The offshore reef shelf area at Townsville was one of the most frequently dived parts of the Great Barrier Reef until the 1990s when the massive expansion of tourism infrastructure in Cairns drew the major operators north as new air access routes favoured Cairns as a tourist entry point. This is no reflection on the diving which is every bit as good as sites further north, and it’s way less crowded. While the big liveaboards are usually not located in Townsville anymore, there are still day and 3 day trips offered out to the closer reefs. The bigger boats will still come down from Cairns on the way to the Yongala wreck site, and the local reefs may still be dived as part of those itineraries. The hype around the wreck of the Yongala, and it is a great dive, has overshadowed the equally great diving to be had on nearby reefs.
Kelso Reef is often visited as a day trip option. It offers coral gardens, drop offs and smaller fish. It was once well-dived with its own commercial pontoon, thankfully it is now much quieter. The site does have low coral cover after recent cyclones, but will recover eventually.
Little Kelso Reef
The NW back of this reef offers shelter from the prevailing wind. The reef life is dominated by coralline/turf algae, but hard coral and soft coral are also common. There is quite good fish life with damselfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, fusiliers and coral trout to be seen. The NE side of Little Kelso Reef is partly exposed. The reef slope is vertical, dropping off into approximately 15m of water to sand and rubble. The reef wall has many gullies, caves, overhangs and swim throughs. The fish abundance on the NE side very high with more of the pelagic species, fusiliers, baitfish and snapper. The exposed SE front and SW side of Little Kelso Reef is fairly featureless but also offers good fish life.
This reef on the eastern side of the GBR is accessible to Townsville for day trips and is still frequently dived. Its large lagoon offers interactions with lots of turtles, shark, and schools of pelagic fish. John Brewer Reef offers diving of all levels and is good for shallow reef diving and some shark feeding. This reef is recovering from a massive Crown of Thorns outbreak prior in 2003. Hard coral cover is rebuilding. Visibility on this mid-shelf is great but not the excellent gin clarity of the outer shelf reef dives as this reef is closer to the coast.
The sheltered NW back of John Brewer Reef is steep dropping off into 10m of water on to a reef base of sand, rubble and reef framework. The bottom is dominated by hard coral, but coralline/turf algae and soft coral are also common. The fish abundance on the back of John Brewer Reef is good with damselfish, surgeonfish and parrotfish. The front of John Brewer Reef is exposed to the prevailing wind. The reef slope is generally gently sloping and has a few features including gullies and bommies. The exposed southern eastern side is vertical, dropping off into approximately 10m of water onto sand and rubble. The reef has many gullies, caves, overhangs, swim throughs and bommies. There are plenty of staghorn corals and plate coral. The fish abundance is high. Reef fishes are more diverse including parrotfish, surgeonfish, damselfish and fusiliers.
The NE side of John Brewer Reef is partly exposed and has few features, but hard coral cover is high and very diverse. The SW side is mainly noted for its good fish life.
In poor weather the local charter boats on day trips tend to head for Lodestone Reef rather than the more distant Wheeler Reef. The lagoon offers bommies on a white sandy bottom, swim-throughs and colourful coral walls
Big schools of trevally and bait fish are common as well as a colourful reef fish including parrot fish, Maori wrasse, clown fish and angel fish. Turtles, stingrays, white tip and black tip reef sharks are also often sighted each day. This reef has areas suited to snorkelling, as well as offering deep bommies and swim throughs.
Little Broadhurst Reef
Little Broadhurst Reef is further south from Townsville and is visited mostly on the overnight charter trips. It offers good reef diving and Barra Bommie, an excellent night dive.
