Diving Guides Travel

Diving the SS Yongala from Ayr, Australia

Consistently voted one of the top wreck dive sites in the world. The SS Yongala is a beautiful dive. Just as popular with non-wreck enthusiasts as it is with those interested in shipwreck and boat history. There is just so much thriving marine life here, it’s hard to know where to look.

One of my favourite experiences whilst diving is being immersed in a glittering shoal. Thousands of fish, rushing past you, so plentiful that you can hear their streamlined bodies rush through the water on mass. British people, imagine a starling murmuration, but you’re in the middle, and well, they’re fish.

The SS Yongala is a safe haven for a plethora of shoals, I often exaggerate with that word, but I truly mean it this time. Just look…

But it’s not just shimmering shoals of small fish that take refuge on this standalone reef. Soft corals adorn the starboard side of the listing ship as it sits, forever immobilised in the soft sand. Huge groupers float at the stern, motionless, keeping their huge bodies impressively still in the pushing current. And an astonishing variety of marine life, enormous and small, visits this haven during their migration or journey along the eastern coast.

The History of the Wreck

Unfortunately the story of the SS Yongala is a sad one. Sank in 1911, it was carrying 122 passengers (families, children and crew), possessions and even a race horse and bull, as it became caught up in a cyclone. It was believed to have torn a hole in its hull against a rock. Only miles from the east Australian coast, and only 48 miles from its next stop, Townsville.

It wasn’t until 1958 that the wreck was officially discovered, and it was only officially identified as being the SS Yongala in 1961. It is now a popular recreational dive site, but also importantly, a grave and memorial to those lost.

The SS Yongala (A photo by Allan C. Green, held by the State Library of Victoria, Australia)

Which Dive Shop?

I dove with Yongala Dive, they’re the only dive boat that departs from Ayr. We chose them as their proximity to the wreck means a shorter transfer time (less fuel too!) than the other boats which depart from magnetic island and Townsville further North. They also use a smaller boat which means the site will be a little less crowded. This does however mean they are more dependent on good weather, as rough seas will cause a cancellation. However they have excellent policies in place and were very informative about weather conditions.

Dive Site Info
Maximum depth to seafloor: 30m
Minimum depth to wreck: 16m
Air or Nitrox: I used air, but for longer bottom time Nitrox is often recommended
Touching or entering the wreck is strictly prohibited, for preservation, safety and importantly respect.

What can you expect to see?

Everyone I met in Australia who had dived the Yongala had incredible things to say about it. And each person had seen something completely different.

From the incredibly lucky people who spent time with a whale shark, to enormous bull rays and slinky olive sea snakes. Of course, as is always the case with nature, no sightings are ever guaranteed, but some of the common sightings (apart from the impressive wreck itself) seemed to include:

– olive sea snakes
– diverse soft corals
– huge shoals of bait fish
– maori wrasse
– turtles (green, hawksbills, loggerheads)
– guitar sharks
– barracuda
– bull sharks
– moray eels
huge groupers
– bull rays

The dives

It was actually Christmas Eve when we dived here. Huge thank you to Yongala Dive for being open and taking us all! We were lucky to have beautiful, calm conditions that day.

After checking in at 7:30am, gearing up and sorting out paperwork, we were whisked off in a 4WD to meet the boat. Space is fairly limited and things might get wet, so I’d recommend taking a small dry bag! It’s just a short 30 minute trip out to the mooring line.

We did two dives, with a good lunch provided in-between. Visibility was about 20m, and a current was present, but easy to move through. Although when ascending and descending we strictly had to use the mooring line.

On the first dive we went deep, and followed along what would have been the top deck. Cavernous openings that led into the holds glared at us, and we swam under and over the masts that rested outwards into the sand.

I’m sure I saw a bull shark lurking out in the blue, about 20m from the bow. It was definitely a shark but it was hard to make out the exact shape or size. It was big, whatever it was!

We then looped back around to check out the ships name plate, before returning along the port side, with the most amazing guitar shark doing laps up and down the ship. We then hopped back over to the top deck again when we caught sight of a huge hawksbill turtle.

After a lunch, and inhaling all the lamingtons. We were ready for dive two, and rolled in backwards over the side once more. This time we kept to the port side (the side closest to the surface), and spent time closely examining the corals with a torch.

Olive sea snakes and moray eels curled their way through corals looking for small prey, my dreams came true as I was immersed in about 5 different shoals at once, we saw a green turtle, and we came face to face with giant groupers sitting at the stern.

I completely understand why people stay the night at the Dive Shop accommodation and dive more than twice. There is so much to see, and each dive brings in new marine visitors.

I’m yet to experience anything like the SS Yongala. I don’t think it can quite be matched in the variety of life that can be found in this lonely habitat. Surrounded only by sand, for miles in each direction. Over time as corals formed and life followed, it has become a sanctuary. Weary long distance travellers stop for refreshment, and the eccentric locals weave and bustle around, like a busy market town.

  • Hello! I’m Hannah Sweet.

    I write content for nature oriented brands and create blog posts for nature seekers, conscious creatives and solopreneurs.

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