The Yongala, Australias most famous shipwreck, is regularly listed in the world top 10 dive sites listings. But in recent years another ship in Queensland has overtaken that wreck in popularity, says NIGEL MARSH, who is fortunate to have HMAS Brisbane on his doorstep
IT ALL STARTED WITH A BIG BANG! As I suppose many things do, but this bang sent the HMAS Brisbane to the bottom of the ocean in only two minutes!
I was in the crowd on 31 July, 2005, just one of thousands who watched the 133m guided-missile destroyer disappear below the waves off the Sunshine Coast, only 60 miles north of the capital of Queensland and the ship’s namesake – Brisbane.
Video shot that afternoon by commercial divers, employed to check that all the explosives had detonated, confirmed that the ship was sitting pretty – perfectly upright on the sand in 27m of water.
Watching the video on the news that night, I thought it would be weeks before I got a chance to explore HMAS Brisbane, when she was officially opened to divers. But only two days later I got a call from Greg Riddell, of Sunreef Diving Services, informing me that the centre had been given permission to do an orientation dive on the ship. Would I like to come along Silly question!
The next morning I was on the dive-boat above the wreck, and could clearly see its outline, with the two funnels very prominent just 5m below the surface. We would be allowed one dive with no penetration, as not all the detonation cables had been cleared.
I didn’t mind, I was just eager to check out this new artificial reef. The winter weather couldn’t have been better – calm seas and blue water.
As this was the first recreational dive on HMAS Brisbane, Greg and his partner Paul White had the honour of being first in the water and on the ship.
They had worked tirelessly to secure the ship for the Sunshine Coast after it was decommissioned.
I soon followed them into the water, and when the bubbles cleared it was easy to see the bow of the ship 15m below. My buddy Craig and I descended onto the bow and headed straight for the 5in gun. Both the forward and rear gun-turrets had been left in place, and made an impressive sight.
After several photos we dropped over the front of the bow to inspect the ship’s pennant number, 41, and then stuck our heads into several of 30 access holes cut into the hull to allow safe access to all areas.
It was very tempting to enter the ship with the interior so clean, but we restrained ourselves and followed the side to the stern.
We swam beneath it to see the prop-shaft, minus the props, and went onto the stern deck to inspect the rear gun.
Our slow swim back to the funnels took us past the guided missile silo, now empty, and numerous rooms, stairs and corridors.
After a quick circuit around each funnel we arrived at the bridge area, or what was left of the bridge, most of it removed for the National War Museum in Canberra.
After 50 minutes we surfaced from the weirdest wreck dive I had done. The ship was amazing to explore, but just so clean and stark. We hadn’t seen one fish.
Several weeks later, when HMAS Brisbane was officially opened to recreational divers, it was already coated in a layer of algae.
Barnacles and limpets had also started to cover the ship, providing a home to shrimps and crabs, while small schools of pelagic fish patrolled the decks, and a few reef fish had found a new home.
BY SUMMER THE SHIP HAD exploded with life, far quicker that anyone had expected. I didn’t recognise it four months after the scuttling, because hardly any of the navy grey paint could be seen for the thick covering of algae and molluscs. Even corals and sponges had started to grow.
But the biggest surprise was the volume and variety of fish. Schools of trevally, kingfish, yellowtail, mackerel and batfish were swarming around the wreck, while the reef fish included rock cod, lionfish, leatherjackets, wrasse, angelfish, butterflyfish and sweetlips.
What surprised me most was to find a striped anglerfish and three ornate ghost pipefish – how did they get here so fast
I was able to explore the interior of HMAS Brisbane – the engine-room, galley, crew quarters, boiler-room and many more. With four levels and what seems like 100 rooms, I still haven’t fully explored the interior.
But one of my favourite places is the Operations Room, which still contains computers that were used to launch missiles – with buttons reading MSL IN FLIGHT, INTERCEPT, SURVIVED and KILL still visible.
Each year I have dived HMAS Brisbane it has got better, and today it’s easy to see why it rivals the Yongala for popularity. After six years this is now a coral warship, coloured by a variety of soft corals, sponges, ascidians, bryozoans, hydroids and hard corals.
