Great minds think alike to preserve iconic Australian shipwreck

01 November 2021

Museum of Tropical Queensland and James Cook University, together in a partnership first, are bringing together two disciplines of science - coral research and maritime archaeology – to map one of the most historic shipwrecks in Australian waters.

SS Yongala is one of the most intact shipwrecks in the Southern Hemisphere and renowned for its extraordinary abundance and diversity of marine life.

Despite the natural, cultural and economic importance of Yongala, complete 3D photogrammetric surveys of the wreck or quantitative analyses of the marine fauna – namely fish and coral combined, have never been conducted on the site.

Museum of Tropical Queensland and James Cook University (JCU) Senior Curator of Maritime Archaeology Dr Maddy McAllister said the scientific team are working together using 3D photogrammetry to map, not only the ship, but also the coral growing on the wreck.

“Our aim is to collect both baseline archaeological and ecological data at the same time, which can be used to inform conservation efforts and future management plans of the site,” Dr McAllister said.

Scientists will use photogrammetry, a technique that uses multiple overlapping photographs to create 3D models of the wreck and of coral colonies.

Museum of Tropical Queensland and ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU (Coral CoE) Senior Curator of Corals Dr Tom Bridge said the wreck acts as an artificial reef that is home to thousands of marine animals.

“The biodiversity of Yongala is quite different to what we see on the natural reefs nearby. For example, soft corals and black corals - which are highly understudied - are particularly abundant. While they do occur on many shallow coral reefs around the world, they are much more abundant on Yongala than the well-known hard corals that dominate nearby reefs.”

“Interestingly it is these understudied groups, particularly black corals, that provide most of the structural habitat that supports the incredible marine biodiversity that the site is famous for.” Dr Bridge said

James Cook University PhD Candidate at Coral CoE Erika Gress has been collecting data on the fish and coral populations around Yongala since early 2021.

“The wreck supports an incredibly diverse marine fauna, which includes what is potentially one of the highest fish biomass per unit area in the world,” Erika said.

“The study looks to quantify species richness, abundance and biomass of fish throughout different seasons. Using non-invasive, advanced technology and software we are able to obtain precise counts and measurements of all fish that live in that area.”

Queensland Museum Network CEO Dr Jim Thompson said the project will provide fundamental data and insight into an incredibly important ecosystem and heritage site that is visited by thousands of people each year.

“Museum of Tropical Queensland and James Cook University have an incredibly diverse and skilled team of scientists, bringing together the brightest minds for an amazing Queensland research outcome – helping to ensure the future of Yongala.”

In another first, Erika has been invited to share her preliminary findings on the biodiversity living around Yongala at the upcoming Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (AIMA) Conference ‘Oceans of Heritage’ being held in Townsville from 11-13 November 2021.

Results and findings from the project are expected to be released in 2022.

Media Contact:
Andrea Hughes 4726 0604 or 0497 347 117