Located on the eastern edge of the GBR this reef offers very clear water and great corals. Typically, visibility is 10 – 30 m. The site has caves, crevices an canyons, giant clams, turtles, sharks, stingrays and pelagic fish. This site is still recovering from the massive damage caused by Cyclone Yasi in 2011. The SE front is exposed to the prevailing wind. The reef slope is generally moderate dropping off into more than 20m of water. The reef structure has many gullies, overhangs and bommies. There is plenty of fish life to compensate for poor coral cover. There are more fish on the NW side, surgeonfish, damselfish and parrotfish. The northern flank of Myrmidon Reef is steeper and offers overhangs, caves, swim throughs, bommies, and walls. The NE flank of Myrmidon Reef has the best fish life. Reef fishes included parrotfish, surgeonfish, coral trout and fusiliers.
This site is renowned for pinnacles on the southern side with lots of pelagic fish.
Bowl Reef No. 1 has many large gorgonian fans and sea whips around its caves and drop-offs. Eagle rays and reef sharks are sometimes encountered. The inner edge of the reef has many coral heads with lots of smaller marine life, including gorgonia, , nudibranchs, soft coral, morays, and some sea snakes. The shallower areas offer good night diving. Visibility is usually 10 – 30 m. .
Once a very popular stopover for bigger boats, this reef, like many of the outer-shelf reefs in the Townsville sector copped a beating when the huge category 5 Cyclone Yasi passed to the north of Townville in February 2011. Coral cover is low and recovery is slow. Coralline and turf algae now dominate the shallow parts of the reef.Typically, visibility is Good (10-30 m). Provided we don’t increase the energy and frequency of storms with global warming, this reef will repair itself. Slow cycles of destruction and rebuilding are normal and natural on the reef. If it is hit again soon with frequent coral bleaching events, crown of thorns outbreaks and storms, it may struggle to recover. I dived this in the late 1980s when it was in its prime, a fantastic natural wonder. Hopefully, those days will come again.
The northern flank of Chicken Reef is sheltered and still offers gullies, caves, overhangs and swim throughs. It still has reasonable fish life, sweetlips, surgeonfish, damselfish and fusiliers. The often exposed SE side also offers surgeonfish, parrotfish and fusiliers.
Wheeler Reef is located 90km from Townsville and offers great coral cover and great water quality. It offers sheltered anchorages and is inside a no-fishing protected zone of the reef. Wheeler Reef has a range of diving, shallow areas well suited to snorkelling, as well as deep bommies and swim throughs for the experienced diver. Wheeler Reef offers large schools of pelagic species, as well as a diverse range of smaller invertebrate species. As this area is still visited by a charter vessel from Townsville, it is still very accessible.
Student Bommie, Wheeler Reef
This easy site offers bommies on a sandy bottom, excellent coral cover and an array of marine life.
Shark Alley, Wheeler Reef
This site offers encounters with black tip and white tip reef sharks, grey reef whaler sharks, and other pelagic fish species. Pygmy manta rays can be seen October to December, and there are turtles, moray eels and marbled rays.
This dive site is 110 kilometres east of Townsville and offers a variety of sites, drop-offs, coral gardens and pinnacles. A night dive will reveal lots of lobsters, flatworms and other colourful small marine life. The area can be current affected at some sites. Typically, visibility is Good ( 10 – 30 m).
10m – 20m
Davies Reef has many dive sites, pinnacles, small caves, deep gutters, coral gardens and drop-offs. The walls and gutters offer colourful soft corals and gorgonians. Popular dive sites on the reef complex include the Sisters, Atlantis, Coral Gardens, Lion’s Den, The Maze and Peacock Bommie.
The partly exposed SW and the exposed SE side of Davies Reef are generally vertical dropping off into more than 15-20m of water. The reef structure has many overhangs, caves, gullies and bommies. There are lots of fish on the SW and exposed SE side of the reef, fusiliers, damselfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, coral trout and baitfish. The more sheltered sides tend to be shallower reef slope with good fish life. The reef structure has interesting walls, gullies, caves, overhangs, swim throughs and bommies. Visibility is usually excellent.
This reef offers pinnacles teeming with fish life and covered with hard and soft corals. The cracks and crevices shelter sea whips, gorgonia and other colourful marine life.
