Divernet

Queensland, Australia
The wreck of the Yongala was worth the wait.
     To put that sentence into context, I had waited to dive it since 1985, when my instructor told me that the Yongala was one site in the world every diver had to see. Of the intervening 18 years, the previous 48 hours had been among the most torrid, so as I stepped off the wildly pitching dive platform on the good ship Sea Esta moored over the wreck site, I felt that I had earned my spurs.
     The Yongala lies inside the Great Barrier Reef, some 55 miles south-east of Townsville. It is a mere 6.5 miles off the coast, with its uppermost rail 12m below the surface. The starboard side is on the seabed at 28m, and the vessel faces in its original northerly direction of travel.
     The Yongala was a 109m steamer that sank in a cyclone in 1911. So precipitous were the seas, with 10m swells, that the last people to see the vessel were the father and daughter manning the local lighthouse, both of whom fell to their knees and prayed for the occupants.
     Sadly their prayers were in vain, and all 124 souls on board perished.
     Only in 1944 did the wreck appear on the random sweep of an Australian minesweeper. It is now a fully protected area and an area of national marine significance. The abundance of life on this wreck beggars belief. Imagine packing all the activity of a large coral reef into 100m. The hard and soft corals, the gentle grazers, the darting predators, the passing shadows of big pelagics - its all here, a whole ecosystem red in tooth and claw, in the length of a football pitch.
     The previous two days had seen our intrepid team encounter a dose of something unpleasant that ran through us like wildfire as we travelled from Chuuk to Australia. This journey was punctuated by various tight-lipped team-members walking wordlessly to the toilets, to emerge pale and shaken several minutes later.
     My personal dose arrived with apocalyptic impact in Cairns Airport as we awaited our flights to Townsville. As the flight was called, I was bellowing into the loo, pawing weakly at the porcelain surround. I summoned the last of my strength to weave onto the aircraft. My neighbour seemed transfixed by the ashen, sweaty, drooling, smelly man walking down the aisle towards him.
     We felt decidedly delicate when we arrived in Townsville. It was not the ideal time to load ourselves aboard a wildly corkscrewing liveaboard and make the nine-hour journey through stormy seas to the wreck of the Yongala.
     The scene on the dive deck on that first morning resembled the culmination of a disaster movie - divers draped over the rail, crew-members hosing us down as we threw up between our fins. It was a blissful relief to pitch forward into the sea, although hardly a textbook entry (unless you can find the horizontal face plant in your diving manual).
     The wreck rests at 30m, although the first sight of it is the bow at 16m. The second sight is a potato cod the size of a hatchback sitting in the shade beneath the bow, like a troll in a cave. We just had time to recover from an eyeball (small) to eyeball (large) encounter with this fellow, when we turned to face the side of the hull that signalled the start of the dive.
     Racing over the hull were hunting trevally, chasing down anything unwise enough to rise more than a few inches above the coral that coats the superstructure. Unfazed, they hurtled towards us, swerving only inches from our masks. As we finned along the wreck, we were met by a large turtle munching contentedly on an outcrop of coral. He looked up for a second, would have raised a laconic eyebrow if he had one, and carried on eating. The big animals on this wreck are used to divers.
     This first dive left us thunderstruck. Our sightings as a team (of six divers, two remaining on the boat peering into the toilets) were four sea-snakes, a tiger shark, a bull shark, a massive bull ray, barracuda, napoleon wrasse, guitar shark, morays and a host of coral-related species. This wreck really is an oasis of life in the desert of the surrounding sand flats.
     Our expert guides were Mike Emslie and Dave Williamson of Gingara Eco Tours, both full-time reef scientists who take time out to show visitors the wonders of the Yongala and outer reef.
     They did their best to unravel this biological marvel for us, and were as breathlessly enthusiastic as anyone on the team about the diversity of species and level of activity present.
