The SS Yongala wreck has the excellent reputation of being one of the best diving sites in the world. So I was super excited when I finally organised my trip to Townsville for our SS Yongala dive. But I was also a bit stressed as we were not planning our trip at the best season. Will our SS Yongala dive experience match our expectations and live up to its reputation?
The conditions were not optimal when we dived the SS Yongala wreck.
The sea was bumpy, and it was a full moon. Those who had dived there before were not impressed by this trip. Still, I found our SS Yongala Dive outstanding. Yes, it does deserve a spot on the list of the World’s best scuba diving sites: there aren’t many places in the world where you’ll see such an abundance of marine life around a massive shipwreck.
Read on to learn from our experience and read essential tips to help you plan your SS Yongala dive: what to expect, what level is preferable, the best time to dive Yongala, where to dive from and where to stay…
Travelling on Australia‘s East Coast? Check out this list of the best scuba diving sites on the East Coast and this itinerary that includes amazing scuba diving stops between Brisbane and the south of NSW.
Why I found the SS Yongala dive special
Before diving the SS Yongala, I had logged around 80 dives, including a few on the best scuba diving sites in Australia and even in the world. Although I had high expectations, the SS Yongala dive didn’t disappoint. We did four dives there, and I wish I could have done more. When a friend brought up the idea of going again a few years later, we didn’t hesitate!
It’s always a weird feeling to dive a shipwreck, especially when a tragedy happened. The SS Yongala was a passenger steam ship that got caught in a cyclone in March 1911. It sank quickly and none of the 122 passengers survived. The 110-metre long wreck is one of the largest and most intact historical shipwrecks. It was mistaken as a coral reef and finally discovered more than 45 years after it sunk, in 1958. It has since become one of the best scuba diving sites in the world, receiving more than 10,000 visitors every year.
Check out the video of our weekend diving the SS Yongala wreck:
There was nothing particularly exceptional for this dive site when we dived there. Still, our four dives felt exceptional for us.
The visibility wasn’t as good as it can be, averaging 10 meters. We saw all the usual things you see on an SS Yongala dive. And that was enough to leave us in awe. The sea was rough that day but it was calm down there, almost 30 metres below the surface. We had to use a line at the surface to be safer because of the waves. But it felt like there isn’t a bad day at this dive site – except when it’s not safe to reach it of course.
I was overwhelmed when I first reached the SS Yongala wreck. I didn’t know where to look.
It was a funny feeling. There were so many things going on, so much life everywhere, that I suddenly got this feeling that I was unable to focus. I had never seen that much action while scuba diving. I had to make choices on what I preferred to look at. It’s the best problem to face, isn’t it?
My favourite things about the SS Yongala dive:
- I’m usually happy to see a Maori Wrasse, a couple of Angelfish or a small group of Batfish. At the SS Yongala wreck, multiply this by five or ten. You’ll be surprised if you see one fish by itself, seriously. The abundance of marine life at the SS Yongala wreck makes most of the other dive site look boring in comparison.
- It’s incredible how all the fish seem to be bigger than anywhere else.
- It’s unusual for us to see sea snakes so we were excited to see a few on the wreck. It’s funny how the snakes and the fish play in the holes of the shipwreck.
- A big school of barracudas came by when we needed to go up, a perfect timing and a thrilling encounter
- I’ve seen big sharks and ray mantas before, but the Giant Queensland Grouper is even more impressive. 3 metres and 600 kg: I’ve never felt that small in my life.
- The Trevally hunting and making the schools of small fish move fast in front of us was a beautiful show.
- It’s heartwarming to see how corals now beautifully populate a site that was empty before the shipwreck.
- The wreck is still in good shape considering how long it’s been down there. But good luck having a look into it: even with my torch, I couldn’t see much because there were too many fish inside!
Important things to consider when preparing your SS Yongala dive trip
Sea sickness tablets
Are you covered for scuba diving by your travel insurance? It’s worth double-checking. If not, I recommend DAN (Divers Alert Network) for those who dive regularly. WorldNomads* and Covermore* also make it easy to add adventurous activities like scuba diving to your plan.
If you can choose when to plan your trip, you want to read the next section about the best time to dive Yongala wreck. Although you can dive the SS Yongala wreck all year round, there are better times than others. Whatever the season, buy the seasickness tablets at the dive shop if they say you may need them. It’s the best $2 you’ll invest.
The SS Yongala Dive is a deep dive.
The bottom of the wreck is at 27 meters below sea level and the top around 14 meters. You can dive there if you are Open Water certified but you’ll need to complete the PADI Deep Adventure Dive during your first dive and you won’t be allowed to dive without an instructor. But as you spend most of your time below 20 metres, it’s better to dive the SS Yongala with a bit of experience so you don’t use your air too quickly. Plus, current can be challenging at the SS Yongala, especially for inexperienced divers. It wasn’t bad when we went there until we reached the front of the wreck.
Although we were certified Advanced Open Water divers with more than 80 dives, we still chose to dive as a group and team up with a guide. The SS Yongala wreck dive site is very easy to navigate as you’re not allowed to penetrate the wreck, so I would have felt at ease diving with just my buddy. But I like to be part of a small group so we have extra pairs of eyes to spot exciting things. There is so much life down there that you cannot see it all!