Also having taken a recent belting from Cyclon Yasi, the sheltered side of this reef is only a fair dive being relatively bare and with low fish diversity. The more exposed sides of the reef offer better coral and fish life in calm weather. The area is noted for its numerous coral bommies, schools of trevally, reef sharks and turtles.
There is a deep drop off on the eastern side offering a wall dive with plenty of pelagic fish. The rest of the reef offers shallower coral gardens with plenty of smaller marine life.
This site was once renowned for having the most dense population of giant clams on the GBR. However, more recently it has been damaged by cyclones.
The exposed SE facing front of Grub Reef and its more exposed sides still offer some good diving, weather permitting. There are still plenty of hard plate corals, soft coral, sponge, gorgonian and fire coral are also common. The fish life is still also reasonably good.
The northern side offers pinnacles and pelagic fish. The pinnacles are packed with coral and have a range of resident smaller marine animals.
This reef lies 60nm east of the Yongala wreck on the outer shelf and is visited on return trips from the wreck. The diving here focusses on Pollux pinnacles, large pinnacles that are teeming with smaller fish and invertebrate life. This site lies only 3 nm from the outer reef edge and has had moderate cyclone damage. Visibility is up to 30M.
This site lies only 3 nm from the outer reef edge and has had moderate cyclone damage. The reef fish are the highlight as there are relatively few larger fish. It is popular for night dives with good invertebrate life active for the cameras. The site still offers very good coral gardens and sand flats of sea weed
The coral is regrowing after moderate cyclone damage and the site is good for examining smaller fish and invertebrates.
Wreck of the SS Gothenburg
9 – 16m
In 1875, the 60m long steamship Gothenburg was bound from Port Darwin to Melbourne with 128 passengers, mail and a general cargo. During a storm, the Gothenburg ran aground on the southern edge of Old Reef. Life boats were wrecked in the surf and 106 lives were lost including all 25 women and children and all the officers. By morning, only the masts could be seen above the water.
Old reef lies 130km southeast of Townsville on the inner shelf. The wreck lies in an extensive coral garden which is slowly reclaiming the broken wreck. The site is dominated by the two large boilers and deck beams. Other remains include oscillating steam engines, two iron tanks, donkey boiler and a winch. On and around the wreckage soft and hard corals, anemones, clownfish, coral trout, cods and sea perch thrive. Pelagic fish and sharks are commonly seen. As an inner shelf site the visibility is moderate to good (up to 20m). A permit is needed to dive the wreck, which means she has to be visited from an authorized charter boat.
Wreck of the Yongala
There is not much to tell about the sinking of the S.S. Yongala. She was a large and prestigious coastal steamship on a routine voyage up the coast. In 1911, she left port and was never seen again. All 121 passengers and crew disappeared without trace. It was pretty clear what had happened, she was hit by a massive cyclone and sank about 48 nautical miles from Townsville near Cape Bowling Green. She was rediscovered by the navy in 1947 and by divers in 1958.
So much has been said and written about this wreck including statements that its “Australia’s best wreck”. This sets a very high standard and deserves more than the usual amount of nitpicking scrutiny. Hype aside, it is a great wreck dive and well worth doing. As for Australia’s best wreck, it rather depends on what you like. She is certainly one of the best.
Now to push aside the advertising gloss and inject some tough facts. This site is in the middle of nowhere, not in a picture postcard lagoon with mirror like waters, but exposed to every current, storm and sudden gust. While promoted heavily as something easily accessible, divers need to be ready for frequent cancellations and some discomfort while at sea.
There are different ways of doing it, from the leisurely comfort of a scheduled liveaboard trip, or a 3 hour trip in a day cruiser from Townsville, or by fast and bumpy boat from Ayr. You are more likely to get on the wreck from Ayr as they go daily, are relatively close to the wreck, and have boats that can take rough chop at high speed. Seasickness cases beware, but they will get you there on a tight travel schedule.
