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Whales, sharks and dolphins combined with fast currents and exquisite sandy islands all await those prepared to make the long trip to French Polynesia. Charles Hood goes in search of an adrenalin rush

Remote was an understatement. I was in the middle of the South Pacific at a depth of 48m surrounded by 20 or more inquisitive grey reef sharks, I had 12 minutes of decompression time showing on my computer and I had only stepped off the plane an hour and half earlier. Welcome to French Polynesia.

Tahiti and her islands are about as far away from any large continent as it is possible to get. Located between 5 and 25 degrees below the equator and around 150 degrees from the Greenwich Meridian, they are also about as far as one can travel around the globe from the UK. The air temperature changes little, averaging an extremely pleasant 26°C, while the water remains a comfortable tepid-bath temperature for most of the year. This is where the ocean is home to big marine life.

Here, a variety of pelagics either take up residence or are en route to and from their breeding grounds, and huge humpback whale cows suckle their young for about a third of the year in the sheltered waters found off the island of Rurutu. Tiger, great hammerhead and grey reef sharks all enjoy the fast-flowing channels that supply an aquatic breakfast and supper to the gigantic lagoon of Rangiroa, while throughout the autumn dolphins gorge themselves on the tens of millions of breeding snapper at the narrow passage in Fakarava.

In spite of glowing reports from other divers, experience told me to remain sceptical and to expect to be greeted with that time-honoured phrase: 'If only you'd been here last week'. However, after a few hours in the water, my scepticism was changing to optimism.

My first underwater encounter was to be in Rurutu. This island, some 300km southwest of Tahiti, has the smallest airport I've ever seen - little more than a simple single-storey building at the end of a Tarmacked strip, which acts as a runway. The indigenous population provides accommodation in the form of 'pensions' - the equivalent of guesthouses in the UK, which are usually located on or near the shoreline and at the edge of the rainforest. They offer basic but very comfortable lodging, with superb home cooking.

Serge, my guide, spoke little English and I spoke only schoolboy French, but between us we had managed to form an ambitious plan - to snorkel with humpback whales. But first we had to find them. Luckily, just a short time after boarding our RIB, we spotted a humpback calf. We decided to position the Zodiac about 50m away from where the calf had just surfaced - the idea being that we would gently enter the water using snorkelling gear and swim in the direction in which the skipper pointed. In theory, after about a minute we should then see the huge pectoral fins of the cow below us. I followed the instructions implicitly. And there, maybe 15m below us, lay the cow. She was perfectly still, like a huge submarine trying to avoid detection from an enemy minesweeper, and her calf was positioned under her chin. Apparently, calves are naturally buoyant and rest under their mothers to prevent them floating ungainly to the surface. I was transfixed. Directly below me was a humpback whale cow and her offspring.

After a few minutes the calf slowly ascended, passing me by only a metre or so away, before returning to the sanctuary of its parent. The calf passed me twice more before being joined by its mother. Now I had them both within touching range - they were colossal. Nothing can prepare you for how big these animals are. After a few quick breaths the graceful creatures both swam in perfect unison back to their resting depth. I sensed that the adult humpback knew I was there, but at best I was a mild curiosity and could hardly be considered a threat to this huge animal. To put the humpback whale's size in perspective, I later found out that each pectoral fin alone weighed about one and a half tonnes!

The island of Fakarava feels even more isolated than Rurutu. Approximately the same 90-minutes' flying time from Tahiti as Rurutu, the island lies to the northeast of Tahiti. Its highest point is a mere 3.5m above sea level. Like most of the other atolls in the archipelagos found in French Polynesia, Fakarava was formed by a volcanic eruption some 20 million years ago. Today, the edge of the crater forms an elliptical reef with a relatively shallow and sheltered lagoon, while on the outside is the deep, open ocean. The crater measures some 60km by 25km and is the second largest of all the Tahitian atolls.

Several pensions are scattered along the shoreline south of the airport but the top spot to stay is at the Maitai Dream Hotel. Here the accommodation is first class, with well-equipped bungalows situated within a few paces of the lagoon and a quintessentially French colonial bar and restaurant, which serve meals on the waterside veranda with its welcoming sea breeze.

