - but lying on the seabed for a century has transformed her into an amazing artificial reef. The resident fish population surpasses many of the reefs in the area for abundance and size, and more than 120 different species now make the wreck their home.

The fish make diving the Yongala special; everything is big, friendly and plentiful. Schools of batfish compete for space and rays the size of tractor wheels glide above. Unfussed by the attention they're getting, the superstars of the show are the megafauna; rays, turtles, trevally, cod, groupers and sharks swim into the current, a passing parade for the diving paparazzi.
After witnessing the spectacle, more than one diver has commented: "They're on steroids!"

On a good day, the top of the wreck is visible from the boat. Only it's not the top of the wreck, but the veil of glass fish surrounding the structure. Viewed in silhouette, the wreck has an aura that shimmers and shape-shifts as the fish sweep around the structure.

Dropping down past the elegant curve of the stern reveals the rudder. Oysters cover much of the lower part of the hull, their zigzag openings giving a crinkle-cut appearance.

Diving diversity

If finding yourself mask to nose with a marble ray is not your thing, perhaps you'll find the seasnakes entertaining, or the branching of ghostly black coral trees, or the haunting sound of humpback whale song as they swim past on their annual migration. The Yongala offers something to every diver.

The wreck of the Yongala is 110m long. She lies on her starboard side in 30m of water and rises to her top edge in 15m. Most divers do a 30 to 45 minute dive exploring the wreck. The port side offers a sense of scale as the ship's plating stretches out, curving from bow to stern and from gunwale to keel.

A row of portholes reveals the location of the guest cabins. Many are intact and some are still in the open position, which gave rise to an (unlikely) idea that flooding via the portholes caused the sinking. They're also a reminder of the tragedy accompanying Yongala's loss - the 122 people who perished in what must have been a terrifying ordeal.

Swimming along the wreck I peer into the depths of the holds and marvel at the frame structure, built with the techniques and skills of English ironworkers and now home to marine life. A ripple in the side plating, near the port bow, mars her elegant curves - a sign of the slow and inevitable demise of the wreck.

Today, Queensland and federal law related to historic shipwrecks recognises the significance of the Yongala as a heritage site and mass grave. She is a time capsule, preserving the pre-air-travel era when long-distance transport was by sea and coastal trading vessels were a lifeline for remote settlements.

But her protection was late coming. In the early 1970s, a passing salvage vessel recovered the propeller for scrap metal value. This had an unforeseen benefit and helped to preserve the stern of the wreck by stopping the galvanic reaction between the iron in the hull and the bronze of the propeller.

Do not disturb

Other removals weren't as fortuitous. When the wreck was first being explored, divers would souvenir small items, not realising they were diluting the archaeological value of the site. Marine archaeologists consider a wreck site as a jigsaw puzzle, in which every item is a piece with a place and a purpose. If enough pieces are lost, the puzzle makes no sense and leaves gaps that can't be filled. Deep within the wreck, divers searching for artefacts disturbed human remains. Even the oxygen in the divers' bubbles conspired to degrade the wreck as trapped bubbles accelerated corrosion of the metal in the hull.

The Yongala was listed on Australia's register of historic shipwrecks in 1981, which protected her from souvenir hunters. This was followed by a 1994 ban on divers entering the wreck. Despite this protection, she is slowly succumbing to the ravages of the sea and weather. A storm sent her to the seabed and storms continue to damage her.

Cyclone Yasi pushed waves as high as nine metres over the Yongala and stripped a lot of the marine growth off the wreck. The growth forms a protective layer that stops oxygen in the water attacking the iron in the hull. Removal of the growth increases the rate of corrosion. The structure of the wreck is slowly dissolving. It will eventually dissolve into a pile of debris.

For now though, she waits for the thousands who visit, while the fish swim through her holes to make their homes deep within, and the remains of those who perished still rest undisturbed.

Short-term stay

I'm nearing the end of my dive and I'm reluctant to leave. Bubbles stream towards the surface, a roadmap to where I must go. I turn for one last look as a ray hangs motionless above the wreck, a cleaner wrasse picking at its underside. Their relationship is timeless, a reminder that the Yongala's presence is short-term on an ecological scale.

My presence is even less significant, a quick glimpse into an early chapter of Australia's post-Federation history. As brief as it was, the experience will stay with me forever.

I swim back to the shot line and across to the boat. Looking down, the fish shoals shift direction and blur the outline of the wreck; the school turns in a flash of silver, the light catching their scales. I pause for a safety stop and a small group of leather jackets surrounds me - they're hiding from the red emperors concealed in the shadow of the boat. I take one last glance toward the Yongala, no longer visible in the depths. I say goodbye to the fish and head for the surface.