At the site, the wind and tide might well have cut down visibility and the currents could be ferocious, dives can be cancelled at the site. Liveaboards will have the advantage of being able to move off to a sheltered reef lagoon for a consolation dive, but for the rest it’s a disappointing and wet trip back. To accommodate the vast range of people determined to dive this complicated site, and to comply with permit conditions, the dive is tightly controlled and a bit too ‘mother hen’ for my liking. I was given a pile of directions about how my bubbles would damage the hull, only to see Cyclone Yasi later strip the wreck bare of growth down to bare metal, and blow fresh holes in her hull in a few hours, thanks to massive waves.
The dive itself has fantastic fish life and was festooned with large soft corals and hydroids. This is what made the dive special in my view. Unfortunately, she might take a few years to reach that standard again in terms of marine growth. It still has just about every species of fish in the area living on the wreck. Some are huge rays, and massive grouper, but the tiny fish are just as interesting. Baitfish are so numerous they can block out the wreck at times.
The hull lies over on its starboard side and is intact for a wreck of its age, for now, and it does look more like a ship than many wreck dives on offer. However, the hull was accessible in the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s and earlier, when divers mostly stripped her of fittings. While still magnificent, she is a shell of a ship in terms of rediscovering the daily life of the crew. On the plus side, the cyclone has exposed more of the structure of the wreck, so that the remaining portholes and even the ship’s brass name letters can be seen again, before marine growth soon swallows them. If the operators have timed it right, you should be sheltered from the current by the hull underside, while exploring the deck area. You should be happy with 20 metres visibility as this is an inshore and exposed site.
You must dive with a charter operator as it is a protected site and a permit is needed. A site definitely worth putting on the ‘to do’ list but quite often it’s no easy day out.
Primary source, magneticisland.com.au, Aquasearch, Qld Govt, pleasuredivers.com.au
Magnetic Island is one of the more accessible and affordable holiday islands on the inner reef. Its large size and close proximity to Townsville has meant that it has been heavily developed, although 70% of it is still national park. Twenty-four kilometres of tracks cater for walkers and allow visits to thickly wooded bushland, dry wattles, stunted eucalypts and moist forested valleys. The tracks, beaches and headlands are also popular with birdwatchers. The short forts walk is very popular, offering koalas, an old WWII fort and impressive views to the south. Magnetic Island is a haven for the bush stone curlew, koalas, rock wallabies, echidnas, possums and over 187 birds. If you had to nominate a classic Magnetic Island view, it is of a hoop pine rising above granite boulders near a picturesque beach. Some beaches are easily accessible by road, other more secluded beaches are only accessible by sea or by foot.
The island has a lot of eco attractions, playgrounds, pubs, restaurants, canoe hire and other family activities. It has been a popular budget travel destination and more recently, skyrocketing land prices have seen it slowly dotted with grander retirement homes.
Although the water can be quite cloudy around the island, it is a popular dive location with nice dive sites and relaxed and idyllic bays for snorkelling. There are dive shops on the island at the time of publication, mostly serving international backpackers enjoying the sun and its 23 beaches. They will also take you to the Yongala wreck or the GBR if you are up for a long boat ride and the weather cooperates.
Although it is near the Wet Tropics, the Townsville/Magnetic Island area is in a rain shadow which makes it the sunniest area on the Queensland coast. It never gets too hot or cold, the average maximum temperature is 28.7C with the minimum 19.5C. The beaches are idyllic, but look out for stingers in November to April (Wet season). Stinger nets are available at Picnic Bay and Horseshoe Bay.
Just 8 kilometres off-shore, Magnetic Island is a short trip across the sheltered waters of Cleveland Bay. Access is by passenger ferry and by car/passenger ferry. The passenger ferry makes up to 19 return trips daily and the car/passenger ferry up to 7 return trips daily. The permanent population of the four towns that service the island – Picnic Bay, Nelly Bay, Arcadia and Horseshoe Bay are around 2,500.