     As evening approached, the situation was becoming rather dangerous for the team. As we retched through another kitting-up session, it was obvious that we were not at our most alert for the dive ahead. At the vanguard of the hurling heroes was Louise Hallett, a woman with an indomitable will to get on with the dive. To see her claw her way along the deck and tumble into the water with regulator held between slack lips is to understand why Britain once had an empire.
     Our hugely professional skipper Will Ward made the sensible decision after the third dive of the day to move to a more sheltered area. This turned out to be Wheelers Reef, where pristine hard coral bommies are patrolled by whitetips, morays and massive cruising groups of bumphead parrotfish.
     Here the team spent a blissful two days diving exquisite reefs and sandflats, the experts from Gingara adding texture and a depth of understanding to the array of life before us.
     The Yongala is a truly remarkable dive, and I urge you to follow the distant advice of a 1985 diving instructor, and visit it at least once.

Vanuatu
We call ourselves an expedition, but there are times when we struggle to live up to the Shackletonesque images this conjures up. Hot tubs, hotel buffets the length of intercity trains, and satellite TV in your hotel room make it difficult to convince the folks at home that you are a hairy-palmed explorer.
     So it was with mixed feelings that I watched the miniscule Twin Otter aircraft at Vanuatu Airport being loaded with our kit by a small, furiously sweating baggage man. It was good at last to be travelling in a wildly bucking small aircraft, doubtless flown by some ex-MIG pilot who believed in reincarnation and whose grandad had been shot down by mistake by the RAF.
     We all rather enjoyed landing (sideways) on a mud airstrip the length of a tennis court halfway through the flight to drop off some scientists.
     Met at the airstrip at Santo by Tony from Allan Power Dive Tours, we piled amusingly into his small pick-up and, with Dan filming from on top of the pile of bags as branches whipped inches over the top of his balding pate, we drove onto the Deco Stop Lodge.
     The ss President Coolidge is a monument to the zenith of opulent travel. Built in 1930, she was 654ft long, displacing 21,936 tonnes. She could accommodate 988 passengers in art deco luxury, surrounding them with mahogany and gold leaf. Stewards padded over deep-pile carpets, bringing drinks to elegant socialites in cavernous smoking rooms.
     Her holds had space for 633,000sq ft of cargo, and her sweeping bow cut through the ocean at 21 knots, propelled by 32,000hp engines. Such power saw her set several records for crossing the Pacific in the 1930s.
     In 1942 she was modified to carry troops, and on 29 October was steaming through the channel to the south of Santo, packed with 4800 infantrymen. Through a bewildering mix-up, her skipper was not informed of mines laid there by occupying US forces, and she struck two in quick succession. This great ship took only 90 minutes to become a great wreck.
     Thanks to her skippers quick thinking in driving her hard into shore, only two lives were lost. She lies on her port side with her bow at 21m and her stern at 70m.
     The Coolidge, bizarrely, is a shore dive. The next morning saw us kitting up on a small beach, speechless with excitement and clumsy with haste. But wading out into the crystal water, I had to remind myself that only 50m away was the largest accessible shipwreck in the world of recreational diving.
     The team followed a line down to the bow. We aimed to explore the promenade deck, which seemed like an aircraft hangar, a huge tunnel supported by pillars of blue light streaming through holes in the superstructure. Below lie rifles and helmets, encrusted in growth, and gas-masks and mess tins.
     The evacuating troops had been told to take nothing with them, on the assumption that the vessel would be afloat long enough to return to collect equipment later. After a leisurely amble along the deck, we moved over the massive hull and back to the shotline.
     One enduring image of this wreck for divers throughout the world lurks in one of the first-class dining rooms midships. The Lady is a sculpture that used to gaze down from the mantelpiece of the first-class smoking-room, but a small earthquake dislodged her from her perch, and several years ago Allan Power moved her further up the wreck.
     It may be the combination of the gloomy passage that must be traversed for an audience with the Lady, or the nitrogen coursing through the veins at 38m, but she is a beautiful sight. Pale and poised, she waved a languid hand at the team as we peered owlishly at her.
