SS Yongala, Australia Greatest Wreck Dive

Dive Skill – Advanced to Expert

The scuba diving in Australia is considered some of the best in the world, The Great Barrier Reef and the Ningaloo Reef, both UNESCO World Hermitage sites, are known around the world for their excellent dive sites. Australia is not, however, known as a wreck diving location. While there are over 8,000 wrecks not all of them are dive sites and they are over a wide area.

There are certain destinations such as around Sydney that offers a range of interesting wrecks. There is one wreck dive that not only stands a part from the other wreck sites in Australia but is also considered one of the top ten historical wrecks in the world. That is the SS Yongala.

Scuba Diving The SS Yongala

Sunk in cyclonic weather March 1911,The SS Yongala is now considered one of the most significant historical dive sites in the world and provides a rare snapshot of Edwardian life in Australia.  The wreck is in amazing condition, it is still over 70% intact even after being under water for over 100 years. The wreck, which is protected by law, is a strictly “look but don’t touch”. Penetration dives are no longer allowed as air bubbles from exhaled air was damaging the interior. A bad storm in 2011 did some additional damage to the wreck, however, on a positive sides divers can view additional portions of the interior.

The upper sections of the wreck are approximately 16 metres below the surface with a site maximum depth of 30 metres.  The site is a mostly sandy bottom and there are no coral reefs in the immediate area. As such, the SS Yongala acted as a marine aggregation devices when she first went down. She is now the home of over 120 species of marine life that has been recorded in and around the wreck. She sits proud and intact on the seabed, listing to starboard at an angle of 60 to 70 degrees, now covered in colorful corals and life. Most dive operators require either an advance open water diver or deep diver certifications some require an additional number of dives. There are a few operators that will take open water divers. While the picture perfect conditions and shallow top surface do beckon beginning divers, the conditions on site can change rapidly on the tides. During peak currents the site does become a challenge beyond most novice divers.

Diving on the SS Yongala is by permit only, issued by the Museum of Tropical Queensland.  Visiting divers are best advised to dive with one of the local dive operators who maintain permits. Some advertising suggest exclusivity in the permits but in truth the diver has ample options. The Yongala is approximately 12 nautical miles east of Cape Bowling Green and 48 nautical miles south-east of Townsville. Townsville to the dive site by boat is about three hours. Many operators depart from Ayr which is an hour drive from Townsville and 30 minute boat ride to the site.

Pre-dive Breifing:

The Maritime Museum of Townsville has a permanent exhibit of material related to the SS Yongala many of the items recovered when the ship was first discovered. They show a video, filmed in the 1980s, that you can view ship wreck as a dive site. The underwater photography team of Ron and Valerie Taylor created the video and you may purchase a copy.


On the 23rd of March 1911, the SS Yongala was on her 99th voyage. Shortly after midday, she left  Mc Kay in the Whitsunday area traveling north towards Townsville. The 109 meters long ship was unusually for her time. While most shipping companies either concentrated on fast passenger service or slow freight the SS Yongala was in between.  She was a mix use vessel capable of carrying 110 in first class and another 126 in second class while still carrying a range of cargo. Her first class area was the equal of any luxury liner.  On her final journey she had 122 passengers and crew – Original news articles placed the number at 141 – a mix cargo that included a prize bull and a racehorse named Moonshine.

Shortly after she left Mc Kay, the signal station at Flat Top (Mackay) received a warning of an approaching cyclone, the SS Yongala was still in-sight at the time but did not see the flag signals sent to her. The year before a wireless network had been established, however, not all ships were equipped with the radios, the Yongala’s radio had been purchased and shipped but had not arrived. The Dent Station lighthouse keeper along the Whitsunday passage noted its passing by five hours later.

When she did not arrive at Townsville on schedule, there was no concern at first. Her captain was well respected both personally and professionally, most people felt he just found a place to hold up in the storm. When ships started to arrive that stayed at Mc Kay during the storm, search parties went looking for her. After a few days, cargo was starting to be found along the coast, cargo that was identified as being in the third hold of the ship. No signs of the ship was found and no human remains.

In 1958, a fisherman who had heard stories of the wreck went looking for her. Eventually he found a wreck and local archaeologist received permission to examine the wreck with the fisherman’s assistance. A safe was recovered but when opened it was found the contents had been destroyed. However, A safe distributor recognized the old model and using a partial serial number was able to get purchase records that showed it as installed on the SS Yongala. After 50 years the mystery of the Yongala was solved, at least where she went. Marine experts were able to suggest how and why she sank. Suggesting that water crashing over her bow pushed her down. Still no remains have every been found.

Management of the Yongala wreck site is the responsibility of the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Resource Management.

If you don’t have your advanced open water certificate head to Cairns and do your course with Reef Encounter