Magpie Morwong

The Wreck of the Willyama

November 1, 1980|Posted in: Dive Reports, Shipwrecks

Willyama Bay, lying between Stenhouse Bay and Marion Bay at the southernmost tip of the Yorke Peninsula, is a delightfully secluded cove of soft, clean sand backed by a fringe of scrub-covered dunes. Behind the dunes is an extensive area where camping is permitted at no charge. The fact that there are no facilities, and the state of the entrance road, means that relatively few tourists consider stopping here, but that just makes it all the more attractive for those of us for whom the hard gravel, septic tanks, and crowds of the established caravan parks hold no magic.

And as if this were not enough to recommend it, Willyama Bay possesses another distinction – its very own shipwreck!

Geoff Mower's sketch of the Willyama, November 1980

Geoff Mower’s sketch of the Willyama, November 1980

The steel-hulled steamship Willyama was one of the dozens of small freighters that plied their way back and forth between Adelaide and the Spencer Gulf ports, around the turn of the century. Many of these vessels were to find their final resting places against the rugged cliffs of the southern Yorke Peninsula. The Willyama’s nemesis came in 1907 in the shape of Rhino Head, the double-contoured rocky cape that forms the eastern boundary of Stenhouse Bay. She was luckier than some. After she struck the reef the prevailing south-westerly wind pushed her around into the small bay that now bears her name. She eventually grounded stern first in about twenty feet of water, and the crew were able to scramble safely ashore.

The wreck remained there, relatively intact, for ten years before the superstructure finally succumbed to the elements, and she broke up. Today, all that is visible above the water is part of the steering gear and, at low tide, one of the boilers.

Because she is in such shallow water, diving on the Willyama depends heavily upon the weather. The bay is open to the south, and a southerly wind usually means the sea is too rough for diving. A few days of gentle northerly breezes, however, will create diving conditions as good as you could expect anywhere in the state.

Lying two to three hundred yards offshore, the wreck is a long way to snorkel with a scuba on one’s back. If you elect to swim out underwater it is as well to plan your dive carefully so that you have enough air to enjoy the dive and get back safely. Snorkelling out and scuba-ing back seemed like a good compromise to my buddy and me, last time we were there.

We arrived first at the stern, lying as it does, closest to shore. Here the rudder post points skyward some eight feet above the surface, and we were able to rest here for a few moments. The rudder and hull at the stern are relatively intact and magpie perch, parrotfish, and sweep abound around the rusting metal walls.

The deck is all but gone, the interior of the ship consisting of a mesh of cris(s)-crossing iron rods and plates. Everything is covered with masses of gently waving kelp, but here and there under secluded ledges are isolated stalks of gorgonian coral, adding a splash of colour to the rusty reds and browns.

A little further forward the huge masses of the twin boilers reach upward to just below the surface. This area can be dangerous if the sea rises, since a diver is fling about by the surge, risking impalement upon any one of a dozen protruding bits of metal.

On the port side is a long tunnel running the length of the after part of the ship, and containing one of the propeller shafts. With a little bit of contortion one can squeeze into this tunnel and swim along it, leaving a glittering curtain of silver bubbles climbing surfacewards from its roof.

On reaching the end though, you will find that you cannot get out, and you will have to swim back along the shaft and wriggle out through the entry hole.

The forward part of the ship has broken up almost completely, and it is impossible to tell where the rusty metal of the hull gives way to the kelp-covered boulders that comprise the sea bed on which the wreck lies.

Much of the underwater topography of the bay consists of rocks in low relief, with a dense growth of kelp, and other brown algae, so that the wreck has become an important artificial reef. Whilst numbers of fish, or the size of the individuals, is not large, reef fish such as squarebacks, magpie perch, parrotfish and old wife, are conspicuous.
Strewn over the wreck and surrounding sea bed we discovered numerous lumps of black rock, quite unlike the natural limestone of the area. We collected samples of this, and subsequent experiments involving that evening’s campfire proved these to be coal. This undoubtedly originated from the wreck, either as cargo, or as its fuel store. I would recommend to anyone wanting a campfire with a difference to collect some of this coal, which burns well despite its long immersion.

Having decided to swim back to shore underwater, we left the wreck with some air still in our tanks and navigated by compass across the beds of tapeweed that lie inshore of the wreck. Occasional multi-coloured ascidian-encrusted boulders broke the monotony of the seagrass. We inspected each of these closely, but didn’t expect to find anything out of the ordinary.

We were almost back at the shore, and feeling that we should have used our air at the wreck and snorkelled back, when we ran across something that made us change our minds. Lying parallel to the shore, and almost on the “blue line”, there is a low reef, about five feet high, and in about ten feet of water. On the seaward side it is unremarkable simply being covered with ascidians and kelp. On the landward side, however, the rocks have been hollowed out underneath, presumably by erosion by water currents and sand, to form a shallow overhang.

These small caves are packed to capacity with gorgonian fans of every imaginable colour. This concentrated splash of brilliance among the drab seagrass and kelp intrigued us considerably, since it is unusual to find gorgonians growing in such profusion in ten feet of water in a shallow bay open to southerly storms.

Still wondering at this we swam the last short distance to shore, staggered through the soft sand, and paused a moment on the beach to rest and discuss the dive, before lugging our gear back over the sand hills.

Many factors combine to make the wreck of the Willyama an exceptional dive. As well as the occurrence of the gorgonians in shallow water that I have already described, the site of the wreck itself is remarkable. Not only is a boat not necessary, but an excellent dive may be had simply by snorkelling. This accessibility, plus the location in the middle of some of Australia’s prime diving territory, make it curious that this wreck is relatively little known.
Perhaps the purists and the heroic divers scorn to dive such wrecks, preferring the blue depths of the Clan Ranald, or the offshore isolation of the Marion, but for me the Willyama will always be one of the most fascinating of dives.

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