My biggest regret for our SS Yongala dive is that I didn’t dive with Nitrox.
If you don’t dive with Nitrox yet, you may want to start doing it for your SS Yongala dive, especially if you’re good with your air consumption. One person in our group was diving with Nitrox. We had approximately the same dive plan, but when I had to go up on my second dive as I got closer to my no-decompression limit, he could spend 20 more minutes down there. I surfaced with 130 bars after 35 minutes and I would have dived a lot longer if I dived with nitrox. Our surface interval was shorter and we waited 45 minutes rather than one hour because of the rough sea – which didn’t help.
I highly recommend diving the SS Yongala wreck from Ayr.
Although Ayr isn’t the sexiest destination for your holidays (still, we had a great time and found a few things to do in Ayr!), it’s way more convenient. If you’re not convinced, read my comparison below.
Your underwater pics don’t look that good? Check out my tips for beginners to take underwater photos that aren’t blue!
The best time to dive Yongala wreck
You can dive the SS Yongala wreck all year round. But if you can choose your time to dive there, some seasons may be better than others.
How to check the SS Yongala weather forecast?
The SS Yongala wreck is located in the open sea, so the SS Yongala weather is different than inland, and harder to predict. The best way to check the SS Yongala weather forecast is to call the dive shop: they are the most experienced to assess if they will go out or not! You can have a look at the wind and swell forecast on Willy Weather.
Don’t rely on Alva Beach or Ayr forecasts. Alva is on land and not in the open sea: there was almost no wind when we were in Townsville and Ayr, but no boat could go out to the SS Yongala wreck.
The worse time to plan your SS Yongala dive: January to April
If you have the choice, you’d better aim at doing your SS Yongala dive out of the wet season that runs mainly from January to April. If a cyclone is nearby and the wind picks up, your dive can be cancelled. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a chance if you’re only able to travel at that time. If it goes ahead, you’ll have the advantage to be there off-season and maybe be the only group of divers to explore the wreck that day.
We were bold and planned our SS Yongala dives in February and March during the cyclone season.
And we had an amazing time. But we got lucky: during our first trip, all the previous dives that week all got cancelled because of the wind and the swell at the SS Yongala wreck. With 2-metre high waves, we were at the limit to be able to go out. Make sure you have a plan B in mind to still enjoy your time in the region if your dive got cancelled.
When the weather forecast showed the conditions weren’t that good for our first trip, the dive shop shared information early and gave us the opportunity to cancel our booking with a full refund until we got on the boat. It was clear they didn’t want anyone on board who would feel too uncomfortable in the swell; it’s a small boat and some people aren’t used to these conditions. I’m happy we went ahead: the conditions weren’t nearly as bad as I expected. I even managed to sleep on the way back.
During the surface interval, the SS Yongala dive shop team took care of all our equipment so we could just sit back and relax. I even had a feast while listening to the fascinating story of the SS Yongala wreck and exchanging with the other groups of divers about what we saw down there.
On our second trip in February, we were lucky to have no current at all. The visibility underwater wasn’t great, but the action with pelagic fish hunting was awesome to watch.
If you plan your SS Yongala dive during the cyclone season, make sure you go there from Ayr and not from Townsville.
You’ll lower the risks of having your dive cancelled. The boat from Ayr was the only one to go out on the two days we dived the SS Yongala in March. It would have taken around 10 hours for the boats from Townsville to reach the wreck with the weather conditions on these days.
The previous year, we organised a sailing trip to the Whitsundays, and a cyclone hit a week before our arrival. We were lucky again: our boat was the first to go out after the cyclone. Two years in a row, a cyclone almost messed up our holiday plans in North Queensland, so the risk is real. If you go ahead and travel there during this season, I recommend investigating travel insurance.
The rain can also get in your way as the primary road (M1) is subject to floods and can be closed for a few days. So you’ll have to plan accordingly if you’re travelling in the region during the wet season.
Why winter may be the best time to dive Yongala wreck
During winter (from June to August), the visibility at the SS Yongala wreck is around 15 to 25 meters. It is a lot better than during the warmer months when it’s only around 10 to 15 meters. Plus, you may have the opportunity to see humpback whales during the boat trip.
But winter is not the best time to dive Yongala wreck if you tend to be seasick. There are risks of offshore winds, and the SS Yongala wreck is in the open sea, not protected by any reef. It takes at least 40 minutes to reach it, and the boat moves a lot during the surface interval. So if you’re easily seasick, you want to avoid a rough ocean.
June to August is also the high season for tourism in North Queensland, so this may affect your budget.
The best time to dive Yongala wreck may be in September.
The ocean is calmer and warming up, and the visibility may still be at its best.
SS Yongala dive: Townsville, Magnetic Island or Ayr?
I vouch for Ayr at 100%, but I admit I didn’t try diving the SS Yongala from Townsville or Magnetic Island. I’d also recommend sleeping in Ayr.
