The Sun-Herald - Thursday, 15 February 2006

Take the plunge inside a killer

Take the plunge inside a killer

By Stephen Walsh

It's an underwater freak show as Stephen Walsh discovers maritime history.

Thursday, 15 February 2006 — Imagine peering over the side of the ship, watching a swirling ball of baitfish glinting in the sunlight. Now imagine looking up and seeing a school of kingfish eyeing them off hungrily.

Yes, "up".

That's the view from the deck of the former HMAS Brisbane, the destroyer sunk off Queensland's Sunshine Coast as a dive wreck.

Although "the Steel Cat" has been on the seabed only since last July, it is already home to an amazing amount of marine life. Its hull and decks are covered in growth — so much so that the huge "41" designation on the bow is barely visible.

But there's plenty to see inside the ship. The most exciting way to enter is to drop down one of the funnels to the boilers, which supplied the huge engine. It had to be big to push the Brisbane, which displaced about 4500 tonnes fully loaded, at 35 knots.

You can also enter at the stern where the missile launcher used to be, or go in forward over what's left of the bridge.

Sadly the bridge is gone — it is now at the Australian War Memorial — but a safe remains on what was the back wall. The dial still works, but I couldn't crack the combination to see if it contained some leftover secret orders — or maybe the captain's top-shelf rum supply. Beside the safe is the entry to the command centre, which still has the equipment used to co-ordinate and launch attacks. It's surprisingly clunky, but there's no doubt the Brisbane was a ship of war: buttons on a display board are labelled respectively "Intercept", "Kill", "Kill" and ... "Kill".

Below decks are remnants of daily life at sea for the ship's company of more than 330. Sinks and cupboards in a galley, cramped bunks, ironing boards and, of course, "the head". In another room, the dial on a huge cooling unit was set to 100 degrees Fahrenheit; I hope for the crew's sake it wasn't the air-conditioner.

The first dive on the Brisbane is an orientation around the outside. Dropping down the bow to the sand at 26 metres and looking up, you can take in how huge the ship is — it's about 12 metres (or four storeys) up to the deck. Swim aft 130 metres and you can duck between the stern and the huge rudders (the propeller was also snaffled by the War Memorial).

The Brisbane was a guided missile destroyer commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy in 1967. It served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War and was the first navy ship into Darwin after Cyclone Tracy in 1974.

A wreck qualification is recommended for diving it, but isn't compulsory. Holes cut into the hull mean you can always see a way out; some parts of the ship have been sealed for safety. Dangerous objects and chemicals were removed before it was scuttled.

Back up on deck, you can circle the turrets which carry the five-inch guns that pounded targets in Vietnam, earning the ship the nickname "Five-mile Sniper". One of the barrels is plugged, while the other is not — the perfect home for octopuses.

There are plenty of other spots that have become home to marine life, too. Indeed, the critter highlights read like an underwater freak show.

A large prickly leatherjacket, with spikes all over its body, sat next to a thick rope at the stern, while large, red nudibranchs (sea slugs) are dotted inside and outside the ship. Another sea slug, the less colourful sea hare, lives on deck. They don't usually do much but sit still, but one we spotted got up and swam off after squirting a jet of ink.

Speaking of ink, small octopuses can be found tucked away in nooks and crannies, while crabs can be seen scurrying around, too. A blue swimmer scuttled — sideways, of course — the length of a laundry room as I passed through it. Tall, thin batfish float around the superstructure, while blennies poke their horned heads out of holes in the railings nearby. And those hungry kingfish like to hang out near the funnels, keeping an eye on everything else.

The Queensland Government created a conservation park around the Brisbane, which means pilfering souvenirs from the wreck is illegal, as is fishing over it. And that's why you'll pay $20 park tax to dive the wreck.

The Brisbane joins three other former navy ships on the ocean floor — all sunk by friendly fire to be used as dive wrecks. The HMAS Hobart now lies near Adelaide, while the Swan and the Perth were scuttled off Western Australia. The former HMAS Canberra, decommissioned last year, is up for grabs, with Victoria showing interest in acquiring it for dive tourism.

Source: The Sun-Herald

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