     Like all encounters with pretty girls when you are feeling light-headed it was over far too quickly, and we headed back towards the bridge. En route we passed a beautiful mosaic fountain twinkling in our torch-beams, once the centrepiece of a gracious lobby.
     Only a small leap of imagination is needed to see shadowy figures drifting across marbled floors; to glimpse couples strolling the promenade decks; to hear the echo of piano keys drifting up from the smoking lounges.
     Perhaps it is the depth, perhaps the general state of preservation, perhaps the scale of the Coolidge, but there is something wonderfully nostalgic about this splendid wreck.
     As you leave the bow and ascend the silt slope leading to the decompression platform, there is one more treat in store. Over the years Allan has created a wonderful coral garden, lovingly tended, that divers can explore at leisure as the gas seeps from their systems - clownfish abound, a mantis shrimp challenges all comers, and damselfish line up to be groomed at numerous cleaning stations.
     However, normal gardens dont tend to have 400kg grouper in attendance. Boris is as much a feature of this wreck as Allan, and usuallyresident from January to September.
     A magnificent animal at the bowof a magnificent wreck to end a magnificent dive.

North Island,
New Zealand

It seemed slightly odd to taxi slowly towards the terminal at Auckland Airport and watch the rain lash against the perspex window of the aircraft. Rain had become an alien concept to us, and we looked incongruous in our Hawaiian shirts and skinny-legged splendour. We huddled like juvenile penguins and
     shuffled out to the waiting bus.
     The Poor Knights is arguably the best coldwater diving location on the planet. These two large, craggy islands, 14 miles off the coast of North Island, are a 400 hectare oasis of life. Declared taboo in Maori law since 1820, they were also declared a nature reserve in the early 1980s, making them among the most protected pieces of land in New Zealand.
     The result is a bewildering number of fish on the steep reefs around the islands, with most of the 120 species of this region strongly represented in dense shoals.
     Our group spent a whirlwind two days diving the islands and experienced the full gamut of the caverns, caves and reefs that make up the Poor Knights experience. Guided by the incomparable Dive! Tutukaka team, we drifted through emerald arches flanked by shimmering masses of blue maomao and trevally, lay on white sand as massive sting rays passed overhead, and attempted to take in the packed walls and glum-looking scorpionfish the size of rugby balls.
     Wonderful though the Poor Knights were, we were here for the wrecks, and before departing down the coast to explore the Rainbow Warrior, Dive! Tutukaka had a few tricks up their sleeve for us.
     Jeroen, one of its co-owners, is a man of vision and drive. Aware that he had the potential to establish one of the greatest coldwater dive destinations, he decided in 1999 to purchase and sink a 200ft hydrographic vessel from the New Zealand Navy just off Tutukaka. This was such a triumph that he decided in 2000 to do it again, this time dispatching to the bottom a 370ft frigate called the HMNZS Waikato.
     Our real treat proved to lie in the wide passages of the Waikato. We were surprised to be told by the guides that we could penetrate the entire length of the hull (minus a short broken-off section of the bow) and emerge at the far end.
     This was an 85m penetration, and I imagined that some complex lining-off and light systems would be required. Hearts thumping, we slipped beneath the surface, anticipating a gnarly passage through silty twists and turns, with the blood roaring in our ears and pulses hammering.
     But, of course, the wreck is set up for divers, and this penetration was one of the most rewarding of the expedition. Entering through a hatch right at the stern, we made our cautious way down a long passage on the starboard side.
     To my surprise, after only 10m we came across a large cut in the hull, allowing us easy exit if required. Further down the passage was another, and another, and then yet another.
     This is a beautifully thought-out dive, and allows for a massive penetration, mostly illuminated by natural light streaming in through these cuts, as well as perfectly safe exploration of the many rooms off this main passage. These include the medical room, the operations room (complete with massive banks of machinery and electrical kit), and accommodation areas. We emerged triumphant close to the bow section, exchanged steely stares as befits the penetrators of mighty wrecks, and swam off to pose beside the bow gun.
