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ExplQring the. j amazing wTeck* of therongalaZtf


An historic wreck off the Queensland coast became the star of a

Ron and Valerie Taylor special documentary

The Adelaide Steamship Com-

pany vessel Yongala disap- peared in 1911, swallowed whole by the sea during cyc- lonic weather. Only the body of Moonshine, a racehorse en route from Brisbane to Townsville, reached land. Moonshine, along with a prize bull, had been loaded as cargo on the afternoon of March 21,1911, when, in a festive mood, Yongala had slipped from the Brisbane Wharf setting a course north to Townsville.

Built in 1903, she was splendidly fit- ted with accommodation for 110 first class and 130 second-class passengers and considered the finest vessel to be seen in Australian waters - the pride of a nation whose only means of exten- sive transport was still by ship.

Over the years many theories were put forward as to the Yongala's fate. But towards the end of World War II, a minesweeper, searching the channel for mines, found a patch of shoal water 14km out from Cape Bowling Green. It lay in 30 metres of water and coincided with the exact dimensions of the Yongala. The mystery of the Yongala's

location was solved.

In June last year, the Federal Gov- ernment declared the wreck of the Yongala historic. This act of foresight was brought about largely by two people who had never seen her, Jennifer Amos from the Department of Home Affairs in Canberra, and Ron Coleman, a marine archaeologist from the Queensland Museum of Marine Archaeology.

With my husband Ron, I had visited the Yongala a vear before while taking the T.S.M.V. Reef Explorer from Syd- ney to Cairns. Our brief visit had taken us into what must be one of the richest areas of marine life in the world. "We have to make a film of her," said Ron. "It's the most amazing place I have ever

The brass plaque which the divers

cemented on to the ship's hull. TOP:

Mike Minehan with Valerie and Ron.

seen underwater." Every diver on board agreed.

A year and one month later, with the blessing of the Federal Government's Department of Home Affairs, we went back. On board were a group of three friends and Ron Coleman.

We had 10 days to shoot enough film for a TV special which will be shown on

Channel Seven.

Everyone had a job. Mike Minehan was to find her name; Mike Ball, a diving instructor from Townsville, was in charge of decompression; my friend Janice and myself were on cameras; Mark Heighes, my nephew, was to handle the cables for Ron's camera lights, a job which required great skill when working around sharp obstacles.

Ron Coleman was to a do a survey of the wreck and retrieve as many loose artefacts as possible.

Diving into the grave of 120 people is not a sad thing. The terror and pain is all lost in history and the people, en- tombed in the growth-encrusted hulk, part of a vibrant, living coral reef. No tombstone could be more impressive, no wreath more exquisite, no resting place more a part of nature.

Clouds of fish obscured the Yongala's outline; thousands of corals softened her shape.

Ron and I swam to the bow where 13 giant Queensland groper resided. The largest was about 250kg in weight. They hung like oval balloons directly be

neath the hull. Thousands of trevally schooling around them melted away as we approached, to reform in a solid wall

behind us.

Huge groper eyed us with obvious dislike. This was their ship now, and intruders were not welcome. One, trapped momentarily in a hole in the bow, loudly thumped his displeasure as he blundered away.

I wondered vaguely about that open- ing. Rumours of a collision between the Yongala and a smaller vessel were com- mon. Something had made a hole in the bow below the water line, but when and how it was impossible to tell. Mike was already working on the coral-covered bow, carefully putting aside the larger growths for replacing elsewhere.

I pushed through the soft corals on to the first-class promenade - and startled a loggerhead turtle which charged to freedom.

An unusual shape caught my

eye. Careful not to stir the sediments, I sank into a cabin and retrieved a brass

light fitting, complete with bulb. The Yongala was the first vessel in Australia to have electricity and re- frigeration.

Janice and I sank down into the sec-

ond-class saloon. The great schools of fish living inside the wreck were a prob- lem, cutting down the visibility as effectively as a London fog. I had planned to photograph each large enclosed area, but it was impossible. A living curtain of tiny fish hung in every


The graceful columns that supported the ceilings were festooned with growths. An eel peefing from a toilet bowl disappeared into the ancient plumbing. The first-class saloon lav open to the elements, its ceiling halt gone. Glass portholes showed famtn

¿rough the growths. A wobbygong ¡hark guarded the galley door. We warn over him into a gloomy sediment lied room.

Once the birthplace of great ban- quets and elaborate dinners, the ctchen implements stood bleak and igly beneath their coating of grey illidge. A cupboard door crumbled índer my hand, but before the sedi- ments completely fogged my vision, I 'limpsed an array of bottles and raking utensils.