At present there are only two dive sites at Fakarava. However, don't let this put you off. I rate the 'Channel' as one of the best dives in the world. The current at the entrance appears to make the sea boil as it enters the massive lagoon. At a depth of only 6m we were greeted by a semi-resident bottlenose dolphin, which appeared to enjoy its interaction with the foreign aquanauts and led us to our dive site. At a depth of 40m, tens of grey reef sharks patrolled the reef top. Just as my computer started to indicate that I was going into decompression, our guide led us into shallower water and the pace picked up. We were whisked along at about three knots over the stunning hard coral on the sea bed below. For about ten minutes we passed many species of fish until we arrived at 'the bowl'. This is a break in the reef, which descends to around 10m, offering shelter from the strong current above. Here there were vast shoals of snapper, too numerous to count. On the sandy bottom were sole, grouper and moray eels, all feeding on the abundance of fry and their prey. At the bowl's edge grey reef sharks swam elegantly against the current, waiting for a stray snapper to leave the relative safety of the shoal. Well into decompression, our guide inflated a delayed SMB and we spent the rest of the dive at 5m until every diver's computer read that it was safe to return to the surface.

The other dive site is situated a few hundred metres away from the bowl and is quite similar, although the current is not so strong, nor the marine life as prolific. The friendly bottlenose dolphin, however, was also waiting there to greet us on our afternoon dive.

Rangiroa is a short 15-minute flight to the northwest of Fakarava. Its geology is almost identical, comprising a vast, oval-shaped fringing reef with a few narrow passages leading to the open ocean. I stayed at the Kia Ora Hotel, a few minutes' boat ride from the northwest passage. While not quite as exclusive as the Maitai Dream, it was well built and run to a high standard.

The Blue Dolphin dive centre, which is based in the grounds of the hotel, was the only dive centre I saw on the trip that offered diving for both beginners, and the experienced. Diving in French Polynesia is primarily for the experienced. However, the sheltered waters of the lagoon at Rangiroa offer ideal conditions for learning to dive. Visibility is a credible 10m-plus and the water temperature is in the high 20s. While there are a few coral mounds to explore, the prolific fish life is the main area of interest - the fish are regularly fed scraps of bread by some of the instructors and as a consequence they surround visiting divers with eager expectations. However, we were not here for the small fish but for the larger species. As at Fakarava, diving is conducted when the tide is on the flood, so that if you become separated from the boat cover at least you are inside the lagoon with a good chance of being found.

Our dive at the entrance to the channel was definitely not for beginners. In fact, the local dive guides in French Polynesia have a saying, which many UK divers will see as the very antithesis of their own training: 'Plan the dive then adapt the plan while underwater, depending upon what you see'. It's hardly textbook practice and some might think it potentially dangerous, but for the local guides the unpredictability of what will turn up during a dive makes this way of diving their preferred option. At the channel entrance many species of sharks effortlessly orientate themselves into the current. Tiger sharks and the great hammerhead shark are not uncommon; indeed, the dive shop displays a superb photograph taken by its owner of a tiger shark with a grey reef shark trapped in its jaws! Diving the channel entrance is not for the faint-hearted and it is essential to have had previous experience of current and mid-water decompression diving before doing this dive. The reward is spectacular - as well as sharks there are numerous encounters with hawksbill turtles, huge shoals of snapper, grunts and jacks. Caverns and overhangs support an abundance of soldierfish and nurse sharks. Don't expect macro life - the sea bed is littered with hard corals in good condition but smaller critters, with the exception of the occasional spiny lobster, are rare.

Need to know
Air New Zealand (tel: 0800 028 4149) operates three weekly scheduled flights via Los Angeles to Papeete (Tahiti). My experience is that the service and standard is measurably better than some of its transatlantic competitors. Weight allowance is a massive 64kg in a maximum of two bags. Getting to the islands from Papeete is via Air Tahiti on small, twin-propeller aircraft. Air Tahiti has a weight limit of 20kg including hand luggage, so budget for excess baggage (about US$2 per kilo per flight). Diving, accommodation and meals are best organised in the UK prior to departure. I travelled with Diving World (020 7407 0019), itineraries vary and prices start from £2,200 including flights. French Polynesia is fiendishly expensive so my advice is to book an all-inclusive package as this appears to be much better value for money. Water temperature ranges from around 23°C in the south to 29°C in the north. Currency is the French Pacific Franc with an exchange rate at the time of going to press of 190 Francs to £1.

Sha'b Abu Nuhas is one of those Reefs that, to put it simply, is in the wrong place - as many a ship's captain has discovered to his cost. It is a prime example of a Coral Reef that barely reaches the surface and, from a distance therefore, is not easily seen at all. Today, of course, there are radar reflectors and small solar-powered lights situated on top of the Reef - and all regularly maintained in the most difficult of circumstances, but one hundred and thirty years ago things were very different.

