Friday, 03 September 2004 00:00

The Wild Geese of Thirsty Sound - Part 1

By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star

Saturday the 24th of July 2004.

Anticipation. It's quite often the best bit of a new adventure. Anticipation is rife around the decks of the Esperance Star today. Tomorrow the ship will head north for a mission we have been planning for over a year. Now the anticipation is all but over, and reality will take its place in less than 24 hours. The first stage of our wreck finding journey will involve only 5 crew; Dave Giddins, Jon Senjov , Nat Loades, Darryl Waters and I, as we deliver the ship to Gladstone, our southernmost port for the winter season. From there we will take on supplies and fuel and head further north to waters divers have rarely visited, Thirsty Sound on the central coast of Qld, remote and mysterious. This section of coast has no major towns and very few visitors and a large tract of it is closed off to the public and zoned as a military training mans land. The coast is really only accessible by boat for hundreds of kilometers, and the waters are heavy with current; and heavy with lost ships. Our aim is to find them.

Part 1

Sunday 25th, 4.45pm, Newport Marina

I often advise the crew of a ship not to bring their partners to the wharf if the vessel is departing for any length of time. Goodbyes are often better expressed at home before even getting in the car. Down at the jetty there is often little time for any sentiment and all to often the ship has thrown its ropes and sounded its horn before that final hug could take place. Such was the scene down here today. A scurry of feet as those staying behind were ushered off board and we were gone. No fuss, no yelling. Just the brutality of a boat getting rapidly smaller. We could see in the faces on the jetty a sense that it had all happened too quickly, but on board the mood was hyped and buoyant. From the wharf we had taken our ropes and hoses, this was no weekend trip, this was an expedition. We would be away for six weeks and what would happen in that time was far from a foregone conclusion. Our plans were not particularly specific, simply seek and find.

As we rounded the bottom of Bribie Island a few hours later it was evident that our first night away would be slightly less comfortable than staying at home in bed, such was the lot of many adventures I'm sure. A strong northerly wind was right in our faces and the tide ebbing out of Morton Bay made the waves stand up high and the Esperance Star was tossed around in a most unsavory manner. I drew up a roster for watch keeping, crewman Jon got the short straw and it was he that woke me at 3am the next morning as we approached the wreck site of the 'Dolphin'. This 50metre long timber ship was requisitioned by the US navy in the latter years of WW2, but had sank on her maiden voyage to ports north of Brisbane. The wind and waves had eased considerably; we quickly dropped the anchor, checked the GPS and retired to our respective cabins to await the dawn.

At around 8 that same morning we rigged up and descended the 61 meters to the remains of the Dolphin. More often than not the visibility is quite poor here but today was a welcome exception. Apart from the low light levels the viz was a more than adequate 15 meters. The amount of marine life on this site is nothing short of stunning and many wartime artifacts still lie undisturbed on the sandy seabed. I hadn't intended bringing any of these artifacts up this time but the sight of a perfectly preserved brass porthole just lying there in the sand proved too much to resist. I quickly attached a lift bag to it as I made my way back to the anchor. We climbed onto the duckboard of the Esperance Star after about 40 mins of deco and were shortly underway for another wreck about 30 miles to the north. I had a little chuckle as the anchor broke the surface; we weren't anywhere near Thirsty Sound yet, but the adventure had already begun in no uncertain terms. The wreck we were headed directly for was unknown to us; we had a GPS mark and a depth, both of which, although we didn't know it at this juncture, were incorrect.

We past Wolf Rock near Double Island Point just after midday. Tempted as we were to drop in for a visit with the family of Grey Nurse sharks that lived there, we pressed on for a few more hours. The weather steadily worsened and by the time we began our acute search it was blowing fairly strongly again from the north and we decided that once we had found the wreck and done the dive, we would backtrack to the Wide Bay Bar and steam up the coast on the 'inside' of Frazer Island.

The marks we had were proving troublesome. They quite clearly were not going to produce a wreck so our search area got steadily larger. The depth too was an issue. In my little black book the page regarding this site suggested that the wreck would be in 15 fathoms. As a fathom equals 6 feet, a simple bit of arithmetic lead me to believe that the wreck would be in about 28 meters, but the sounder was reading well over 50 meters throughout the area. There was a small fishing boat lurking around trying to find something just to the north of our position. He had arrived on the scene just after us and I figured that that at least was a good sign, he must know something. Both boats however kept doing circles trying to find the wreck, until finally up it came, a ball of life stretching almost to the surface. I did another two turns to find the biggest lump and we dropped all 120 meters of chain onto the site, knowing it would be difficult to get a good hold on the bottom in the increasing breeze. On our first go we dragged off the wreck but after retrieving the chain and trying again we dug in strongly and the bow now rode proudly straight into the wind.

