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History of the SS Yongala

bull ray swimming in the ocean with the coral-crusted yongala wreck in the background

Final voyage of the luxury steamliner, SS Yongala

The SS Yongala is a passenger steam ship belonging to the Adelaide Steamship Company. It cost the company $102,000 to build in 1903 and was named after the small town of Yongala in South Australia. Yongala means ‘good water’ in the Nadjuri language. On 23 March 1911, at 1.40 pm, the Yongala carried 49 passengers, 73 crew, and 617 tons of cargo and set sail for Townsville from Mackay under the command of Captain William Knight,

Shortly after leaving Mackay, the Flat Tap signal station received a telegram warning of a tropical cyclone between Townsville and Mackay. However the SS Yongala was not fitted with any wireless equipment and could not be warned about the impending cyclone. On 26 March 1911 the SS Yongala was officially listed as missing, but search and rescue efforts to locate the ship proved to be unsuccessful.

Aftermath of the disappearance

There were many theories surrounding the disappearance of the Yongala but the Marine Board of Queensland did not officially investigate its disappearance until 8 June 1911. The investigation lasted 12 days and ended on 20 June 1911. Due to the lack of witnesses the Marine Board of Queensland based their inquiry on the condition and seaworthiness of the ship as well as the skipper’s experience and abilities. It was determined that the SS Yongala was in good condition and the skipper was capable and thus the Marine Board of Queensland concluded that “the fate of the Yongala passes beyond human ken into the realms of conjecture, to add one more to the mysteries of the sea”.

Discover and identification of the Yongala wreck

The mystery of the SS Yongala’s disappearance remained until 1958 when Bill Kirkpatrick located the wreck. He then took members from the Queensland Underwater Research Group of Townsville on an expedition. The group brought a barnacle-encrusted steel safe to the surface hoping that it might contain important documents that would lead to the identification of the ship. However, when they cracked open the safe all the found was black sludge. The group had a hunch that the wreck was that of the SS Yongala, but had no definitive proof to back up their claims.

That is until a photograph of the safe was circulated in the Townsville Daily Bulletin. The Queensland Manager of Chubb & Sons Lock and Safe Company recognized it as a Chubb’s model. He sent the partial serial number seen on the safe – 9825W – to the main company in England to see if they could find a match. The safe found in the wreck matched that of a Chubb safe that had been bought for use onboard Yongala — confirming the wreck’s identity and Yongala’s final resting place.

Australia’s Best Dive

Today, the wreck of the SS Yongala wreck lies 89 kilometres Southeast of Townsville. The 110 metre long wreck rests on the open sandy bottom with a slight list to starboard and the bow pointing north. The wreck starts at about 14 metres below the surface of the water and extends all the way to 28 metres at the bottom.

The Yongala wreck protected under the Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1976, so penetration is forbidden. Its isolation and late discovery have allowed an artificial reef to form on it, making it a magnet for marine life. The wreck itself is covered in colourful soft coral, hard coral and sponges and divers can expect to see thousands of tropical fish, sea snakes, sea turtles, giant trevally and Queensland gropers. Other sightings include eagle rays, manta rays, bull sharks, whale sharks, and in the cooler months, humpback whales.