The S.S. Yongala Diving Experience

We dropped down slowly into the murky water. I could see nothing around me except for the occasional curious fish. Anticipation and fear seeped in as we dropped lower and lower. 10 meters, 12 meters, 13, 14, 15… Still nothing but the endless blue of the sea. Suddenly, a colorful surface bloomed up in front of us, teaming with life. Schools of fish surrounded us from all sides as oversized fish from below approached to inspect the invaders. Met with our welcome party, we had reached our destination. We kicked off to explore the SS Yongala shipwreck in the Great Barrier Reef.

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Guitar shark swimming above the colorful wreck

The S.S. Yongala was the latest in the series of dives I had done in my early diving career. Renowned as one of the best dive sites in the world, the destination quickly made its way up my places-to-visit list. After completing 11 impressive dives at the Great Barrier Reef just a few short days before, I did not think the Yongala dives could be that much more impressive. Boy was I wrong.

The Facts

The S.S. Yongala dive requires, at minimum, an Open Water certification. However, with a maximum depth of 28 meters, Open Water divers need to pay extra for a Deep Dive Adventure Dive. Trips to the SS Yongala departed in Queensland, Australia from Magnetic Island and Ayr. Magnetic Island is a large tourist destination whereas as Ayr is a small town with not much going on beyond farm work and diving. As the dive site is located only 30 minutes from Ayr compared to 3 hours from Magnetic Island, I opted to go with the company Yongala Dive in Ayr.

While the dive company is located outside of the center of Ayr, they have pickup and drop off shuttles once a day, often around 3:30 PM. Furthermore, they offer hostel accommodation for about $20 a night extra. The accommodation is literally a house and only the bedroom stuffed with 3 bunk beds gives it the appearance of a hostel. A double room is also available for booking if dorm rooms are not your cup of tea. With nothing around but beach and houses, guests should make sure to bring enough food for their stay. The company provides breakfast and lunch on the day of the dive, so snack foods and dinner are the priority.

Diving day calls for an early morning wake up with a 7:30 AM meeting time at reception. After completing the paperwork logistics, the dive site briefing, and the fittings for masks, fins, BCDs, and wetsuits, the group should be ready to rock out to the boat around 9:00 AM. Unless you are with my group. With everyone geared up, we prepared to go, only to learn that the boat was stuck on the beach because of low tide. We ended up waiting a few hours before we could embark on our dives…to our good fortune. Because we went later than normal, we experienced rare marine life at the dive site that are not often there early in the morning.

The Dive Experience

After a slightly choppy ride in a small boat to the site, we geared up and split up into our buddy teams. One by one, we flipped backwards off the edge of the boat into the water. As we swam along the mooring line to a buoy, the current fought us every step of the way. By the time I reached the buoy, I was already out of breath and happy to descend to escape the aggressive waves.

In the water, my head whipped back and forth like a pendulum as we swam alongside the plant and coral mass. With so many colorful species of marine life bursting through the water, I could not figure out what to look at. Human-sized wrass floated by underneath us as yellow angelfish darted by to our right.

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Sting rays and other marine life

Amid this underwater safari, I wondered where the shipwreck was. Swimming alongside the colorful plants and coral, there was not a recognizable ship part in sight. As I stared at the lively mass, it dawned on me that the cave-like recesses had openings that were a little too rectangular. In fact, the “caves” themselves had regularly shaped features as well… It turns out that underwater life had completely engulfed the wreck beyond recognition!

Shocked and amused by my naivete, I swam along. The search for breathtaking wreck creatures continued. And the search did not take long. At the bow of the wreck, drifted four clown car-sized marble stingrays. They hovered just above the ship, stationary except for the occasional undulation of their wing-like fins. As they sat their in mediation, little fish pecked along their bodies, cleaning them. Amongst their mass sat a massive Queensland grouper, larger than me in size. In the murky water, with a dark coloration and an irritated frown painted on its face, it lurked ominously ahead of me.

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Marble stingrays partying with a Queensland grouper

I hovered there, staring at the majestic marble rays and the grumpy Queensland grouper until my air supply required me to head back. At the 100-bar mark, my dive buddy and I circled past the stationary giants and made our way back on the other side of the wreck. Pushed along by the strong current, we sped over the hull of the ship. Suddenly, my dive buddy gestured downward behind me. Turning around, I found myself swimming right above a monstrous creature with sting ray-like side fins, but a shark-like tail and dorsal fins – a shark ray. With the grace of a ray and the presence of a shark, it glided over the hull of the ship in my direction before turning off and disappearing into the murk.

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A rare shark ray

Ecstatic over the latest sighting, my dive buddy and I made our way back to the line and began our ascent. Around the 10-meter mark, I notice a few large shadows appearing through the water. Slowly, four stingrays appeared in stacked formation. The largest stingray – a small eyed ray – swam at the very bottom of the column. Above it hovered three much smaller rays, one swimming directly above the other. As a unit, they made their way by us and stayed there until we ascended beyond visibility range.

Once we reached the 5-meter mark for our safety stop, we stopped for the required three minutes. The occasional enormous fish swam by the line of waiting divers. I looked off in the distance as a large, irregular shape appeared. A dog-sized mushroom-like creature drifted into view. The large white mass looked like a fluffy mushroom cloud drifting through the water. I stared mesmerized as the large, oddly-shaped jellyfish floated away.

