Over a hundred years ago, around 1:40 pm 23rd of March, 1911, a mixed cargo and passenger ship SS Yongala left Mc Kay in the Whitsunday area of Australia for its next port of call at Townsville to the north.
Five hour later the lighthouse keeper at Dent Station along the Whitsunday passage noted its passing by. That was the last sighting of the ship and its 122 people on board.
Unknown to those on the ship, the SS Yongala was headed directly into the path of a cyclone. Other ships on the same heading were behind the SS Yongala, and received a warning about the storm so found same anchorage.
At this time in history, wireless communication (radio not internet) was a newly created invention and wireless networks were just being developed.
A wireless set had been purchased for the SS Yongala however it had not reached Australia at the time the vessel went missing.
The first two days after the schedule arrival did not create too much concern since all the ships had held up somewhere. However, when ships that were at Mc Kay started to arrive an alarm was raised and a massive search started.
Stories of the SS Yongala
Within a few day’s debris started appearing on shore, however, there was nothing that clearly identified it as the SS Yongala. Most people were sure it was from the ship but no proof. A body of a horse was found on the shore and it was thought to be a race horse that was on-board but again no positive identification. Weeks turned to months and nothing was recovered.
In 1943, a Navy minesweeper fouled on an underwater obstruction, it was recorded but not investigated. In 1947, a hydrographic vessel of the Navy, the HMAS Lachlan, used sounding equipment to investigate the nature of the obstruction and classified it as a sunken ship. It raised the possibility it was the SS Yongala.
No further action was taken. In 1958, a fisherman spurred on by stories of the SS Yongala spent weeks trying to locate the wreck dragging a line n the reported area.
Eventually he located it and looking underwater could see the wreck just 16 meters below. While the wreck was and still is in excellent condition, almost 50 years underwater made identification impossible.
First attempts to retrieve information from the ship failed to produce anything. However, a second attempt was able to recover a safe from the purser’s office.
Hope that the safe contained documentary proof of the ship was dashed when the safe was open and the insides only contained silt.
The safe itself became the key to proving the ship. A partial serial number showed that it was the safe installed on the SS Yongala.
As mention, 122 souls were lost aboard the SS Yongala. That was 49 passengers and 79 crew. The ship was capable of carrying a larger number of people 110 in first class and another 126 in second class.
The ship is 109 meters long and sits on its side in 30 meters of water.
The wreck reaches to 16 metres.
If your schedule allows it is highly recommended to visit the Maritime Museum of Townsville. They have a permanent exhibit of material related to the SS Yongala, including a model of the vessel and some items recovered. They also have a video that you can view and purchase of the ship wreck as a dive site. It was created in the 1980s by the renown underwater photography team of Ron and Valerie Taylor.
Diving The SS Yongala
Diving on the SS Yongala is restricted to those who have a permit by the Museum of Tropical Queensland. While this does limit the number of operators who visit the ship, there are a number of them to chose from and no exclusivity as some operators may try to lead you to believe. Townsville to the dive site by boat is about three hours, which just shows how close to safety the boat was. Many operators depart from Ayr which is an hour drive from Townsville and 30 minute boat ride to the site.
The wreck is protected by law and is a strictly look but don’t touch. Penetration dives are no longer routinely allowed. The wreck is in amazing condition even more so considering its age. After being under water for over 100 years, the ship it still over 70% intact. A bad storm in 2011 did some additional damage to the wreck, an upside of it is that now divers can view additional portions of the interior. The SS Yongala dive site is considered one of the most significant historical dive sites in the world.
There are a number of small Liveaboards that operate trips that include the SS Yongala. There is one that stands out above them all. The International Scuba Dive Hall of Fame member and the legend in the international Liveaboard industry, Mike Ball, is bringing his spoilsport back to the SS Yongala for a couple of weeks. Mike Ball was instrumental in the development of the SS Yongala as an international dive destination. The Spoilsport generally does week long trips from Cairns to the Ribbon reefs and Osprey reef.