Fish Magnets - The wrecks of South-east Queensland

Published in Australasian Scuba Diver Magazine - Issue 6: 2005
By Dave Harasti (

Estuary Cod on the KarmaThe waters of south-east Queensland are the final resting place for many ships and this part of the Australian coastline is a haven for divers interested in ship wrecks. A diver can fly into Brisbane and within two hours they can be blowing bubbles on the wreck of the Saint Paul or searching through the many ships and structures of Curtain Artificial Reef. Some divers get a real thrill out of diving on shipwrecks as it's something different to swimming around the standard 'fishbowl' coral reef or sponge gardens. Many of my diving colleagues love their wrecks, actually I would have to say for some of them it's an obsession. Some of them are more attracted to rust than their own partners, now go figure that one out! Others get this glint in their eyes which can be instantly recognised as 'Brass Fever'; I thinks that's pretty self explanatory!

Giant Queensland GroperI do enjoy diving on shipwrecks however I seem to be lacking the 'rust' gene that attracts most people to these dive sites. My attraction to wrecks is what can be found living on them. Most photographer's will put on a wide angle lens on their camera for a wreck dive; I on the other hand prefer to shoot macro photography and am more interested in shooting fish and nudibranchs than a hunk of rust. Wrecks truly act as fish magnets and without a doubt are the most productive form of an 'artificial' reef.

Dave Harasti on the Aarhus - Pic by Aengus MoranWhy is that fish are so attracted to wrecks? Well here's an interesting way of looking at that very question. Imagine you are walking through the desert and for miles and miles all you see is sand until you spot a palm tree in the distance. What would you do? Well you obviously go to the palm tree as it's the only structure around. This same principle applies in the ocean to fish. A small fish travelling across barren sand comes across a wreck and realises that this makes a nice new home. Small fish take up residence, which in turn attracts larger fish that prey on the smaller species, and then eventually larger predators such as gropers and sharks claim the wreck as their new territory. This same principle can be applied to the Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) that are deployed on the open ocean for commercial and recreational fishing.

Over the past 12 months I have conducted four trips on the MV Esperance Star utilising the expertise of skipper Trevor Jackson to photograph and document the diversity and abundance of marine life on some of the wrecks of south-east Queensland. Some of the more productive wrecks for fish life include:

The Aarhus: The Aarhus is one of Queensland's most historic shipwrecks and was a sailing barque that struck Smith Rock off Moreton island and sunk in 1894. The Aarhus now lies on a sandy bottom in 22 metres of water and given that it has been sunk for over 100 years there is still a considerable amount of structure remaining. This wreck is a haven for juvenile fish and damselfish however the feature for photographers is the macro life. This is an excellent site to photograph porcelain crabs, eels, shrimp, anemonefish and nudibranchs. As the wreck is relatively shallow it allows for a nice bottom time to have a good explore of the site.

Golden Trevally  on the Saint PaulSaint Paul: The steamship the 'Saint Paul' is another unfortunate victim of Smiths Rock and sank in 1914 and now rests in 43 metres. 18 people including the Captain lost their lives when the ship went down. The ship sits in an upright position with most of the superstructure and hull plates rusted away leaving the wreckage scattered on the sea floor. The boilers are one of the most dominant features and the wreck is alive with marine life, particularly pelagic fish species such as the schools of kingfish and trevally that can be seen circling the wreck. Large estuary cod can be found hiding under the old deck plates and around the engine and boilers however they are wary of approaching divers and normally dart into their hiding places when approached. On a good day visibility on the St Paul can be up to 50 metres however it is also prone to very strong currents.

Wreck of the CetaceaCurtin Artificial Reef: The construction of Curtin Artificial Reef commenced in 1968 with the Underwater Research Group of Queensland sinking the first ship, an old barge and some pontoons. The reef was named after the late URGQ member Mr Frank Curtin who derived the artificial reef concept. The reef now consists of more than 20 wrecks including countless tyres, cars and pipes and a vast array of old harbour and marine navigation buoys. These wrecks and structures have all been purchased, cleaned and scuttled by URGQ who have been working on the project for almost 40 years. The diversity of fish life on the reef is incredible. It attracts large pelagic species such as kingfish, mackerel and cobia whilst providing shelter for a variety of tropical reef species including snapper, lionfish, angelfishes and butterflyfishes. One of the best wrecks to dive is the old tug 'the Melbourne' which sits in approximately 25 metres of water. On a single dive on the Melbourne I recorded 34 different species of fish and also encountered some humungous Queensland gropers that can only be described as 'small underwater cars'!