     We couldnt visit North Island without paying our respects to the Rainbow Warrior. Many of the sites we dived had stories of mystery about them, but the Rainbow Warriors is a cloak-and-dagger tale of espionage and intrigue that would grace any Tom Clancy novel.
     Two explosions rocked her at Marsdens Wharf in Auckland just before midnight on 10 July, 1985, an act of state-funded terrorism that shocked the world. Two French Secret Service agents were arrested and charged, and the recriminations rocked relations between New Zealand and France, leading to the French Defence Ministers resignation.
     Two years later, the Rainbow Warrior was towed to the Cavelli Islands and sunk as an artificial reef. Overlooking the site is a monument to the vessel, an arc of rounded boulders with the propeller set in its centre, atop a hill that dominates the surrounding bay and islands.
     This is one of those atmospheric wrecks where the tale of the sinking gives an added poignancy to the dive. The launch site was absurdly beautiful, with water gardens of twisted bonsai trees clinging to dark rocks overhanging sapphire water lapping at the sand of the main beach.
     The wreck is quite small, 40m long and easily explored in a single dive. As we drifted down the shotline, it was possible to make out much of the hull and superstructure. Landing on the deck, we headed towards the stern, exploring the dark entrances to the bridge and accommodation.
     On the port side, aft of the shotline, we could make out the damage to the plating from the blast that killed photographer Fernando Pereira.
     Finning back past the line, we headed for the bow and the iconic shot of the Rainbow Warrior. The bowsprit still reaches out as the ship sails through the sand. Look closer: the bow is encrusted with millions of kaleidoscopic jewel anemones. The sea is slowly claiming the Rainbow Warrior - and in a riot of colour.

South Island, New Zealand
The scenery at French Pass on the north coast of New Zealands South Island was so beautiful that it made us want to burst into song. We resisted the urge, and satisfied ourselves by standing in a wordless line, gaping at the view.
     Mighty green hills plunged into blue fjords, absurdly fluffy sheep peered from dark crags, and impeccably white clouds slipped across a sapphire blue sky.
     The only sound to break the silence was a skylark in full lung-bursting song overhead, and the steady whirr of motordrives on expensive cameras.
     We had been brought to this place by Terry Sage of Dive Tours New Zealand. A jocular Englishman, Terry has been in New Zealand for 12 years, organising tours of the best dive spots for visiting Poms. Although we had the option of diving the Mikhail Lermentov from the nearby port of Picton, Terry had waxed lyrical about the French Pass, and after a three-hour drive over twisting track with precipitous drops a mere slip of the steering wheel away, we had arrived.
     We were staying at a charming lodge run by French Pass Sea Safaris, perched within a tiny hamlet clinging to the golden edge of the seashore. Our skipper was Danny, who looked after our diving needs while his wife Lynn produced an endless stream of local delicacies for our perpetually growling stomachs.
     French Pass gets its name from the ridiculously narrow stretch of water through which the contents of two ocean basins rush as the tide ebbs and flows. Slack lasts 12 minutes, and anyone unwise enough to be in the water after this is advised to have big legs, lungs like leather bellows and fins the size of a ping-pong table.
     Several years ago, seven divers were caught in this maelstrom, and hurled down to 100m in an instant. Amazingly, four survived.
     The Lermentov, about an hours steaming from our beach, continued the theme of espionage and intrigue running through our New Zealand wrecks. Tales of sabotage abound, as well as rumours of the sinking being a deliberate act by the Russians to provide a navigation marker for patrolling submarines.
     We had only the facts - that on 16 February, 1986 an experienced pilot steamed a luxury liner through a suicidally narrow gap almost at full speed. The resultant 12m gash in the hull should have prompted frantic calls for assistance.
     Instead, aside from one curt broadcast to Leningrad, the radios remained silent, Even offers of assistance from passing merchant vessels were turned down.
