Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Song Saigon
In March 1998 I travelled to Darwin in the Northern Territory. While this was not primarily a diving trip, I took the opportunity to do some dives while I was there. The majority of the diving in Darwin is on wrecks. These are a combination of World War II wrecks, pre-war wrecks, wrecks from Cyclone Tracy and scuttled wrecks.
There are a number of scuttled vessels which were originally Vietnamese refugee boats. These vessels were used by residents of South Vietnam who fled to Australia after the end of the Vietnam War. Today there are two former refugee boats that are popular dive sites. These are the Song Saigon and the Ham Luong. They are located only a few dozen metres from each other (and another scuttled wreck called the John Holland Barge) in the main part of Darwin Harbour.
The Vietnam refugee boats started arriving in Australia on 27 April 1976. From the end of 1976 till the end of 1979, almost 50 boats arrived in the Northern Territory, including six on 21 November 1977 alone. In 1979 the Song Saigon arrived in Darwin. This steel-hulled vessel apparently had "Show me the way to Australia" painted on her roof and was carrying 34 refugees. The boat was about 35 metres long and 6 metres wide.
After a failed attempt to repair the boat for further use, the Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Association decided to scuttle the boat to create an artifical reef. The Darwin Amateur Fishermen's Association and the Fisheries Division assisted in the sinking and on 4 November 1982 the Song Saigon was scuttled in 25 metres of water (all depths are at high tide). The location is 12° 28.481'S 130° 48.091'E. Together with the above two vessels, which were scuttled in 1984 and 1985, the location is a popular dive site.
It is less than five minutes run from the Cullen Bay Marina (once you get through the lock - see comment on this) to the dive site in Cullen Bay Dive's diesel powered boat.
The Song Saigon sits upright on a sandy bottom and is about 19 metres at its shallowest (on the top of the bridge). Like all Darwin dive sites, the visibility on the wrecks is never good by Sydney standards. On my dive on the wreck we had five metres visibility which the locals thought was fantastic. It was not too bad and was more than enough to enable the wreck to be seen without too much trouble. The Song Saigon has a number of holds which can be entered as well as the bridge area. The engine room is too hard to get into and I would certainly not try it given the amount of silt on the wreck and the already dirty water.
The fishlife on the wreck was quite good but the sponge, sea squirt and gorgonias made the wreck quite special. I also saw a couple of large decorator crabs, totally covered in sponges as to be almost invisible among the growth on the wreck. These are fantastic to see.
The water temperature when I visited was 30°C and I only wore a Lycra suit as protection against the deadly box jellyfish. Using an Aladin Air X, I was able to spend about 35 minutes on the wreck without going into decompression.
While I travelled to Darwin at the end of the Wet Season, I would recommend avoiding this time for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the days and nights are unbearably hot and humid, with temperatures of 35° and humidity of 95% most days. Even just sitting around you sweat profusely. The cost of travelling to Darwin is also quite high, with a 21 day advance purchase airfare costing $730 from Sydney. If you can travel at relatively short notice, then you can get this airfare down to $470 or thereabouts when the airlines offer special prices. For example, in April to June 1998 two people could travel for $457 each.
During my visit I dived with Cullen Bay Dive (08 8981 3049) and can recommend them for their excellent service (not sure that this dive shop exists now).
References:Wrecks in Darwin Waters by Tom Lewis
Northern Territory Fish Finder - First Edition