Magnetic Island is part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Fishing, diving, sailing or scenic cruises are all available from the island. The fringes of the island can be silty until you get a little way from the shore, but there is still plenty to see. Most of the shore dives are on the often sheltered eastern side of the island adjacent to the main towns. Its healthy activity only a stones throw from a coffee or cold drink.
Visibility is usually limited to from 5 m to 15 m depending on the weather. The water temperature ranges from between 22°C (July) and 28°C (December and January). From April to July, there is a lot of wind and the sea can become rough. The best conditions for water activities are from August to December, although it is starting to warm up if you aren’t use to the tropics.
I have to confess to a bias, I really love this place, and the family does too.
This bay offers a lovely sandy beach for the family and easy snorkelling or diving on the northern side. It lies just beneath the forts walk in an area accessible by car on an unsealed road, but still having a quiet feel to it. There are some nice coral bommies out toward the northern point or in the centre of the bay. The rocky southern end also has a few caverns and swimthroughs. Fish life is good. it can be one of the deepest sites on the island with the best time to dive being early in the morning or in the late afternoon.
Arthur Bay snorkel
Arthur Bay a favourite popular dive and snorkel site. In deeper depths there are swim throughs and caverns, bombies, coral, turtles and varied marine life. The snorkelling is best on the shallow left hand side of the bay as the reef has good coral cover.
The “Platypus” Wreck (actually the “Octopus”), Arthur Bay
3 to 8 metres
The wreck is encrusted with hard corals. The huge steam boilers are still intact. Large schools of angelfish, sergeant majors, parrot fish, bat fish, trevally are common. She lies on the left hand side of the bay out towards the point in a rocky cove. She is encrusted with hard corals and patrolled by angelfish, parrot fish and batfish. Access is from Arthur Bay or by boat. Being a fair way out she is rarely visited.
I only have one problem with this site, the wreck is called the 181 ton, 189 foot long iron dredge “Platypus” I, but this Platypus is on Peel Island in Moreton Bay, with the Platypus II also ashore at Tangalooma. I have a suspicion this is dredge “Octopus” that was built in 1882 by R. Smellie & Co. in the U.K.. She was scuttled in an “eastern bay” in 1928 after being beached in Nelly Bay for many years (Townsville Daily Bulletin 26 March 1928).
The Coral Gardens, Alma Bay
On the northern side of the bay divers there are good corals and fish life in a relatively accessible and safe spot. Corals include large brain, staghorn and plate, as well as colourful soft corals. Fish life varies from six-banded angelfish to trevally, blue spotted lagoon rays, wobbegongs, epaulette sharks, bat fish, coral trout, box fish and nudibranchs.
The Canyons, Alma Bay
The Canyons provide the novice or experienced diver the opportunity to explore it’s many swimthroughs and caverns. This area provides a home for parrot fish, bat fish, surgeon fish and smaller reef fish. The lucky diver may see turtles, moray eels and unicorn fish. Blue spotted rays and goat fish can be found on the sandy bottom. Corals include stag horn, plate and brain corals as well as sea whips and anemones. A nearby dive shop makes this one of the most visited areas on the island. It is also good for a night dive.
Geoffrey Bay Snorkel Trail
Permits were granted to construct trails at Nelly Bay and at Geoffrey Bay. The Geoffrey Bay trail was installed on 14 July 2012. Swim cards (A5 size laminated) are supposed to be available from a number of locations on the island for $5 each. More recently 14 giant clams were relocated to the snorkel trails. The 27 yr. old aquacultured giant clams are the largest species of mollusc on the planet. This is marked by both surface and sub-surface floats. It is currently in good condition but will require regular maintenance. Geoffrey Bay is easily accessible from the terminal because of a $4 million walkway recently built here.
