Wake of the Navigators. Part 1
Wake of the Navigators
By Trevor Jackson
Let me be perfectly honest with you…I’m taking a big boat up north to go on a wreck diving trip and I want you to come with me. Yes, it’s going to cost a bit…but it’s worth it…..it’s a once in a lifetime thing….to wrecks you can’t take a plane to…there will be no cocktails under the palm trees in the afternoon….there’s no ex scuttled prefab warships……no rubber ducky off the beach……no arguing honeymooners……no cultural dancing…..no theme parks.
But let me tell what there will be …………bombs, guns, portholes, antique coins, paddle wheels, steam boilers, WW2 stuff, 19th century stuff, big sharks, big ships, little ships, crap viz, great viz, big tides and big, big, big fun……this is the trip every professional marine archaeologist in the country wants on……and if you like shipwrecks…this is the one you should be on.
Hang on, that all just sounded like a sales pitch……probably because it was one…and I guess I’m doing that because, for this old sea dog….this is what it’s all about….going to wrecks that everyday folk just don’t get to. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a fan of Truk Lagoon and the SS President Coolidge as the next guy…but somehow they don’t fill that tiny niche that says ‘go forth and see something mysterious’. This trip will…this is the Torres Straits.
The Torres Straits is a narrow band of water that separates the northernmost tip of Australia from its nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea. Scarcely 100 miles wide, it was discovered in 1606 by Portuguese explorer Luis Vaz de Torres and has since become a major gateway between Asia and the Australian east coast. Cape York, on the southern side of the straits, separates the Coral and Arafura Seas, making the area a meeting place for the tides of two immense bodies of water. The resulting currents create both a unique ecosystem, and a treacherous, ship munching waterway. The Torres Straits has dozens of known wreck and thousands of unknown ones.
For the purposes of this article let’s first talk about the known ones…or in particular THE one…the RMS Quetta. The scant few who have dived both the RMS Quetta and her more frequently visited cousin, the SS Yongala, often find themselves in a discussion which could be titled……’Australia’s Best Wreck Dive…Yongala or Quetta?’ There are plenty of comparisons to be made. Both involved massive loss of life; they were roughly 25 years apart so the ship designs are similar; Quetta is considerably larger; Yongala is …well…the Yongala! It’s an argument that goes to and fro across the crew table occasionally but like I mentioned, scant few can join in…the Yongala gets dived every day…hardly anyone has dived Quetta, it’s simply, too remote.
The Quetta’s iron hull plates were brutally opened up by an uncharted rock on a late February night, 1890. Iron was a revolutionary material for building ships when it was first introduced, very strong, resistant to corrosion and the worms just couldn’t seem to get a foothold. It had one MAJOR downside…it was brittle……like good chocolate. If iron at speed had an interface with stationary earth, earth won….big time. The Quetta’s plates opened up and in minutes the cast and crew were swimming in the warm balmy treacherous waters of Far Northern Queensland. Never mind the sharks, the crocs and the stingers; a lack of swimming ability accounted for most of them. In total, 134 died that night. It was at the time considered the worst disaster in Queensland’s maritime history. All but one of the infant children, tragically, perished. And that child lived the rest of her days never ever finding out what her real name was; the press named her after the ship …….she grew up being ‘Quetta Brown’.
If one were to attempt to describe the RMS Quetta as she is now, some 124 years later, with just a single word, that word would be…..ghostly. The ship lies on her port side in just 20 odd metres of water. Intact, surprisingly intact actually, even one of her giant masts still protrudes directly from the deck and shoots out parallel to the seafloor, some 6 or 7 metres below it.
She has multiple decks, swarms of inhabitants and her stern and propeller arrangement are a must shoot spot for photographers. The first comment I remember hearing after our very first dive on the site was….’That’s a 12 out of 10 dive’. Frankly I’d have to agree. The Quetta’s eerie green decks and spooky underbelly create a sense of awe and mystery that’s hard to describe and hard to replicate. That being said, she’s not an easy nut to crack. Like the 2012 excursion, the dates chosen for this December’s trip offer the single best tidal window for the whole year; optimizing time on the wreck and maximising safety. The RMS Quetta is worth the wait, and she’s just the beginning of what’s in store up there.
If you fancy doing something really different this summer, join me on Mike Ball’s Spoilsport for a one off, 7 night trip to the historic wrecks of the Torres Straits, departing Thursday Island on the 11th of December, 2014, docking in Cairns a week later.
In Part 2 of ‘Wake of the Navigators’………..Chinese coins amongst the rocks, two wrecks play piggy back………… and which wreck has got all those archaeologists so eager to be aboard?
To find out more about this Far North Wreck Special Expedition click here.