SS Yongala, Australia’s  Greatest Wreck Dive

SS Yongala

Dive Skill – Advanced to Expert

SS Yongala it is high on the list

Scuba diving in Australia is considered some of the best in the world.

The Great Barrier Reef and the Ningaloo Reef, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, are known worldwide 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 apart 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 in March 1911, The SS Yongala is now considered one of the most significant historical dive sites globally 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 underwater for over 100 years. SS Yongala, 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 the positive side, 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.

Wreck Site

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 device when she first went down.

Marine Life

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 colourful 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 suggests 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 a 30-minute boat ride to the site.

Pre-dive Briefing

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, to view shipwreck 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  Mackay in the Whitsunday area travelling north towards Townsville. The 109 meters longship 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 mixed cargo that included a prize bull and a racehorse named Moonshine.


Shortly after she left Mackay, 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, AWL established a wireless network. However, not all ships were equipped with 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 Mackay during the storm, search parties went looking for her. After a few days, the cargo was starting to be found along the coast. There was no signs of the ship 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 a local archaeologist received permission to examine the wreck with the fisherman’s assistance.

Recovery of  a safe

Don McMillan and Don Cook recovered a safe which, when opened, the contents had destroyed. However, A safe distributor recognized the old model and, using a partial serial number, could 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 ever been found.

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

You must be an advanced scuba diver.

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