Slowly, we made our ascent to the surface. At sea level, the current slapped us around in the murky water. With a visibility of 10-12 m, the site gave no signs of the marine life that laid just a mere 18 m below the surface.

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The Man-Eating Mountain: What 6,088 m (20,000 ft) of Mountain Has to Say About Life

My ankle ached in the large ice climbing boots. Each crampon-weighted step up the icy incline pressed on my bruised and swollen ankle. I ignored the pain and continued. This was just a short practice session to learn how to ice climb. I can handle that. 

My mountaineering expedition up Huayna Potosi was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life. My struggle at altitude, tossed with inadequate fitness, and sprinkled with an injured ankle showed me what it was like to hit the limits of my abilities. However, while the challenge physically devastated me, it also gave me a new perspective on the challenges in life.

The first day, we practiced mountaineering techniques by base camp. It was necessary preparation for the big summit up Huayna Potosi, the “easiest” 6000+ m (19,685+ ft) summit in Bolivia. The next day would be the serious hike. The next day, we would hike up, and only up, to high camp. There, we would get a few hours’ rest before waking up at midnight to hike up to the snow-clad peak by sunrise.

After 2 hours of practice with crampons and ice picks, we marched back towards the snowy base camp at 4,700 m. My right leg limped along with each step. In the silence, I thought to myself, Maybe I shouldn’t go up tomorrow. I don’t want to have a permanent injury if this is actually sprained. But after we arrived in base camp and relaxed for a few hours, I reconsidered. I’ll just see how it feels tomorrow, I thought.

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The route by base camp. 

The next day greeted us with a leisurely morning followed by an early lunch. After lunch, I put on my regular hiking boots and walked around the nearby area, testing my injured foot. Surprisingly, it felt okay. In my regular hiking boots, I did not have the issue of heavy, hard plastic pressing on my bruised and swollen ankle with each step. Not wanting to miss out on my first 6,000+ meter mountain attempt, I decided to forge ahead. I was going to high camp that afternoon. 

Even disregarding the injured ankle, the hike was tough as hell. At 5000 meters, the air was thin. Oxygen was scarce and our bodies were not accustomed to it. They rebelled in the form of headaches, stomach aches, shortness of breath, and the feeling of the heart exploding out of the chest. I struggled up the ascent only trail, dragged down by a backpack filled with heavy gear for the technical climb. 

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Stopping to breathe and enjoy the view with a pack full of gear.

At the halfway point, I thought to myself, No turning back now. I would have to walk the same distance to go up or down. Propelled forward by thought of reaching high camp after almost foregoing the hike, I placed one foot in front of the other and snailed on. 

We reached high camp exhausted, but elated to experience sunset surrounded by  snow-capped mountains. After a quick dinner, we headed off to bed at 7 PM in preparation for our early wake up at midnight. 

The night flew by too quickly and my vibrating alarm jerked me out of sleep. My group dragged ourselves out of bed and geared up for the big day  with layers and layers of clothing, snow boots, crampons, helmet, and ice pick.  After eating a quick, small breakfast, we set off. 

The hike was so much worse than I had imagined. Starting at 5,200 m, the altitude was already beating us down. At -10° C (14° F), the cold nipped at us even through layers of clothing and the company-provided snow coats. On top of that, the climb was a relentless, steep ascent up to the summit for the following 5 hours. With nothing but our headlights to pierce the night, we were enveloped in a demotivating darkness.

I started withering. A blaring headache, stomach pains, an aching ankle, and the feeling of nausea hammered at me, but I forced myself to keep going. One foot in front of the other. Weight heavily placed on my ice pick. Sleepiness blanketing my every move.

Slowly, but surely, my strength and speed faded. Before long, the rope attaching me to my partner and the guide began tugging me forward. After a few more moments like this, I gasped out for a break. “Can we stop for a minute?” I managed. “Just a little more,” responded the guide in Spanish. “We’re stopping up ahead there,” he said, pointing vaguely at the homogenous slope. So I continued on, forcing my feet in front and up, focusing on singing the chorus of Despacito over and over again in my mind. 

At 5,600 m (18,370 ft), the rest stop finally arrived. I collapsed to the ground. I had spent the past however many minutes fighting nausea, on the verge of throwing up with every few steps. As I laid there in the relief of the soft, snow-covered ground, I knew I would not make it up. If I continued, I would barely manage a snail’s pace. And inevitably paint my vomit across the pure, untrodden snow. With great sadness, I told the guide that I wanted to turn around. He consented, unclipping my partner from our rope and tying him to the other team’s rope. As we left the group to return down to high camp, tears slowly escaped my eyes and soon ran rivers down my face. I felt like I had failed, even though I knew it was the right decision. 

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The group waddling back from the mountain in full gear.

I did not make it to the top that day, but I had no regrets. I pushed myself to the brink of my perceived limits and then some. That difficulty, that hard hike, set the foundation for all my future hikes and endeavors to come. The next hike I did, which ended at 5,200 m, was incredibly difficult, but felt easy by comparison. By then, I knew what it felt like to have your heart and lungs scream from effort. And until I reached that point, I knew I had more in me.

This applies not only to hiking goals, but to goals in general. From traveling the world to learning new skills to writing a book, I will work until I feel like I cannot go on any further. I plan on summiting, but even if I don’t, I would sure as hell be proud of reaching that 5,600 meters.