Unfortunately, at least as far as shipping is concerned, Abu Nuhas lies right at the very edge of the busy shipping lane called the Straits of Gobal. This is the southernmost end of the Gulf of Suez - where the north west Red Sea begins to narrow. Even today, these are hazardous waters - imagine how treacherous they must have been at night without any form of warning light.

The Peninsula & Oriental Passenger Steamer "Carnatic" was built by Samuda Bros of London and technically described as an "iron framed planked passenger steamer of 1776 tons." Her dimensions were 294.7' x 38.1' x 25.4' and in addition to her square-rigged sails, she was powered by a single 4 cylinder compound inverted engine producing a very handsome 2,442 HP - also built in London, by Messrs Humphrys and Tennant.

The Carnatic was launched in December 1862 and, after successful sea trials, was registered by P & O (though that abbreviation was not used in those days) in the March of 1863 before sailing for Calcutta on June 27th. For most of her working life, P & O employed the vessel between Suez, Bombay and China and latterly she had been the proud command of Captain P. B. Jones - one of the ablest officers of the company.

The story begins in August 1869 when the Steamer "Venetian" sailed from Liverpool for Alexandria with a cargo bound for Bombay. Shortly afterwards the "Pera" sailed from London with passengers for the same destination. This was at a time when the Suez Canal was nearing completion and due to be opened within three months. Even at this late stage, however, few could imagine how such a new "seaway" would change the shape of world trade forever. Up until now, ships had unloaded passengers and cargo at Alexandria from where they would be moved by land to Suez - over 200 miles away, before joining another vessel and resuming the journey. In this way, the longer and more perilous route around the Cape of Good Hope was avoided.

The passengers on board the Pera had enjoyed an uneventful crossing to Gibraltar and a similarly quiet journey taking in almost the entire length of the Mediterranean before their ship grounded off Alexandria - where they remained for three hours until floating off with the tide. Despite this minor mishap, they were, nevertheless mostly at ease and looking forward to joining the more opulent "Carnatic" - the pride of the P & O fleet. The long trek to Suez was a frightful journey in the most oppressive of conditions - but there really was no alternative and everyone knew they would soon be enjoying cool evening sea breezes once again. In the meantime, the Masters of both the Pera and Venetian had played their part and were already heading back to England.

Progress overland was always slow, so it was not until the second week of September that Captain Jones was able to supervise the arrival and stowage of both passengers and cargo. He exercised great care - some of that cargo was very valuable and he had to make sure every single item was accounted for and thoroughly checked. Finally, he was able to confirm a total of 230 passengers and crew in addition to a cargo of cotton bales, copper sheeting, Royal Mail, and £40,000 specie - as bullion was called in those days.

Finally, on the morning of Sunday 12th September 1869, Captain Jones ordered the mooring lines slipped and set sail for what would be his last voyage in Command. The ship was heading for Bombay and, in the seven years since her launch, both she and her Master had become veterans of the London-India route.

The Carnatic was a sleek vessel with proud lines and, unlike many of the hybrid "sail and steam" ships of the period, this vessel responded well to either form of power - thus giving her a definite advantage when other ships were becalmed. Captain Jones personally negotiated the long narrow confines of the hazardous Gulf of Suez and remained on the bridge to give his personal attention to every detail of navigating his vessel safely.


This demanded many hours of relentless concentration until, at long last, the Sinai began to fall away to the east and the Egyptian mainland even further away to the west, as the Carnatic got ever nearer to the wider and safer shipping lanes of the open Red Sea. Satisfied with his work, Captain Jones finally handed over control to the Officer of the Watch and retired to his cabin.

At 1 am on September 13th the Carnatic struck Sha'b Abu Nuhas Reef and within moments of being rudely awoken, the Captain was back on the bridge to take control. Not a man to overreact, he was most thorough in checking every single aspect of the ship's condition. As the various reports were received, he became quite satisfied that the pumps could handle the amount of water being taken on and that passengers and crew were as safe as could be expected. He decided, therefore, that everyone would all remain on board.

