North Queensland wreck teeming with life
JUST off the coast of Ayr in north Queensland there's an underwater party happening 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
And if you have your scuba diving certification, that's all you need to join the festivities.
The wreck of the SS Yongala isn't just teeming with fish and other marine life. It's covered with a thick, ever-changing blanket of hard and soft corals, resident reef fish and other critters like eels and olive sea snakes, and larger predators like giant trevally, Queensland gropers and the 'fly-in fly-out' pelagics like sharks, manta rays and spotted eagle rays.
Thanks to its final resting position in an open sand flat and the many years it has been underwater - 105 to be exact - the Yongala boasts one of the highest concentrations of fish life found anywhere on the Great Barrier Reef.
It's no wonder Sir David Attenborough chose to send a film crew here for his recent Great Barrier Reef documentary series.
Your first dive on the wreck can be overwhelming. There are so many fish swimming around you and such an array of bright colours it's hard to know where to look.
The wildlife here isn't shy, aside from the mammoth Queensland gropers that tend to take off once more than a few divers arrive on the scene, so don't be surprised if you find yourself in the middle of a school of mangrove jacks or if a friendly bull ray swims right over your head.
My dive buddy and I had a very special encounter with a manta ray, which circled the top of the wreck several times.
The Yongala attracts wide-ranging ocean travellers like the manta because it is a cleaning station. Hundreds of tiny cleaner wrasse will pop up from the wreck's reef structure whenever a 'customer' stops by.
It's like a spa treatment, which I imagine is bliss for the rays considering they have no arms or hands to scratch or rid themselves of pesky parasites.
While dive operators in Townsville do take visitors to the Yongala, it's quite a long boat ride, which isn't pleasant if the conditions are rough.
Yongala Dive Centre is located in Ayr, an hour's drive from Townsville and only a half hour's boat ride from the dive site.
It's worth staying a night or two in Ayr rather than driving back and forth.
That way you can relax after your dives, enjoy the barbecue lunch at the dive centre and then even have time for a cheeky nap in the afternoon before rustling up some dinner.
It's also fun to observe the operations here. A large tractor is used to transport the dive boat down to the beach and wetsuit-clad divers are packed into a 4WD for a fun drive on the sand to the launch site.
In between dives the guides will recount the Yongala's sinking and the tragic story of 'honeymoon divers' Tina and Gabe Watson.
The Yongala is prone to currents, which tend to deliver the best visibility, so if you haven't dived for a year or more then it's worth doing a refresher before you visit the wreck.
Because the wreck is considered an underwater grave site, divers are not allowed to go inside or swim under any overhanging structures.
This doesn't take away from the experience, though. The bustling fish life is exhilarating enough to keep you occupied.
Also if you're good on your air consumption and you're Nitrox - air enriched with extra oxygen to extend your bottom time - certified I'd highly recommend paying a bit extra for the 'juice' to get the most out of one of the best wreck dives in the world.
Add a stop off in Townsville
ADDING on a day or two in Townsville is a great way to spend your 'dry' time after a visit to the SS Yongala.
North Queensland's unofficial capital has come a long way in recent years. Street art now adorns the sides of many buildings in the city centre and the restaurants, bars and cafes of City Lane are like a slice of Melbourne in the heart of the 'Ville'.
If you're in town on a Sunday, grab a coffee or breakfast from M&J CO Espresso Bar before browsing the CBD's weekly markets full of fresh tropical produce, crafts and souvenirs.
A short walk or drive across Ross Creek is Palmer St, which is full of trendy shops and more dining options. The Townsville Yacht Club has great seafood and water views while IMC Steak House, where a reservation is a must, sources grass and grain-fed steaks from across the state including dry aged T-bone from Gympie and Wagyu rump from the Darling Downs.
A drive, or walk if you're looking for some exercise, up Castle Hill offers full 360-degree views of the city and nearby Magnetic Island.