It’s a mysterious wreck with a tragic past. Amanda Obara explores the SS Yongala 95 years after it disappeared off the north coast of Queensland.
No-one quite knows why the SS Yongala went down. The ill-fated passenger and cargo vessel was warned of extreme weather but continued to steam into the eye of a cyclone. All 122 passengers and a racehorse drowned when the luxury freighter sank around 48 nautical miles southeast of Townsville in the dead of night.
Despite an intensive search for survivors, the boat and 617 tonnes of cargo lay undiscovered off Cape Bowling Green for 47 years – but these days the wreck draws hundreds of divers and an exotic collection of marine life.
Some describe the 33m dive as eerie. The memory of those lost in the 1911 tragedy and often-murky conditions can combine to create an unusual atmosphere. But the sea was calm and skies sunny when I took to the water with 14 divers west of Bowden Reef.
After a 3.5hr boat ride from Townsville a lone eagle ray greeted us as we drifted peacefully down the descent line like snow flakes. At 18m the wreck loomed up as oversized batfish and schools of curious kingfish and trevally surrounded us. An olive sea snake twisted its way into the group and peered into masks mesmerised by its reflection. Turtles, coral trout, snapper and reef sharks crowded the wreck’s companionways and banded angelfish, napoleon wrasse and barramundi cod hid in every crevice.
At 33m below, the resident two-metre bull shark cruised from the shadows and hung in the distance. A giant trevally cut tracks through schools of baitfish, yellow perch hovered in the current and a man-sized potato cod swam lazily at the stern.
Almost a century after the Yongala sank, almost 75 percent of the superstructure remains intact. The 109m wreck is covered with colourful coral and sponges and has become a magnificent artificial reef and haven for diverse marine life. Fishing and penetration diving bans have upped fish numbers and prevented corrosion in what has been described as one of the best dives in the world. For more info, check out www.splashaustralia.com