As on most occasions when diving something new, excitement was in the air but a couple had to stay behind. I grabbed a piece of paper, wrote down a number and asked everyone to 'give me a number between 1 and 50'. The two crew who got closest to my number were joining me on the first go, the other two would do the surface watch and go in later. The water was green and uninviting and as we descended the visibility closed in. At first it was about 6 metres but as we neared the seabed it closed in further and further and was only a few feet when we made it to the wreck. Our super bright Greenforce torches lit up the lime green pieces of brass scattered about the place but the site was a bit a of a disaster area, it was impossible too tell what the wreck was and the three of us were occupied throughout most of our bottom time trying to free the anchor from what would have possibly proved to be an irretrievable entanglement. Back on the surface I advised the crewmen who were still dry not to bother with gearing up as the weather was getting worse and the dive was crap anyway. We would have to try this site on another day. The anchor still gave us plenty of grief despite our efforts but eventually it came away and we shaped a course for the southwest and the bottom of Frazer Island. With the bar crossed just before sunset, we motored the Esperance Star up to a nice sandy beach and anchored for the evening. We had caught two Mackerel on a troll line on the way in and they made a fine meal that night.

Part 2

Tuesday 27th 8.55am, Southern end of Fraser Island

After our first day the crew had all gone to bed relatively early, and subsequently all gotten up early this morning, myself included. We wouldn't be proceeding northwards until about eleven am because the tidal flows inside the island make travel either very efficient of inefficient depending on whether it is with you or against you. I estimated that the best time to leave for a 'hitchhike' up the straits was late morning, so I gave the boys several tasks which included cleaning up the brass porthole from the Dolphin and running a few tests on our safety gear. I have told them 'I want that porthole polished and hanging on a wall by the time we weigh anchor'; needless to say they are currently very busy. The wind has prevailed throughout the night and backed around to the northwest a bit. As the straits are completely protected from all directions, it will be a calm steam today, and hopefully by tomorrow we will proceed back into the open sea with a decreasing breeze.

Wednesday 28th 7.55am, north of Hervey Bay

We stopped overnight at the top of the straits. There were several good reasons for this, not the least of which was to pick up two extra crew to continue up the coast. Photographers Anthony Cowan and Dave Harasti were ferried out to the Esperance Star in the inflatable tender and we stayed close in to the islands for the night. Late in the afternoon some of the boys had gone for a quick dive on the 'Roy Rufus Artificial Reef', a series of wrecks sunk near Hervey Bay. Nat came back rumbling about a giant Qld Groper he had encountered in a dark recess of one of the wrecks. While they were in the water I spent a quiet half an hour trying to decide whether to head for the wreck of the Althea2 or the MV Karma in the morning. Distance was the enemy, the Karma would take nearly the whole day to reach, but if we headed to the Althea we would be in the middle of no-mans land once we had finished the dive with nowhere to anchor for the night. In the end the weather report tended to support heading towards the Karma so with that decision made and dinner on the stove we retired to the front deck for a few late afternoon laughs and a glass of plonk.

At dawn the clatter of the anchor hauling in woke most of the boys and we were soon on our way out of the straits and into what is known colloquially as "the paddock", a giant expanse of water stretching from Hervey Bay to Bustard Head, 200 kilometres to the north. The paddock is famous amongst mariners for producing large examples of just about any species of marine life you could name. In other words, everything is bigger. Bigger fish, bigger snakes, bigger sharks. We knew that although the Karma had only been on the seabed for a year or so, it would have some big stuff on it, real big. Anthony and Dave H spent the morning setting up their camera gear, Dave G took the wheel, and we steamed northwest for most of the day. The coastal city of Bundaberg famous for its rum appeared on our far left after a few hours. Normally we would be steaming straight for her, this time was obviously different.

5.05pm NE of Bundaberg

After a beautiful day steaming across the paddock we were approaching the site of the Karma by mid afternoon. Everyone aboard was keen for this dive; I think there might have been a dose of 'brass fever' spread around the place. The boys spent hours tweaking their gear and getting everything 'just so'. Computer keyboards were being tapped away at as dive schedules were produced then reproduced, then scrapped and reproduced again. I had other things on my mind; I still had to find the damn thing. It wasn't a forgone conclusion, but I was fairly confident. At 2.35pm we slowed the boat down to search speed. We ran straight over the wreck on the first run. What a fluke. No searching required, no circles or patterns, it just popped up from the seafloor. The marks, given to me by Gladstone diver Col Gelder, would need no adjustment.