     Without the heroic efforts of locals who turned out in a flotilla of tiny boats to ferry passengers ashore, the loss of life could have been catastrophic. As it was, only one crew-member died, in the first moments of striking the reef.
     The wreck lies in the bay of Port Gore, on its starboard side in 37m, just under 600ft long and weighing over 20,000 tonnes. But this is a very different dive to the Coolidge - a distinctly gnarly experience. Visibility is limited - on the day we dived the wreck Terry was raving about the 5m soup that covered the hull. The rest of us, ruined forever by endless tropical wrecks, looked faintly stunned.
     This is also a fairly recent wreck - it has been on the seabed for only 17 years - and the silty corridors and open spaces are still gently caving in, creating a series of elaborate traps for divers.
     Steaming home from the wreck, the sun setting behind the amphitheatre of the towering hills, a laconic Kiwi drawl came over the radio. Danny, mate, you might like to show the fellas in your boat the killer whales in the bay.
     You chaps fancy that Danny turned to ask, only to be faced by eight divers wearing complete kit and expressions of child-like excitement.
     The next hour was unforgettable. Within 10 minutes we were idling towards a pod of six whales making their sedate way through the wide sweep of the sound opposite the lodge. Led by a majestic male with a crooked 1.5m dorsal fin, the group seemed to consist of a mixture of young whales and mature females.
     Stilling the engine to stop the boat in the whales path, we held our breath as the group moved in our direction.
     I stood in the stern, ready to pounce. Alongside me was Crann, the grand old man of the team, resplendent in a sky-blue wetsuit. Danny positioned the boat in the path of the whales, and cut the engine. Everything was perfect, the gigantic fin of the male dipping beneath the surface 6m away about to pass under the boat. And do you know what Suddenly I didnt want to get in.
     Crann, too, looked faintly perturbed at the proximity of this master apex predator. But the catcalls and abuse of the rest of the team finally drove us from the platform, and the boat quickly drifted away, leaving us treading murky water feet away from six hunting killer whales.
     My strategy was surreptitiously to position Crann between me and the pod. I was certain that I couldnt outswim them, but fairly confident that I could outswim him. Reassured, I began to enjoy myself.
     There followed an hour of exhausting twisting and turning, finning and diving, as the team and whales danced rings around each other. We finally dragged our weary bodies back onto the boat, leaving the whales to roll and turn, bathed in the remnants of the suns rays as they too turned for the open sea - two groups of mammals with new memories of a golden bay in New Zealand.

Grenada
New Zealand to Grenada is an absurd distance, even on a modest-sized blow-up globe. Do the journey over 48 hours in a car, then a bus, then a ferry, then a series of seven aircraft, endless departure lounges, and finally a crashingly tedious queue that inches towards a glowering security official, and one soon becomes delirious.
     This group hysteria manifested itself in a visit to a mammoth Los Angeles electronics store, during one of our stopovers. It resulted in members of the team emerging with a festival of hi-tech gadgets to amuse the bored traveller.
     The entire beeping, whirring, glassy-eyed crowd of us finally made it to the True Blue Bay resort in Grenada in the dead of night, oblivious to all but the urge to pass out theatrically in our encouragingly plush rooms.
     Due to its location in the Caribbean, Grenada has the distinction of being one of only a handful of islands to be surrounded by two major oceans.
     On the leeward side is the Caribbean; on the windward side, the Atlantic. Just off the entrance of the harbour lay our target wreck, the Bianca C or Titanic of the Caribbean.
     The next day we emerged blinking into a shimmering Grenada day. Throwing together our gear, we made the short walk to the dock and our rendezvous with our hosts, Aquanauts.
     The boats were spacious, the guides helpful, and within a few more minutes we were heading off to the Bianca C. This spectacular vessel has been under water since October 1961, having disappeared in a flaming Viking burial after an explosion in her boiler. The wreck is deteriorating fast, but it was still a great thrill to drift over those massive buckled plates, past the crumpled remains of the funnel with the elegant embossed C of the Costa Line still clearly visible.