Anemones are also common and home to anemonefish, commensal shrimps and the odd porcelain crab.
The hardest choice I now have before each dive is which lens to take. The ship is a haven for both small critters and larger creatures.
On the critter front there are octopuses in almost every hole, mantis shrimps in other holes, and also boxer shrimps, moray eels, hermit crabs, decorator crabs and a very diverse range of nudibranchs.
Recently two painted anglerfish have taken up residence on the rear deck, but these fish are well-camouflaged.
REEF FISH ABOUND on all parts of the ship, and represent almost every tropical fish family. Rock cod are common in the interior but can be difficult to see because the cardinalfish are so thick at times that you have to part them like a curtain to enter each room.
Lionfish feed on these cardinalfish, so you have to be careful where you place your hands, and always check doorways, because they like to linger overhead.
Other residents include Myrtle the hawksbill, a very photogenic turtle with no fear of divers, and spotted eagle rays that cruise around the decks and often hover at the numerous cleaning stations.
The most impressive residents are the gropers, with both brown-spotted and larger Queensland varieties regularly seen. On one memorable dive I counted more than a dozen giant Queensland gropers, all around 2m long, hovering in the water column in front of the bow. Where they came from, no one knows.
The sand around the wreck is home to sting rays and flatheads, and in summer leopard sharks and large white-spotted shovelnose ray gather around the stern.
Other surprise visitors include dolphins, humpback whales, manta rays, sea snakes, grey nurse sharks and even a sunfish, making for quite a menagerie on this old warship.
HMAS Brisbane has proved such an attraction that there is talk of securing another retired warship to sink beside it – which would only add to the popularity of one of Australia’s must-do dive sites.
HMAS Brisbane, the second Australian warship to carry the name, was built in the USA and launched in 1966. A Charles F Adams-class guided-missile destroyer, she was 133m long, 14m wide and displaced 4500 tons.
Nicknamed “The Steel Cat”, she was manoeuvrable and fast with a top speed of 35 knots.
Brisbane and her crew did two tours of duty off Vietnam, supporting the US 7th Fleet. She fired more than 15,000 rounds from her 5in guns during her deployment. She also served in the First Gulf War and, after a long career, was retired in 2001.
When tenders were put out for her future, the successful bidder was the Sunshine Coast Artificial Reef Group, helped by the success of the three previous navy ships that had already been scuttled as dive sites; HMAS Swan and HMAS Perth off Western Australia and HMAS Hobart off South Australia.
Getting Brisbane under water was a rocky road, because delays caused by arguments over cleaning costs, insurance and misinformation about her intended scuttling site ate up two years.
Work was finally allowed to begin to clean and make her safe for divers, and when the big day finally arrived she went down without a hitch.
You could spend several weeks diving HMAS Brisbane and not see all it has to offer, but the Sunshine Coast has other underwater attractions. Near the wreck are the Gneering and Murphy’s Reef, both covered in hard corals and populated by a diverse range of reef fish, pelagics and invertebrates.
|GETTING THERE: The closest international airport is at Brisbane, and it’s a one-hour drive north to the Sunshine Coast. Or you can fly to Maroochydore, which is serviced by Jetstar (www.jetstar.com.au) and Virgin Blue (www.virginblue.com.au). Arrange an electronic travel authority visa in advance at eta.immi.gov.au.|
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Sunreef Diving Services (www.sunreef.com.au) and Scuba World (www.scubaworld.com.au) are the two dive centres that operate charters to HMAS Brisbane from Mooloolaba and they can recommend places to stay. A wide range of accommodation is available along the Sunshine Coast.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, though the cooler months, May to September, bring the most stable weather. Water temperature varies from summer highs of 26°C to winter lows of 18°C. Visibility varies from 6-40m, with the average 15m. Summer air temperatures range from 20-35°C, winter 15-23°C.
MONEY: Australian dollar.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Underwater World, Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo and the hinterland with its wineries, cheese factory and many markets.
PRICES: Both Sunreef and Scuba World run daily double dives on the Brisbane (weather permitting) but advance bookings are essential. Two dives with either centre cost Aus $145, plus $15 state conservation fee.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.queensland-holidays.com.au