Diving the SS Yongala wreck on the Great Barrier Reef

This was the one I’d been waiting for… the chance to further my experience and training by diving on the very famous Great Barrier Reef wreck site known as the SS Yongala off the coast of Townsville.

I was full of excitement and even some nerves as I climbed out of bed, packed my bags and jumped in the car ready for the drive south to Ayr, to the office of Yongala Dive – the company who’d be getting me through Stage One of my Advanced Diving course.

Yongala Dive

The SS Yongala – an underwater oasis on the sandy sea floor surrounded by stunning marine life, just 12 nautical miles off Alva Beach, is considered one of the best dive sites in the world.

As I’d never dived a wreck before I just knew it was going to be a day of mind-blowing experiences!

So what’s the story?

The SS Yongala was a steel passenger ship built in 1903, which serviced the Australian coastline. On the night of 23 March, 1911, she left Mackay on what would be her final voyage to Cairns. Onboard were 122 people, a prize racehorse and a red Lincoln Bull all under the experienced hand of Captain William Knight, a very capable sailor with 14 years of service to the Adelaide Steamship Company.

The wireless radio for the Yongala was sitting in Cairns awaiting fitting once she arrived, meaning the ship only had lights to communicate with the mainland, and with a cyclone fast approaching this was in no way ideal! The message never got to the ship and she was hit broadside by the full force of the storm condemning her to a watery grave where she remained undiscovered for nearly 50 years.

Then in 1958, two divers took a particular interest in the strange lump they’d been looking at on naval charts and decided to investigate further. Exploratory dives showed the wreck of the SS Yongala listing to starboard but surprisingly intact. As evidence of their discovery, they recovered the ship’s Chubb safe from the hull, later tracing it to purser’s cabin onboard the doomed vessel.

And we’re off

I arrived at Yongala Dive amidst a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Steve, my dive master for the day, talked me through my kit, the dive site and the difference I’d experience dropping down to nearly 30 metres below the surface, rather than my normal 18 which I’m allowed as an open water diver.

It’s pretty damn reassuring when someone with so much knowledge takes you through the basics… all of a sudden it didn’t appear quite as daunting!

Yongala Dive Crew

Once we’d checked our equipment, loaded it on the RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) and signed our lives away, it was into the land cruiser and down the beach to the launch site. The wind had been up over the last few days at around 20 knots, meaning a rough 30-minute ride out to the dive site and a rolling, swirling mooring to tie up to once we got there.

I’m so glad I don’t suffer from seasickness – there were a few green looking people by the time we donned our BCDs (Buoyancy Control Device)!

Going down

All of a sudden it was here! The moment I’d been waiting for… my first official deep sea dive!

A quick check of my kit, air and procedures, a simple roll-over entry and I was floating in the ocean holding the mooring line. Steve signalled to me all was okay, the last of the air escaped from my BCD and I started the descent towards the Yongala.

The SS Yongala Dive Site

It took a while for my eyes to focus on the blue environment I’d just dropped into, the visibility here is less than most sites on the Great Barrier Reef as the wreck’s surrounded by a totally sandy bottom.

Equalising all of the way, we dropped to the ocean floor passing schools of giant trevally and mackerel as we descended, coming to rest at the bow of the Yongala now 28 metres below the surface.

As I had a look around, the sheer size of the wreck came into play. The boat is over 100 metres long and towers above the seabed, not to mention the marine life around it is utterly immense.

SS Yongala Fish

The deck is covered in coral and thousands of oysters, and around swim so many small fish that it’s almost as though a smokey cloud covers the hull, parting occasionally as they get spooked by my bubbles.

Groups of giant trevally hover motionless above the wreck facing the current, turtles pick at the sponges littering the deck, sea snakes twist effortlessly through openings in the hull and my jaw drops (as far as it can with a regulator stuck in it anyway!) with the reality of what I’m seeing and the sheer number of species all living together on a single dive site.

The wreck itself almost became irrelevant as I failed to focus on the near 100-year-old burial site, as my attention was constantly being dragged away by yet another ‘first’ as my eyes scanned the life passing around me.

Marble Ray Yongala Dive Site

The final 10 minutes gave me a finale of note: two marble rays came into view passing a few metres below me, as they turned away, five reef sharks twisted and turned in their wake, and I looked down as a hawksbill turtle swam underneath me.

This was the perfect ending to a superb dive, which definitely takes the prize of ‘Best Wreck Dive‘ ever… and I know it was only my first one, but come on, is it really likely to be beaten?

That’s a wrap

Ascending back to the surface after our essential safety stops at both 10 and five metres, I broke the water and turned to the boat… a huge beaming smile crossing my smug face.

Not only had I completed my first deep dive, passed the section and been face-to-face with some of the most incredible marine life yet, but I also ticked another ‘must do’ off the top 10 dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef!

Ben Southall SS Yongala

Back on the surface, the swell was still large enough to keep at least one casualty face down on the cushions. Brian fired up the engines and we were off heading back to the mainland, which we reached half an hour later.

There was one more treat to go though… a fat barbeque to fill my rumbling stomach after the day’s exertion!

Have you dived the Yongala? Share your experience in the comments below.