Footnote: Captain John Silberberg is a Master Mariner, who spends his life on, under and by the sea. He loves deep diving and the challenge of taking photos under water. His professional sea-going experience gives him a special affinity for wreck diving and an insight into the lives of those who sailed the ships he now dives. See more of his photography (underwater and above) at: shotsbyjohn.com.au.

The demise of the SS Yongala

In our modern age, it's easy to forget that 100 years ago, accurate weather forecasting was virtually unknown. For us, a seven-day weather forecast is just a smartphone away, but back then, many ships trading on the Australian coast didn't carry radio equipment and relied on the skill of the officers to interpret what they saw.

In March, 1911, a strong cyclone off the Queensland coast passed just south of Cape Bowling Green. The next day in Townsville, relatives and friends waited patiently for the arrival of passengers sailing on the SS Yongala. When she didn't arrive as scheduled, no one was overly concerned - they assumed Captain William Knight had sought shelter, or taken his ship further out to sea to avoid the storm.

When she failed to arrive on the second day, the Townsville harbour master raised the alarm. The Adelaide Steamship Company sailed two ships and the search began for their missing vessel. It was Australia's biggest maritime search at the time, with ships scouring the reefs and islands and foot patrols combing the coastline.

Over the next weeks, searchers found wreckage from the Yongala, while their hopes for survivors slowly diminished. Four weeks after the storm, the Adelaide Steamship Company declared they were satisfied the Yongala and all aboard were lost.
In the decades after the disaster, the whereabouts of the wreck remained unknown. Like all good mysteries, countless theories circulated as to what had happened and where the Yongala lay. Most theorists discounted the idea that the storm could have overcome her seaworthiness and assumed she'd struck a reef.

In 1943, Royal Australian Navy minesweepers discovered an obstruction in the shipping lanes south of Townsville. Lacking the equipment to examine the object, they assumed it was a shoal and the National Hydrographic Office updated the navigation charts accordingly. Four years later, another RAN ship resurveyed the area with more sophisticated equipment and found the shoal was actually a wreck.

Given the size of the wreck, most suspected it was the Yongala, but confirmation would wait another 11 years. In 1958, divers from the Queensland Underwater Research Group recovered a safe that they opened with great anticipation, only to find the contents were sludge and a few old keys.

On the verge of discarding the useless safe, one of the group suggested they look for a serial number. They found a partial number and contacted an English safe manufacturer who confirmed it had provided the safe to Yongala's builders for installation in the purser's office. With her identity proven, one of Yongala's mysteries was solved. Exactly what happened to her on the night of March 23, 1911 remains a mystery.

Diving the SS Yongala

Divers planning to visit the Yongala are spoiled for choice. Dive trips depart from Ayr, Townsville and even Cairns. There are two basic options - day trips or a live-aboard boat. A live-aboard is a self-contained boat offering accommodation, meals and dive¬ support.

Day trips run from Ava Beach (near Ayr) on a fast rigid hull inflatable boat or from Townsville on a larger vessel. Visitors experience the thrill of a high-speed voyage across the sea, often encountering pods of dolphins and occasionally whales.

Live-aboard trips sail from Townsville routinely, such as Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, which sends Spoilsport south from the home base in Cairns. Spoilsport has an excellent reputation among Australian dive cruises. A 30m catamaran, Spoilsport is¬ a¬ stable platform with only the worst weather¬ seeing her crew seek alternative dive sites.

Guests can choose three or four day trips out of Townsville or Cairns. Under the attentive guidance of the crew, diving from Spoilsport is everything a live-aboard experience should be - great food, comfortable accommodation, exemplary service and fantastic diving. With more than 40-years experience taking divers to the Great Barrier Reef, MBDE draws on a depth of knowledge to ensure the best diving experience possible.


Adrenalin Dive

Day trips and live-aboard trips to the SS Yongala departing from Townsville.

252 Walker St, Townsville, Queensland 4810,
Ph: (07) 4724 0600, adrenalindive.com.au.

Mike Ball Dive Expeditions

Live-aboard trips to the SS Yongala departing from Townsville or Cairns.

2/3 Abbott St, Cairns, Queensland 4870,
Ph: (07) 4031 5484, mikeball.com.

Yongala Dive

Day trips to the SS Yongala departing from Alva Beach (near Ayr).

56 Narrah St, Alva, Queensland 4807,
Ph: (07) 4783 1519, yongaladive.com.au.