The bow of the CetaceaCetacea: The Cetacea is an old fishing trawler that sank in 1992 near the Capricorn-Bunker Group of islands in the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef. This wreck is absolutely teeming with fish and is one of the best fish wreck dives that can be done with a maximum depth of 30 metres. This wreck is home to at least 40 estuary cod that can be found throughout the inside of the wreck and sitting underneath the bow. Queensland Groper and giant Cobia can be seen on the sand just off to the side of the wreck whilst large bull rays and leopard rays can also be found resting on the sand. This wreck has a considerable amount of soft coral growth that provide shelter for Anthias fish species and damsels. This is probably my favourite wreck in south-east Queensland for diving.

Wreck of the BarcoolaBarcoola: The Barcoola is a legendary wreck for diving with some divers claiming it has better marine life that the famous SS Yongala. When it comes to fish life the Barcoola truly is a remarkable sight as it has created a huge artificial reef in the middle of no mans land sitting on a sandy bottom. It is also in the vicinity of the Bunker-Group. The Barcoola is an old steel fishing trawler that sank about ten years ago and is quite deep for recreational diving at a depth of 44 metres. When you first descended on this wreck you will be astonished by the fact that you can't see any metal; the massive school of baitfish hides the wreck from sight! The wreck is home to many large estuary cod and Queensland gropers with numerous reef species such as red emperors, tropical snappers and coral trout hiding in amongst the structure. The other attraction to the Barcoola is the pelagic fish species that can be found circling the wreck. The kingfish are the size of sharks, the giant Cobia look like sharks and the Bronze Whalers are, well the size of big Bronze whaler sharks! This is an outstanding wreck dive and is considered the must do for wreck diving and fish enthusiasts.

Trev Jackosn on the bridge of the KarmaKarma: The Karma is a large barge that sank off Agnes Waters in 2003. It originally ran aground on a beach south of Agnes Waters and was high and dry for a few weeks before being dragged off the beach by salvage operators. During the recovery the Karma decided floating was no longer her thing and she became a new edition to the ocean floor sitting upright in 27 metres of water. Within a year of sinking huge amounts of fish life have been attracted to this wreck with giant estuary cod taking up residence at the prop and in the large crane. Schools of Golden and Big-eye trevally can be seen circling the wreck and large leopard rays can be found in the sand. This is also one of the few wreck dives that allows for excellent penetration as divers can explore the inside of the hold and wheelhouse. The Karma has the potential to become one of the best fish magnets off the south Queensland coast.

Some of the other really good dives in the region include the wrecks of the Linda Jane, Bindaree, Nautilus, Moreton Star, Shannon II and the Shoalhaven. All of these wrecks can be accessed off the coastline between Bundaberg and Gladstone.

Estuary Cod at the prop of the KarmaThe most recent trip to some of these wrecks occurred in November 2005 and it was the first time I really noticed the benefits of diving on a closed circuit rebreather (CCR). Outside of the fact that diving on a Sports KISS allowed for longer bottom times on the wrecks, the huge benefit was that with no noise and no bubbles we could get so much closer to fish. Queensland groper and estuary cod are known to swim away from divers, probably because of the noise generated by bubbles. However on CCRs we found that the gropers and cod would actually swim up to us to check us out. This was a huge change to the previous trips and allowed us to interact much better with the marine life as well as being able to photograph fish at a much closer distance.

And finally, with the sinking of the HMAS Brisbane off Mooloolaba in Queensland there is another new home for fish species to inhabitat. I wonder how long before this 'fish magnet' becomes home to the estuary cod and Queensland Groper, only time will tell.