Underwater Photography at the SS Yongala Wreck in Queensland, Australia
The SS Yongala, situated near Townsville, Queensland, Australia, is one of the greatest wreck dives in the world. An astonishing variety of small and large marine life inhabits the wreck, which has become totally encrusted in vibrantly colored corals in the century after its sinking.
Reaching the Wreck
The SS Yongala wreck is located on a sandy sea floor, best accessible from Alva Beach, near Ayr. Alva Beach is a tiny coastal town located about 1h from Townsville, 5h 30min from Cairns, and 6h 30min from Port Douglas. Despite the long drive both ways, the Yongala wreck is such a unique and unparalleled wreck dive that any diver visiting Queensland should make an effort to dive it. Due to its difficult accessibility, there is generally good availability on the boats visiting the Yongala wreck (visit yongaladive.com.au), and I was able to opportunistically book a 1-day diving trip to the wreck whilst living in Port Douglas.
The wreck is best accessed with a speedboat, which can reach the wreck from Alva Beach in approximately 1 hour if the surface conditions are pleasant. The wreck of the Yongala lays on an otherwise plain sandy sea floor. For this reason, the current and surge at the unprotected wreck are occasionally rough. Visibility underwater, typically 10-15 meters, is not as good as elsewhere on the Great Barrier Reef. The wreck itself lies between 35 and 15 meters, and only comes to view after descending about 10 meters down along the permanent rope connecting the wreck to the surface buoy. I found that, when diving from the west side buoy, the best photographic opportunities and the greatest diversity of fish life was at approximately 25 meters on the right side of the wreck (on top of the tilted ship). Due to the strong currents and the depth of dive, dives rarely exceed 40 minutes in length, especially when focusing intently on photographic compositions in the strong current. The dive is not suitable for novice divers, as currents, relatively poor visibility, some swell at the surface, and a backwards roll entry from a small speedboat all demand some experience and confidence from the diver.
Once at the wreck, the enormous amount of fish life and vibrant coral life is stunning. The artificial reef created by the wreck is completely covered in pink and purple soft corals, and millions of fish seek refuge in the crevices of the wreck. Large pelagic species also come to the wreck, both to hunt and to rest. The first dive at the wreck is best spent learning the features and photographic opportunities of the wreck.
The Wreck and its Residents
Some of my personal favorite photographs of the wreck, including those above, capture the immense amount of colors and fishlife at the wreck, which is the defining feature of the wreck. It is critical to not overexpose the silvery fish or to light up all the backscatter and plankton in the water, so a relatively low power setting for outwards-angled strobes is necessary. In order to capture the masses of fish, timing is key: I positioned my camera with a particular composition framed, after which I struggled to hold still in the current until the fish appeared from the protection of the wreck all at once.
The best shots have a clear subject, such as a coral head or a particular feature of the wreck, distinct from the background. The contrast between the foreground and background is the key to a standout image; to achieve this, shoot with an upwards angle and use strobe-lighting to balance the difference in the exposure and white balance of the subject and the background. When searching for compositions underwater, look particularly for defining features of the wreck, masses of fish swimming in a synchronized way, particularly distinct or curious coral heads and eye-catching shapes and symmetries in the wreck. The possibilities are endless, so I made sure to take my time in exploring the wreck slowly.
The Rare Animals
In addition to the stunning color and small fish, rare, exotic and even large pelagic species are regularly seen at the SS Yongala reef. Hunting giant trevallys, maori wrasses, huge marble rays, venomous sea snakes, and the goliath grouper are seen on almost every dive, but sightings of guitar sharks, manta rays, tiger sharks and other sharks are not uncommon. Unfortunately, in part due to the pleasant diving conditions I experienced, I did not encounter any of these uncommon large species. However, the regular inhabitants of the wreck are so spectacular that the thought of missing out on seeing a guitar shark did not even cross my mind when diving the wreck. Encounters with large sharks are usually at a distance, so capturing photographs of sharks in the challenging current and visibility conditions is difficult.
Sea snakes, turtles, and hunting trevallys are spectacular sightings at the wreck. Turtles are famously difficult photographic subjects, and if you wish to capture a beautiful image of a turtle, timing is absolutely vital. The movement and activity of the turtle must be evident, and for the most impactful images, be sure to photograph from slightly below and in front of the turtle, constantly looking for eye contact.
Sea snakes are more common on the wreck than on almost any other dive sites. These curious animals are neither shy nor aggressive, and often allow the diver to approach very close. Photographing sea snakes with the wide-angle lens best suited for the wreck dive is however difficult as the snakes are constantly moving and are rarely positioned against a visually appealing background. Nevertheless I was able to capture some images that show the unique beauty of these venomous but friendly animals. I was, in fact, lucky enough to witness the mating of two sea snakes at the Yongala!
The giant trevallys are everpresent at the SS Yongala wreck, and it is common to see them hunt for the fish that dare leave the refuge of the wreck structure. The trevallys are larger than they appear, with adult individuals being comfortably over one meter in length. Their silvery surface is highly reflective, which is both a challenge and an opportunity when photographing the animals. It is critical to not use strobes at a too high strobe setting to avoid blowing out the highlights, which can be challenging to monitor at depth. However, the reflections on the fish may be taken advantage of to produce some stunning portfolio images, like the one I captured, shown below.
The SS Yongala wreck is one of the greatest wreck dives in the world – the best dive I have experienced. The colorful reef coating the over century-old wreck, combined with the stunning fish-life present at the wreck and the opportunities for amazing pelagic encounters, allow for endless photographic opportunities to capture memorable wreck images. Regardless of the images, the dive experience – despite all the difficulties – is absolutely spectacular. The wreck is so unique in terms of the concentration of marine life present that I had the possible to only dive either only the Yongala or the Great Barrier Reef (which is the largest and one of the most stunning reef aggregations in the world), the Yongala would be my pick.