     The team split to explore both forward and aft, my personal choice being the flare of the elegant bow, still slicing upright through the dark waters at 30m.
     The Bianca C was a splendid dive, and worthy of further exploration, but Paul, our guide, was anxious to show us that Grenada had more to offer than this elegant old lady. How right he was.
     The Shakem was a superb wreck, spookily well-preserved after only four years of immersion. It too sits upright, in 20m of water, curtains billowing from cabin windows in eerie undersea breezes, cargo of cement neatly packed in place. At the bow two chains run from her hawsers, framing the vessels passage through the seabed.
     Throughout the expedition we always bore in mind that when exploring wrecks, particularly their silty internal avenues and labyrinths, things could go very wrong very quickly. An inadvertent fin-kick against crumbling substrate, a flickering torch, a wrong turn, a lost line, and youre suddenly in the dark heart of your worst nightmare.
     We had been guided well throughout, and had devised a strict code of operation within the team to prevent any dramas.
     Our closest brush with Davy Jones came on the second to last day, and involved an unfortunate kit incident, a small breakdown in communication, and Crann performing a neat piece of escapology.
     With the guide and his buddy, Crann had entered the Shakems small engine-room. Ever the gentleman, he had allowed the other two divers to enter first, following on with his torch-beam fixed on Mikes steely backside.
     Twist piled on turn, hither on thither, until at the critical point of the penetration, his torch failed. Looking ahead in the blackness, he searched vainly for Mike and Pauls beams, but they had turned behind a solid engine block and were hidden from view.
     Heart racing, he fished out his spare torch to find that the beam hardly penetrated the stirred-up silt ahead. Lines had not been laid because of the fear of entanglement in the tiny space and twisted pipes of the engine-room, and the fact that the dive entered and exited the space at different points, complicating line-recovery on completion.
     Crann ultimately extracted himself through a small ventilation shaft by some judicious removal of gear and inelegant contortions. The picture of calm throughout the expedition, even he was rattled, and ascended the shotline wild-eyed and rust-covered.
     The guide was blameless and had already initiated a search pattern for Crann even as he exited the engine-room. It was a simple kit failure but also a reminder that penetration of wrecks must be taken seriously by everyone, regardless of experience.
     Our final dive was on the San Juan, a beautiful trawler crawling with nurse sharks. We were followed throughout by a huge Nassau grouper, which swam repeatedly into shot and had to be elbowed aside by frustrated lensmen, only to loom gigantically in another viewfinder seconds later.
     Glancing behind me as I drifted away from the wreck towards the surface on our last dive, I saw him still peering forlornly after us, his home a ghostly shadow behind him.
     The perfect picture to carry with me as a reminder of the splendour of the world of wrecks.

Diver
Diver with potato cod on the Yongala
a
a bull ray on the wreck
Napoleon
Napoleon wrasse and glassfish on the Yongala
Crows
Crows nest on the Coolidge
inside
inside the main saloon at the water fountain
medical
medical supplies
lighting
lighting up the famous Lady
in
in New Zealand, the dive team line up next to the Rainbow Warriors propeller memorial
a
a diver at Poor Knights
The
The wreck of a hydrographic ship, the Tui, off North island
double
double guns on the bow of the Waikato frigate wreck
Contacts
  • Gingara Eco Tours, Queensland, Australia, 0061 74771 6187, www.gingara.com
  • Allan Power Dive Tours, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, 00678 36822, www.allan-power-santo.com
  • Dive! Tutukaka, Whangarei, New Zealand, 0064 9 4343 867, www.diving.co.nz
  • Dive Tours New Zealand, Hamilton, New Zealand, 0064 7846 5660, www.nzdiving.co.nz
  • Aquanauts Grenada, St Georges, Grenada, 00473 4441126, www.aquanautgrenada.com
  • A DVD of the Ultimate Wrecks expedition will be available later this year. Readers interested in joining next years Full Circle Top 10 Wildlife Dives expedition should visit www.fullcircleexpeditions.com