At daybreak Captain Jones assessed the situation once again. The Carnatic was stuck fast on a Coral Reef - some 3 miles from Shadwan Island. Damage assessment was being regularly monitored and, though the ship was certainly leaking, she was still in pretty good shape and the pumps were coping. To help matters, Jones ordered a large proportion of the cotton dumped overboard in a bid to lighten the vessel in the forlorn hope that she would simply float off the Reef with the tide. Whilst there was no panic amongst the passengers, some did make it known that they wanted to take to the lifeboats and head for the comparative safety of Shadwan island. Captain Jones, however, would hear none of it and insisted that life continued much as before on the stricken vessel.

At first sight, this may appear to have been foolhardy but Jones was well aware of the dangers involved in moving 230 people three miles to a remote island in small boats and of the deprivations they would suffer until rescued. For the moment at least, his vessel was relatively sound, they had power and could still enjoy all considerable comfort. He also knew that the P & O Liner - Sumatra, was due to pass by at any time, inbound for Suez and he fully expected to be rescued later that day.

Meals were served, people strolled the decks and, up aloft, a constant lookout was kept for the expected ship. In the event, however, the Sumatra did not appear and, as evening fell, a deputation of passengers approached the Captain once again with a plea to be allowed to reach Shadwan Island by lifeboat - and once again he refused. Totally underestimating the power of a Coral Reef to inflict damage on a steel-hulled vessel, Captain Jones made the fatal decision to spend another night on board. Accepting both his wisdom and his authority, some of the passengers even dressed for dinner and the waiters served drinks before they all enjoyed a sumptuous evening meal. For some, it would be their last.

As the Carnatic pivoted on top of the Coral head that held her so firmly in place, the leaks were clearly getting worse. Whilst these continued to be carefully checked, what went undetected was the slow, irreversible process that was weakening the keel itself as it steadily rocked to and fro in the gentle sea. By now it was only a matter of time.

As darkness fell, the level of water within the ship finally engulfed the boilers and with that the engines died. Suddenly they were without power and light. Now even more passengers wanted to leave - but still the Captain placed his faith in the timely arrival of the Sumatra. It was not until the morning of the 14th September - by which time the sea state had also begun to increase, that the Captain finally realised his ship was lost. He ordered the lifeboats be made ready - but only ready, and still refused to give the order to "abandon ship."

With everyone on board clutching a small package of personal belongings and ready to "take to the boats" just as soon as the order was given, there was an eerie atmosphere as passengers and crew stared at the one man able to decide their fate. Finally, he issued the long-overdue order - but when it came, it was already too late for some.

In the time-honoured traditions of women and children first, the only three ladies and one child had barely taken their seats in one of the small clinker-built lifeboats when the Carnatic suddenly and without warning split in two. Thirty three hours on top of a Coral outcrop had proved too much for the gallant little ship and, with her back broken, she literally snapped in two with the aft section falling immediately below the surface and taking with it 26 passengers and crew.

Instantly, much lighter, the fore section fell over onto its port side as it also began to slip off the Reef - spilling almost everyone into the sea as it did so. Then, just as these remaining passengers and crew were fighting for their very lives amongst masts and spars and all manner of debris - in their individual bids to survive, they were engulfed by the returning wave caused by the sinking stern. If ever there was a call for "all hands" this was it and, as the freed lifeboats floated off, there were many instances of bravery and brute strength as passengers and crew forgot their respective positions and worked together for the common purpose of saving each other.

One by one the survivors were firstly hauled to safety and then taken to a rallying point where the other lifeboats had been placed together in the shallow waters above the Reef. Then it was a matter of collecting anything might be needed and, with a final scan for survivors, it was time to leave.


Shadwan Island, however, was not only three miles away - it was three miles to the south of Abu Nuhas Reef and, to shorten the journey considerably, each of the seven lifeboats was hauled across the shallow waters above the Reef by the men taking it in turns - until, finally, this small, pitiful flotilla was able to row the remaining distance. It was the longest three miles that any of them had ever travelled and it was already after sunset when they arrived. Once again, they had to negotiate yet more Coral Reefs - but this time they did so quite safely.

"Rescue" was their only thought - but in the meantime they had to survive and here they were rather fortunate. Many of the bales of cotton were now washed up on Shadwan and, being so tightly packed, were still very dry inside. The Cotton was actually calico - like a form of course muslin. Being a "material" it immediately provided rudimentary clothing and warmth during the cold night ahead. In fact, there was so much that it even provided bedding for the ladies.

