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SS Bega - Oct 2005

It started innocently enough, as these things normally do, I was just chatting to Paul Garske on Barry Hallet’s boat returning from one of the Long Reef wrecks when he mentions a new wreck down south that hasn’t been dived before and would I be interested? A couple of email exchanges, a few forms to join the Sydney Project, an initiation that involved a goat and a tank of heliox and I am on my way to Bermagui for the October Long Weekend.

An email from Paul informed me that there was still some more research to be done on the new marks so we would be diving the Bega instead and having done expeditions in the past, I was happy to trade hours bobbing in the ocean to dive what might well be a rock for the certainty of diving a relatively untouched wreck.

It’s a six hour trip from Sydney to the beautiful coastal town of Bermagui and on a late Friday evening there wasn’t a whole lot to do other than think about the upcoming couple of days of diving. The Bega was an iron screw steamer that capsized in ‘suspicious’ circumstances in 1908 after altercations between union and non union labour and management, industrial reform seems to have a long history in New South Wales.

Arriving over the course of the day / evening were Andy, Michael, Samir and Paul Garske and family. I had not dived with the Sydney Project before and was pleasantly surprised by a good group of blokes, a bit of banter, a few coffees and it was off to bed for an early rise.

Our Skipper was Keith Appelby who took us on the 2 hour trip to the site, while it would have been faster to swim the hour you would spend waiting for the boat to turn up would have been unpleasant so we chose to sit on board and watch the show of whales and dolphins. The Binjarra, a 15m fishing boat, was certainly built for comfort and not speed, the large decks were dotted with an array of rebreathers, stages, a scooter and one lonely looking set of twins. Talking to Keith made me realise how much fishermen know about wrecks and how many there are that just are not dived, either as they were perceived as being too deep or just unknown outside of fishing circles. The Sydney Project have done a great job tapping into this resource across the state.

The sea was perfect so Andy, Michael and I leapt in for the first dive. At 50m I could make out the length of the ship below me, at 65m I could clearly see the boilers standing midship, the hold with a scattering of bones ( animal – destined for the royal easter show ) and the stern with a mass of nets waving over it. Gliding down the port side at 75m I passed portholes, plates, cups and the typical displays of a shipwreck, decking strewn with hinges, locks and keys, metal fixtures the only thing left once the wood has decayed. You can make out the line of what must have been a handrail where the brass eyelets line up over a couple of meters – remarkable to see and something I did not ever expect to see in Australia as most of our wrecks are carcasses that have been picked over hundreds of times. I completed my orbit of the ship just on twenty minutes and it was time to go – the first time I dive a new wreck I like to get as big as possible a picture and then look at specific sites on subsequent dives.

Whilst the 20mins on the bottom flew the 70 mins of deco was not quite as swift, particularly the leisurely six meter stop, the only entertainment was dodging the shark pod cables, waving in the current like some demented robotic octopus. I am not convinced that the slight risk of a shark is outweighed by the real risk of zapping yourself on those damn cables but it did entertain me till it was time to leave the water.

Paul and Samir gave me a hand getting out, then I returned the favour for them getting in, staggering the dives ensured we had appropriate surface support but made for a very long day with each team in the water for up to two hours – we vowed to secure a deckhand for the following days diving.

A quite night of takeaway from the local Chinese and we were ready for another day of diving. Sunday was another perfect day, Keith gunned the boat on the glassy sea and we nearly hit 5 knots! Paul, Samir, Michael and I all hit the water at the same time as we had the services of a deckhand for the day.

I had decided to spend much of this dive on the boilers so I left the line at 50m and headed for the middle of the ship. Passing 55m I saw something that could only be described as a large dark thing sitting abeam the boilers just over the sand, it must have been 5m long and looked like a whale that had been bitten in half! It was my first sunfish and looked at me lazily – usually I think of anything fish like to be just a nuisance that gets in the way of seeing the wreck but this guy made it a truly special dive. The boilers and engines were still covered in gauges and there were a couple of interesting penetrations that I have put onto my to do list for next time.

Twenty minutes went by too quickly again and it was time to say my goodbyes to the wreck and the Sunfish and head up for my decompression. These two dives gave me a lot to mull over,  up until then diving on historically significant wrecks that were in good condition and covered in artefacts was something that I did overseas not here in Australia, my thanks to the Sydney project and in Particular to Paul for changing my views on wreck diving in New South Wales.

 

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