And what a dive. This wreck is set to become a Qld diving icon. The big stuff had already started to move in. Schools of Barracuda and Batfish swarmed the decks. Looking up from the wreck you could see swarms of fish spiraling all the way to the surface, swirling round and round dizzily. A huge crane extends from the bow right to the wheelhouse near the stern creating an eerie cavelike atmosphere on the deck, without the inherent danger. The superstructure which housed the accommodation and the bridge is still full of portholes, and the engine room was cavernous and relatively safe to penetrate. Some of the guys were in the wheelhouse standing at the helm pretending to steer the ship whilst Dave H and Anthony snapped off shot after shot of the whole spectacle.

Everyone gave it the double thumbs up when we gathered back together on the ES, but before most of them had even removed their wetsuits we were again weighing anchor and continuing our press northwards. We would spend the evening behind Round Hill Head, and then further up the coast the wreck of the Nautilus, sunk in 1926, beckoned.

Part 3

Thursday 29th, 19.25pm, somewhere north of Great Keppel Island

The wind increased overnight but not to unmanageable proportions. It was 18 miles to the Nautilus so we decided to break the trip up by checking an obscure mark on the chart that we had never looked at before. Dave H was pretty keen for a look because he is a great lover of small marine life and I promised him that this would be the place for that pursuit. The site didn't disappoint. He came back flabbergasted that he had photographed '8 different species of Nudibranch's, normally you would be happy with just 2!' Those amongst us who didn't quite understand the fascination with these little slugs were nonplussed. The Nautilus was still an hour away to the north so in an increasingly efficient fashion the crew pulled all the dive support equipment in whilst the anchor was hauled in.

Our arrival at the wreck was observed bemusedly by the occupants of several very small trailer boats. The seas were by now quite resembling the proverbial sheet of glass and from the surface the Nautilus appeared to have some better than average viz surrounding it. This beckoned us on to quickly finish filling the tanks and get in. In the water it was the best day ever on the Nautilus. Vis here is commonly about 8 to 10 metres but today it stretched to about 20, and there was plenty of big fish action. The wreck is reasonably substantial, measuring about 55 meters in length, and if you like snakes it's the place to visit. Just a few miles more to the west lay the southern entrance to Gladstone and before long we were in the calm green waters behind 'Facing Island' and headed for a night in harbour for the first time in a week or so. The drink did flow.

Friday 30th, 1800 hours

12 hours after leaving Gladstone we have successfully located two of the sites we had on our list. One turned out to be nothing but a few coral bombies, the other a small timber wreck teeming with a disproportionately large amount of schooling fish. Great for a short thrill if you're into getting bullied around by agro cod. I found the remnants of the hull under the debris field and some large brass bolts that were used to fasten her together. The site had snagged quite a few fishing nets over the years so it was and remains difficult to say what type of boat she was. A prop shaft ran across the sand out from one edge of the wreck to a three bladed propeller, half buried, a large sea snake wrapped around the top edge. The tide was roaring here. Half the divers had bailed on the surface as the anchor chain bucked and heaved in an unhappy sea. With the last of those that had made it to the wreck on board, we did a headcount and I continued to press north to Thirsty Sound.

The night was long and not without its troubles. The crew and I took turns between the steering wheel and the lounge room floor. The massive currents forcing their way around the headlands and bays of Thirsty Sound were varying our speed to such an extent that it was difficult to predetermine which course would best suit our intentions. The range between high and low tides here were commonly about 4 meters and have proved deadly to countless unsuspecting skippers over the years. Right now the tidal range is a whopping six meters, the highest for the year. Even anchoring your boat in a pristine sheltered bay could turn into a nightmare if the current starts to run unexpectedly or the tide drops further than anticipated. Most vessels avoid the place altogether and I don't mind admitting that in the wee small hours of the morning I was beginning to wish we had also. As dawn eventually broke and we neared the search area I also noted that the visibility was down to about 6 inches, I was beginning to get a bit of a sinking feeling. We had come a long way. Remembered part of the brief I had given the guys before leaving Gladstone.

'This is an adventure, nothing is going to be guaranteed, don't have ANY expectations and don't ask ANY questions because I don't have ANY answers I can give you. This is going to be the diving adventure we have all dreamed of as kids of going on. I am 95% sure we will find some wrecks.but. I don't know what they'll be like, I don't know what the water will be like, I don't know what the depths will be for sure, I don't know what anything will look like, I don't know what will be on them, I don't know what will be left, in fact you ALL had better be get used to the fact we might be steaming for 20hrs just to turn around and go home!' Obviously this didn't come across as a very positive way to start off the trip but had even more law to lay down, where we were off to was remote and in terms of diving safety, there wouldn't be any second chances..

'This is Thirsty Sound - big tides, big currents, big bloody everything and just getting you're swept away arse back to shore is not going to help you - because the whole bloody place is an army bombing practice range and no one is going to be around to find you, to rescue you, to help you, to bring you home'

Everyone was getting the picture and right now as we rolled our way past a remote headland I was pleased I had spelled things out so well. In the morning the real fun would begin

End of part one