More importantly, however, a large amount was immediately carried to the highest point on the island and set alight. By now, they all knew the Sumatra could not be far away and, at last, they were right. Just as soon as the ship was sighted, the only signal rocket in their possession was also fired. The Sumatra - very similar in size and appearance to the Carnatic, hove to and sent out two boats to investigate. By now, however, it was 9 pm and all agreed it was far too dangerous to negotiate Coral Reefs for a second time that night. It was not until the following morning, therefore, that all survivors were safely on board and the Sumatra was able to complete her interrupted journey to Suez.

One survivor later wrote, "I cannot overrate the kindness and attention shown to us by all on board the Sumatra, and, in truth, we sorely needed help. Of all the baggage in the Carnatic, one small dressing-bag alone had been saved. We displayed our whole property on our persons; and, as we were all nearly alike, I may state, for example, that my costume consisted of a pair of tattered trousers, a shirt, and fifteen yards of Manchester calico gracefully wreathed round my temples."

It was not the practise of P & O to insure their vessels against loss but to cover such eventualities from a special "reserve" fund. Thus, this particular "Carnatic" is not found in Lloyd's Register of Shipping - though there are others of the same name. This ship, however, had been the pride of the Peninsular & Oriental Steamship Company fleet and her loss plunged them into serious financial difficulties with their shares dropping sharply and then falling again as new survivors' accounts were published. In the meantime, Captain Jones had been recalled to England to face an official Board of Enquiry.

Recovering the Treasure
The cargo, however, was insured and being of such great value (the equivalent of several million pounds by today's standards), Lloyd's immediately dispatched Captain Henry Grant to take charge of a salvage operation. On arrival in Suez - and with only one Diver available to him, Grant was informed that the Carnatic had sunk in over 40 fathoms (over 70m!) and later admitted he almost turned back. Having come this far, however, he decided the least he could do - was take a look. He arrived at the scene on 29th September and, chasing away some local Arab boats, was heartened to find the Carnatic in quite shallow water at the bottom of a Reef with some of her features still visible above the surface.

Working from the Egyptian vessel "Tor," Grant's one and only Diver was Stephen Saffrey from Whitstable (a name still common in that town) but, adverse weather conditions delayed his first descent until 15th October. Grant had been informed that, in readiness for an "orderly" evacuation, Captain Jones had ordered the specie moved to the Mail Room and this is where the search began. A body was recovered, mail bags were sent to the surface and pocket watches removed from the safe, but no gold.

Next to the "Mail" Room, was a "Post Office" but this necessitated the removal of a large internal bulkhead which separated the two. Working for long hours on his own, this task took Saffrey several days. Finally, he was through and, on the 24th recovered another 16 mail bags - just in time for them to be handed to a passing steamer and resume their own journey to Bombay. The first box of bullion was then brought to the surface on the 26th and this was followed by a steady stream of heavy boxes until the task was completed on November 8th. In the meantime, local Bedouin free Divers had recovered over 700 sheets of fine-grade copper that was still destined for India's Mint.

Official reports record that the entire cargo of "specie" was in fact recovered and, having been found in a very secure and undisturbed part of the ship, no other outcome was ever likely. That said, we all enjoy stories of "missing treasure" and the Carnatic has spawned one or two of its own such tales over the years. Today, however, the real treasure is found the vessel's beautiful lines - still a magnificent sight, even after almost 130 years underwater.

Diving the Carnatic
It seems that the Carnatic was a long-forgotten part of Egypt's maritime heritage until Divers, searching for a much later shipwreck happened upon her remains. It was then the subsequent research which revealed this tragic, yet fascinating story from another age of shipping and another age of Diving. Many accounts, however, still describe the wreck as being in two separate halves - but then she did break in two with each "half" sinking separately. Visiting the wreck, however, will reveal what must be one of the most incredible postscripts to any shipwreck story - because, today, the two halves of the Carnatic have fallen to the seabed just as they might have done had they gone down as one piece.

I was visiting the Red Sea as a guest of Diving World and spending a week on board their luxurious live-aboard Diving boat "Miss Nouran." Our Dive Guide was that very popular Instructor Ali Baba from whom I learned a great deal. He explained that, with prevailing winds being generally from the north, our Skipper - Captain Mohammed Hassan would carefully lay out two anchors onto the sand and allow the wind the push the boat gently back towards the Reef - thus presenting the dive platform right above the wreck and avoiding any contact whatsoever with the Corals. I became very impressed with the way in which these two experts worked together and took great pride in getting each separate set of circumstances down to a fine art - but then they regard both the corals and the wrecks as far too important to damage!