The Moltke Wreck
The Magnetic Island Shipwreck Trail has provided on-shore information plaques describing the history of the island’s many wrecks. The most well-known and popular wreck on the island is the German barque Moltke. Built in Moltke’s Hamburg, Germany in 1870, the sailing vessel was named after a famous German General. In 1890 she arrived in Townsville and was considered a very fine vessel. By 1913, she was old and obsolete and was scuttled 100 metres off the shore in Geoffrey Bay. The 50 metre wreck is encrusted in soft and hard corals and is home to many fish including sweetlip, bat fish, tusk fish, barramundi, blue spot lagoon rays, epaulette sharks, tropical rock lobster, blue spot tusk fish and nudibranchs.
The Molke lies near a car ferry terminal with a wooden pylon marking the stern. A mooring buoy is also attached to the bow. Used as a student dive, it is usually accessed from the car ferry ramp. The foreshore rocks can be tricky in full gear and you have to watch out for nearby vehicle ferry movements. It needs to be dived on a calm day at slack water as the tide will draw divers into the shipping channel. It is an excellent night dive. Guided tours are available from the local dive shops. This area can be current affected and suffer from poor visibility at times. A guided tour is a safer option.
Nelly Bay Snorkel and Dive trail
The southern end of the bay in front of Coconuts Beach Resort offers a very easy beach entry for divers. Large porites coral and plentiful small reef fish are common.
The Nelly Bay trail (near Base Backpackers) was installed on 4 June 2012 and it has also received translocated giant clams. This is marked by both surface and sub-surface floats. It is currently in good condition but will require regular maintenance.
The bay is also an excellent site for a night dive when turtles and painted crayfish may be sighted.
Curtiss Falcon Aircraft wreck, Nelly Bay
In the middle of Nelly Bay and 140m from the wreck of the “Moltke”, lies the scattered remains of a Curtiss Falcon aircraft. The main remaining feature is the engine and propeller. The Falcon was designed in the 1930s as a training and general purpose military aircraft. It was unwisely used by the Dutch as a fighter, in efforts to resist the Japanese advance on Java during WWII. Whenever they were sent up against Japanese Zero fighters they were quickly shot down.
Later shipments were diverted to Australia and relegated to the role of squadron “hack”, doing deliveries and running messages. Serial No 3771 was being used by the USAAF who were based at Townsville at the time. CW-22B Curtiss Falcon, Serial No 3771 of the 45th Service Group ditched into the sea on 5 December 1943 after its engine failed. Captain Richard Alan Sansing and his passenger were rescued from the water by a fishing boat.
Wreck of the SS City of Adelaide, Cockle Bay
Cockle Bay has a mangrove environment, and extensive mudflats at low tide and fringed with a sandy beach. Not really a dive wreck, the abandoned hulk of the City of Adelaide dominates the bay and is a photogenic spot at low tide. The City of Adelaide was a passenger steam ship launched on 22 December 1863 for the Australasian Steam Navigation Company. She was built at Govan, Glasgow by J & G Thomson. In 1890, the vessel was converted to a sailing barque, then in 1902 into a coal hulk at Townsville. In 1912 the vessel was gutted by fire, and in 1916 the burnt hulk was run aground in Cockle Bay, Magnetic Island, to provide a breakwater for a jetty.
On Christmas Eve 1971 Cyclone Althea struck, causing the partial collapse of part of the hull. The sunken vessel has become an artificial island hosting a variety of plant and bird life approximately 300 meters offshore of Cockle Bay.
Wreck “George Rennie”, Hawking Point
This is located in the intertidal zone suitable for a kids snorkel and it actually dries at low water. The George Rennie was a 151 gross ton steel hulled paddle steamer built in 1885 at Middlesex in the U.K. In 1896 was converted into a lighter, transporting coal to Townsville harbour. It was scuttled in 1902 to serve as a breakwater for a small jetty in the bay. The hull outline, although collapsed, is still visible.