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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.