The South Australian is a difficult dive. It lies at 42m on the edge of a sandbank in the Bristol Channel where the tide can race through at 4.5 knots. Lundy is three miles distant but provides very little shelter from weather and current. Even in mid June the viz can be awful … but it can also be gin clear. Once you have conditions right there is the narcosis for air divers. For the first 15 years after the location of the pile of rails we dived it on air – initially with single 12l cylinders and then on to 15l cylinders with 3l ponies carrying enriched oxygen deco mix. Although our dive times could now be extended the narcosis prevented much thoughtful exploration. Club members saw it as the great challenge and felt exhilarated once they had managed to dive it. The life on it is prolific and everyone is impressed by the congers and lobsters living in the honeycomb of rails. Leaving the rail stack to explore the seabed was daunting on air – a few managed it and reported finding artifacts, particularly an object that might be a winch on the sand ‘ahead’ of the rails. Once Alan Platt suggested it might be the South Australian we went looking for the specific things he listed so carefully – but the narcosis defeated us and we found nothing useful.
All that changed in 2004. A group of us started open circuit trimix training so we could reach the huge deep wrecks beyond Hartland Point and after qualifying we thought we’d try out our new gas mixes on the railway line wreck. With clear heads , big twinsets and deco stages the rail stack was no longer a safety blanket and immediately we headed down under the stack and out into the debris field. On that first trimix dive the sand had shifted away from the rails and we found iron frames underneath the rails and out in the debris field there were sections of hull planking bound to iron framework. It had to be the South Australian and finally we obtained proof with the filming of the yellow metal bolts.
Closed circuit trimix rebreathers changed the diving again – now we could explore for the full slack water period and even stay longer by sheltering behind the rails as the tide picked up. New hull sections were found and the first fragile artifact – a moulded wineglass – was recovered from one of the new sections. We needed a site plan to relate all this potential to a proper survey.
Diving the South Australian will remain an aspiration for all our keen divers – the atmosphere, the history and the prolific life is sure to keep many generations excited and curious.