Back on deck after decompression, ill was excitement and noise. None of us had ever experienced such fantastic giving. Already it was apparent that 10

lys would not be enough time to ex

ilore and document the entire wreck.

Mike Minehan had not been able as fetto uncover any of the name. We all

.ad stones to tell, but my mind was weted on the pale bones protruding brough the sediment in one of the


The dissolved lime in the sea water ^serves them," explained my hus- band, and I wondered anew about the Wplewho lay buried beneath us.

Mght diving is one of my greatest lovw. It is a time of discovery, adven ^ and beauty. We have been filming 31 night for more than 22 years and, ^er normal circumstances, it is no I î°re risky than diving by day. The - :°igala however, had the potential

'azard of one becoming lost inside.

Planktonic life gathered like moths j ir°und Ron's big, generator-driven perwater lights.

Small crustaceans clung to my hair, *eking food or perhaps protection

tll'e I waited in mid-water for my com- ans. Hunting trevally flashed along


¡é£HT: Divin9 instruct°r Mike Ba"

j Pl0res the upper deck and railing.

Exoloring the amazing wreck of the^bngalj


the perimeter of the illumination, silver then black, silver then black.

We drifted down. Something enor- mous brushed my legs; another giant shape obliterated Ron. My heart jumped. Great rays, three metres across, hung in midwater. Moving slow- ly, they followed us. I caressed them, stroking their white bellies.

The wreck itself, though beautiful by day, with the setting of the sun burst into a brilliant fairy-land. Corals of every colour, shape and size blossomed forth, softening even more the once proud ship.

More than 70 years ago, nature had taken a dead man-made thing of metal and wood, and given birth to a great living reef, richer in life and colour than any other place we had ever seen.

Decompressing, I watched with in

terest the plankton cloud growing. Small fish of brilliant colour fed on even smaller fish who fed on what looked like floating dots. A fog of tiny shrimp appeared and buzzed around me, covering my face with their prickly bodies. I could not bear it, and surfaced prematurely. My hair was full of shrimp. They were in my ears, down my neck. It was quite horrible.

One day, Janice and myself were poking around the crew's quarters when we found a beautiful pink hand basin. The two of us had quite a struggle moving it into the open and I exhausted the remainder of my air car- rying the thing to a collecting basket.

Ron Coleman was working nearby in a storage locker. It contained among other things, bottles of port, car tyres, bolts of blue cloth, and two brass sig- nalling lamps, all seemingly in good

condition. What Ron wanted most of

were the lamps, but in the end. time d feated him, and by law they will no remain in place as a small part of Au tralia's history, accessible to the gene

al public only in pictures.

I lifted a bag of bottles as I surface some with their corks and contents i tact. My delight at collecting a basket well-aged port soon turned to horror was standing on the back deck a

miring my find when one of the corf pushed out and spouted the contents Éf

over me. My eyes, mouth, nose, ha were all full of the foulest-smellin foujest-tasting liquid imaginable.

"Seems it has been aged a little tc long," remarked our skipper, as 1 turned on the deck hose and washed n down. After that we treated all bottli with their contents intact very car fully indeed.

Gradually the heaps of artefac grew. Odd things like wrought ir chair ends, taps, keys, door locks, Hg shades, port holes, rubber tyres, join

the bottles.

The safe had been found the fir day, but someone before us had airea broken in. I found what could be a se ond safe in a small, lightless room, bi was not sure of my find until my pi tures were developed back in Sydney.

Mike Minehan had painstaking chipped away metres of coral to revei the ship's name.

ur last act was to position Obrass plaque on the ship

hull. Lest some unscrupi lous diver wants to souven: it as a memento, we decide not only to bolt it down, but also t cement it in. Sounds simple enough, bi cement is not easily handled undei water. Somehow, after a great deal c struggling it worked, and the whole lc ended up in place.

The Australian Government shoul be proud of its gift to the divers of Aui tralia. Without protection, Yongal would have been like so many of our ol wrecks, blown to pieces for non-ferrou metals, her inhabitants killed, her arte

facts reduced to rubble.

Now she stands as a monument, nc

only to Australia's historical past, bu also the far-sightedness of her presenl Ten more shipwrecks along the eas coast have now been declared historic As such they will be preserved and prc tected as natural museums. From nov

on, the artefacts must remain as un- touched as the giant gropers, se¡^

snakes and corals.

lt's all part of our heritage and 1 n

glad we played a part

Pictures: Ron and Valerie Taylo