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Argyle Downs Homestead

Lake Argyle

The Argyle Downs Homestead site is likely one of Western Australia's most unusual and unique dive sites. A submerged area of buildings and station equipment located in the centre of Lake Argyle, a man-made lake on the Western Australia and Northern Territory border that was formed by the damming of the Ord River as part of the Ord River Irrigation scheme in 1971. The depth of the site varies depending on the capacity of the dam. When the site was dived to collect information for the website in July 2023, the dam was at 100% capacity and the maximum depth of the site was 17.5 metres. The site was dived extensively from 2018 to 2020 by Pilbara Dive and Tours and employees from Argyle Resort who successfully mapped and explored much of the site. Their information and advice were crucial to the dive when gathering media for this website and their advice should be sought by anyone wishing to dive the homestead.

The Durack family established the Argyle Downs Homestead on the banks of the Behn River in 1885, at one point the Argyle Downs station and the surrounding land acquired by the Duracks equalled an area equivalent to the size of the European country of Belgium. Over the decades that the station operated, the homestead encompassed cattle yards, various out buildings and indigenous communities until the stations and their holdings were sold in the middle of the 20th century. The original homestead and main family dwelling were deconstructed in 1971 when the damming of the Ord River caused lake water levels to rise much faster than expected. The main dwelling was relocated well above the rising levels of the lake and can be visited today as a museum to the Durack family and station life in the East Kimberley. The remaining outbuildings, sheds, infrastructure and machinery was left where it was to be swallowed by the rising flood waters. Today it provides a challenging yet interesting dive site for those interested enough to make the effort to visit the site.

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Operation Ord Noah was an extensive effort by WA's leading naturalists and conservationists battling rising flood waters and December heat in 1971 as Argyle Downs flooded. A large group of environmentalists lead by Henry Hall and including Harry Butler and Malcom Douglas worked extensively to save and relocate the area's native fauna and livestock that were being killed, trapped or at threat by rising flood waters. The building of the dam caused a massive ecological disaster for the surrounding wildlife of the area at the time it was built.

Directly above Argyle Downs Homestead looking north to Pannikin Bay and east to the NT border

Getting there: Lake Argyle is located in the East Kimberley near the Western Australia / Northern Territory border. The nearest town is Kununurra 72 kilometres to the northwest along the Great Northern Highway. There are no dive facilities or dive stores in any town in northern WA and divers must come prepared, acquire their own vessel and be self-sufficient. The nearest capital cities are Darwin (828km), Adelaide (3053km) and Perth (3224km). Accommodation can be found in Kununurra or at the Lake Argyle Resort and Caravan Park overlooking the lake, the latter being the preferred option. Beneath the resort in Pannikin Bay is a public boat launching ramp, from the boat ramp it is roughly a 13 nautical mile boat trip through the islands and channels in the north of the lake into the open centre of the lake where the homestead is located.

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The Durack family at Argyle Downs Homestead. State Library of WA

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The Argyle Downs outbuildings and infrastructure being submerged by rising water levels in 1971. Note the tripod and water tank in the middle of the image. Operation Ord Naoh.

Lake Argyle is Australia's second largest body of water and the southern hemisphere's largest man-made lake or resevoir. The lake itself is said to be 20 times the size of Sydney Harbour, in places it is up to 70 metres deep. When the lake is at 100% capacity and the spillway is flowing, it contains around 32 million cubic metres of water. Construction began on the Ord River Irrigation Scheme around 1968 and it took 3 years to complete the damming of the Ord River with the aim to supply irrigation to rice fields for export to China, however the local magpie geese population made the rice fields non-viable making Lake Argyle very under utilised. Although, in the present day, it does supply various cropping and industry in the Ord River basin.

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The site:

The dive site is of course a freshwater dive and depending on the capacity of the dam, the site has a maximum depth of 17.5 metres.

The lake has a very high population of Johnsons freshwater crocodiles that a generally timid and non-threatening and unlikely to be encountered in the middle of the lake, we did however experience large schools of fork tailed catfish over the site. Our dive on the site was in July 2023 after the East Kimberley had experienced significant rainfall from the previous wet season and Cyclone Ellie leaving the dam at 100% capacity which is historically a rare occurrence. Advice given to us was to dive late in the dry season, as late as possible just before the buildup occurs and water levels are at their lowest, apparently the site can get as low as a 6 metre max depth. Visibility on the site is generally poor, we experienced maybe two metres visibility and less than 20cm visibility when diving beneath 15 metres (or 2 metres off the silty lakebed). Penetration of natural light is poor, and the fine pindan lakebed has a constant cloud of silt in suspension off the bottom. The buildings and infrastructure are spread over a rather large area, at least 100metres by 100 metres and we found it easiest to scan the area with our echo sounder and side scan, marking targets with surface marker buoys and then transferring bearings and distances to slate for the dive. The main targets of interest were the "tripod" (the old windmill and water tower) S16 16.965' / E128 47.885', the nearby large shed, generator shed and power lines. Pilbara Dive and Tours have found many more points of interest including landcruisers, tractors, petrol bowsers and more. The targets like the sheds and buildings are generally all large and not easy to miss, however, in the poor vis you will very likely hit your head on them when you find them, or realise you are inside one before seeing it approaching. Due to the poor visibility at max depth most of our dive was conducted around or just below the roofing areas of the sheds, outbuildings and powerlines. Sections of the site and buildings should be approached with caution and the dive conducted in very close proximity with a dive buddy, as coupled with the poor visibility there are many unnoticeable cables, downed powerlines, ropes or bits of structure that pose a risk of entanglement and relocating a lost dive buddy is extremely difficult. There is no monitoring of VHF distress channels and no phone reception on the lake. It would be advisable to make contact with the local tour boat operators and enquire to their working channels should assistance be required in any way.

The exposed position of the homestead is around 4 nautical miles from the nearest shore leaving it exposed to wind and surface chop. The middle of the year can experience strong easterly winds and forecasts should be checked before venturing into the middle of the lake.

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Sonar imaging of the windmill tower and water tank, and above: the large shed south of the windmill tripod

Descending down the tripod to the water tank platform at 14 metres

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