I’m comparing below the options for a double dive in one day. The comments don’t apply to a liveaboard: there are some boats that spend a few days in the reefs near Townville and also stop at the SS Yongala wreck. This option isn’t possible from Ayr, so if you’re looking for a multiple-day liveaboard cruise, you’ll have to do it from Townsville.
The only reason why you may prefer Townsville or Magnetic Island to do a day trip to the SS Yongala wreck is if you are travelling with people who don’t dive.
Is leaving from Townsville or Magnetic Island is better for you? You can book your adventure online on Viator*
There aren’t many things to do in Ayr but I still found some to keep us busy. So if you leave someone behind while you’re scuba diving, they will probably be more excited to stay in Townsville or on Magnetic Island.
But as it takes less than 1.5 hours to drive from Townsville to Ayr dive shop, a day trip from Townsville is feasible. However, if you choose to sleep in Townsville and go out to the SS Yongala from Ayr, you’ll need to leave your hotel at 6 am. We felt tired in the afternoon after the double dive without waking up that early. I was glad we didn’t have to drive back to Townsville. Even for people who are used to scuba diving and used to driving long distances, it’s a big day to add a Townsville drive in the mix.
When we went again in February, we were celebrating birthdays, it worked better for us to do a day trip from Townsville. There are many more restaurants and bars in Townsville to celebrate a birthday! We had multiple drivers if needed and the trip went well, but we were all very tired.
Although there are buses from Townsville that stop in Ayr (from Greyhound, Queensland Rail and Premier Motor), I couldn’t find a way to make a return trip from Townsville to Ayr in one day as all the buses seem to leave Ayr before you’d be back to the dive shop. You may want to ask the dive shop if this is still the case.
Why I don’t recommend diving the SS Yongala wreck from Townsville or Magnetic Island:
First, the SS Yongala dive from Townsville is less flexible.
They don’t have trips every day. So if, like us, you wish to do more than two dives there (it’s one of the world’s best scuba diving sites so why not?!), diving from Ayr is your best option.
Second, the SS Yongala dive is subject to weather conditions.
Like any other scuba diving site. But if you’re diving there during winter or during the cyclone season (mostly January to April), you’ll have higher risks of your dive being cancelled because of the wind if you plan your trip from Townsville.
Third, the SS Yongala dive from Ayr is slightly cheaper than from Townville or Magnetic Island.
For a certified diver with full equipment hire, it’s $319 from Townville with Adrenalin whereas it’s $294 from Ayr. So diving the SS Yongala wreck is $15 cheaper from Ayr. But if you want a guided dive and Nitrox, then it becomes $45 cheaper. From Magnetic Island with ProDive, the cost looked similar. Again, the extras for nitrox and a guide were more expensive. However, if you need to hire a car to go to Ayr, costs will quickly be similar or even the other way around.
Finally, it’s a huge day to dive the SS Yongala wreck from Townsville.
I much prefer the trip schedule from Ayr.
From Ayr, you check-in at the SS Yongala dive shop at 7.30 am to sort out your equipment, paperwork and receive the dive briefing. The boat trip only lasts between 30 to 40 minutes. You should be in the water around 10 am and back on land at 2 pm for a nice shower and a great barbecue with fellow scuba divers.
From Townsville (with Adrenalin), you’ll meet at the Marina at 7 am. They do the briefing on the boat during the three to four hours trip. You should arrive at the SS Yongala wreck by 11 am. It’s a double dive too, and you’ll be back to Townsville just after 5 pm. There are options to do it as a liveaboard for a few nights from Townsville which could be a more relaxed schedule.
The Pro Dive schedule from Magnetic Island seemed more reasonable with a meeting at 6.45 am and an expected return at 2.30 pm.
Did you dive the SS Yongala wreck from Townsville or Magnetic Island? I’d love to hear about your experience. Please leave a comment below!
The best places where to stay to dive the SS Yongala wreck
As mentioned before, I recommend spending the night near Ayr to avoid a very long day.
Accommodation is available at the Yongala dive shop, in Alva Beach. They have dorms and a double room, all with a shared bathroom. We chose that option as it’s very convenient and quite cheap. It was also a good opportunity to chat with fellow divers all day.
If you want more privacy or if you’re travelling there as a group, the Alva Beach Tourist Park (click here for more info*) is a perfect choice. It’s very close to the dive shop, and you’ll find all you need in their mobile home. We met a few divers who were staying there, and they were pleased with it.
Ayr is 15 kilometres away. There are a few motels there (click here to view*). But I honestly don’t see the advantage of staying there rather than in Alva Beach – except to save a few bucks on the hotel room.
If you prefer to stay in Townsville, you’ll have a lot more choices for your accommodation. For those on a budget, I recommend the Civic Guesthouse (click here for more info*). It’s very simple but it has all you need for a good night at a reasonable price.
Where is the SS Yongala wreck?
The SS Yongala wreck is located in the open sea in the south of Townsville, on the Great Barrier Reef.
The closest airports are Townsville and Proserpine. Remember you must not fly less than 24 hours after your last dive, so plan your itinerary accordingly. Magnetic Island near Townsville or Airlie Beach near Proserpine are great destinations for a day trip (or longer!) before flying out.
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