By Mark Brown
The SS Keilawarra was an inter-colonial steamship that was carrying cargo and passengers from Sydney to Brisbane. On the night of 8th December 1886 she was involved in a collision with a ship called the Helen Nicoll about five kilometres south east of North Solitary Island and sank within seven minutes in seventy-four metres of water. Forty-one lives were lost and the story was made famous because only one female passenger survived from the Keilawrra. A more in depth story about her sinking can be found courtesy of Tim Smith on the NSW heritage website ( http://www.maritime.heritage.nsw.gov.au/ ). The wreck was first discovered on the 18th September 2000 by a team led by John Riley.
A QldTech.com group led by Dave Walton was fortunate to visit the wreck and make five dives down to her between the 12th and 16th January 2004. The team consisted of Dave Walton, Gavin Grant, Dave Giddons, Simon Hesmongath, Ian Everhard with Robert Cook and Mark Brown as shallow and deep support divers.
We chose Stan and Claire Young of Wooli Dive Centre & Mick in their 8.5 metre Fast Cat which was used for the forty-minute boat journey.
The team was blessed with calm seas and very little current and thirty-metre visibility. The occasion was to be etched in our minds on day three by the arrival of six dolphins, which joined us for over an hour from sixty-five metres right through decompression. They would take it in turns to scratch themselves on the shot line then buzz us before going to the surface and giving the boat a look as well.
The wreck is sixty metres long with boilers standing proud. The rest is quite flat (like the St.Paul wreck). Many artefacts abound on the wreck including a thirty-centimetre porcelain statue of two angels standing over a baby Jesus in a font.
Divers were on CCR re-breathers and open circuit with bottom times between twenty and thirty minutes and run times up to two hours. V-Planner-B was the decompression program of choice with no extra padding and several members utilised VR3 dive computers as backup. Water temperature was twenty-four degrees on decompression through to eighteen degrees on the bottom.
Members arrived at our spacious accommodation and started unloading and assembling gear to be ready for an early start. Dinner was a chatty affair especially after Stan introduced himself and set some ground rules for the diving week. It was explained that the wreck was not only heritage protected but also that pilferers would be instantly reported to the authorities. After some last minute mixing and dive planning we were very late to bed.
After having our early morning start cancelled due to a wild thunderstorm, a surprise phone call from Stan had us loading the boat, very happy to be heading out for a mid morning dive. With members having various bottom times, divers entered the water in staggered timing to bring all divers to the shot line at the same time.
Visibility was great and as the first members neared the bottom the wreck was nearly fully in view. The sense of diving a virgin wreck was present. Boxes of plates lay on their end in the sand, while fine porcelain candleholders lay delicately in the silt. Portholes lie everywhere, singularly as well as still connected in a row. Bottom times were over quickly so the divers started to ascend back up the line.
Support divers entered the water at pre-set times to meet the divers at fifty metres and at ten metres with extra gas and to help with gas flushes etc. The plan was for the last divers to unclip the decompression station from the shot line as they passed across. If not all members were together, a red signal bag would be shot from the decompression station to let us know to watch for separate bags.
Weather was looking good and we were in for another great day of diving. We were looking forward to seeing the bell that we had not spotted on the first dive. Ian Everheart had casually mentioned after our first days diving that the bell was in plain view right beside the telegraph. However, on the way out to the site Ian said he had talked to Kevin Denlay and John Riley the night before and what they had thought was the bell over their first four dives may not be the bell as suspected.
Another staggered start meant the re-breather divers entered first closely followed by the open circuit divers. David Walton headed straight for the area described by Ian and sure enough the telegraph was in plain view and not far from it is a bell shape. David decided to turn it over and have a good look. It was actually a toilet that was upside down and beside it lay the hand washbasin with the same hand pump system. It appears there was a toilet at the back of the upper deck steerage section. With bottom times met, the congo line was formed.
David Walton with Dave Giddons (both on an Inspiration) were met by a large grey nurse shark which swam out to meet and greet the visitors. David Walton took time out to slowly piece together a good mental layout of the wreck and where everything lay. On leaving the bottom Dave Giddons pointed up the line. Above them was a good size dolphin playing on the shot line, rubbing against it and doing circles around the line.
The visibility was excellent and above, the dolphin and other divers could be seen further up the line. The dolphin swam off but returned with friends who also played on the line and swam up to get a better look at us. When we detached the decompression station from the shot line the dolphins came with us keeping us entertained for a full hour.
With just Gavin and David as divers, the entry was quick and smooth despite a one and a half to two metre sea from the southeast. The current was un-changed so only minor changes were made to the usual plans. David and Gavin found more interesting artefacts including what looked to be a safe, or was it an oven!?. The discovery of a human femur made us think about the 41 people who had lost their lives during the sinking.
Was it a bone from the Captain who was seen holding the rail as the ship went down? Again we were treated to dolphins during our de-compression which helps the time fly. Today's de-compression was a bit more interesting when the nine metre beam of the de-compression station broke due to the rough sea and started to drift away. At this stage we were still on the shot line and we had to swim after it as the boat would be following the de-compression station as usual.
In the galley area, the divers uncovered more interesting pieces including an angle statue and beer stein. Surface conditions deteriorated and Stan had waves breaking over the bow just following our de-compression station. It was however one of the better dive days with outstanding visibility.
In all a fantastic trip and we have already planned a return trip in May. Thanks again to Mark and Robert for acting as safety/support divers and Dive Dive Dive for the loan of the de-compression station, helium analyser and shark pod.