The Carnatic lies parallel with the base of Abu Nuhas Reef. She is on her port side with the bows facing east and the stern west. Bearing in mind the manner of her sinking, there are three distinct elements to this dive - with the fore and aft sections still largely intact and these being joined together by the very badly damaged area - where the ship broke and, once, the engine room was found.

Depending on the tide, it is a fairly constant 25-27m to the seabed and 18-20m to the upper (starboard) side throughout the dive. The wooden superstructure and planking have all long-since rotted away - though many fragments of planking are still found attached to the iron framework. This leaves a steel hull held together by iron cross-members and, with the decking gone, this allows the Diver to explore both the external features and two deck levels within the wreck itself.

At the Bows there is a large copper ring that once held the bowsprit in place and just in front of this is the ship's leading curved metal bowsprit support - underneath which was once found the figurehead. Swimming slightly away from the Bows and looking back, it is easy to see the Carnatic's fine, sleek lines - even today.

From the Bows, the ship gently widens to the main body where, on both sides, lifeboat davits are found - still swung out. These are, however, usually missed by Divers because the preferred route from stem to stern is to enter the vessel and swim between the first two levels of iron framework - a fascinating close-encounter with something built in 1862! We even found a small brass porthole, though I must confess that I covered it with debris so that it would remain in situ for a little while longer - all the others having been removed.

Emerging from this forward section the Diver will then encounter the most severely damaged part of the wreck. Although this is now nothing more than a pile of scrap metal, it does, nevertheless, still provide plenty of scope for exploration and investigation - after all, the "4 cylinder compound inverted engine" is still in there - somewhere.

For many, however, the stern remains the most exciting and interesting part of the entire experience. Within the ship, this section is very similar to the Bows - and once again the Diver is able to swim in between the framework of two deck levels. Deep in the hold I was surprised to find some very old barrels and I could not help but wonder what it was they once contained that has proved to be such a fine "wood preservative" - Brandy? To see the very best aspect of the entire vessel, however, the Diver must come out of the wreck - where, once again, lifeboat davits are found on both sides, and swim right around the stern.

My first reaction on seeing this finely moulded stern, with it's single row of seven square windows, was that it was reminiscent of Nelson's day - and that is not a bad comparison. In many ways it is easy to see how traditional styles - evolved over so many years of building wooden ships, had now been adapted into steel. Below the windows, the gracefully rounded stern curves inwards and down towards a magnificent rudder revealing the one feature that certainly was not found in that previous era - namely, the large three-bladed propeller resting on the sand.

After such a long time underwater, it is fairly safe to assume that the Carnatic is likely to remain pretty much as she is for the foreseeable future. She is well colonised by coral, soft corals and her own indigenous population of Vanikoro Sweepers and is probably one of the finest examples of her time to be found anywhere in the world - and well worth the visit.

Should you do so, however, spare but a thought for those who lost their lives.

Postscript
Philip Buton Jones was born in Liverpool in 1830 and gained his Master's Certificate in London in 1858 - at the relatively early age of 28 years. His previous Commands included the Columbian, Mongolia, Surat and Syria during which time he was assessed as one of the ablest Master Mariner's afloat. Consequently, he was duly assigned to the Carnatic in 1867. After the loss of the Carnatic, however, he was adjudged to have been negligent in not evacuating the ship in good time and his certificate was suspended for 9 months from 29 Nov 1869. Captain Jones never did return to the sea.


FURTHER INFORMATION

Travel: Ned Middleton travelled with Diving World, For more details contact:

Diving World
Bank Chambers
6 Borough High Street
LONDON SE1 9QQ.
Tel: 020 7407 0019
Fax: 020 7378 1108

Dive Suits: The water temperature in the Egyptian north Red Sea is cooler than most people realise - as low as 16-18°C in winter. A full wetsuit is always best - though many prefer dry suits.

Misc: Bring all your own film, batteries, toiletries and medicines - local stocks can be limited with some items being old and out of date.

Electricity: 220 volts AC with the Continental two-pin system is found in the Hotels but do check the power supply on your Boat.

Currency: Local Currency is the Egyptian Pound (E£). Although exchange rates fluctuate, a good approximation is E£ 5o6 to UK £1. Sterling, DM and US $ are all widely accepted.

Language: The official language is Arabic with English being widely spoken.

Time: GMT + 2 Hrs.

 

Ned Middleton describes how he and a team of Divers from Diving World discovered a wreck in the Egyptian Red Sea.

Strange as it may seem but, as I approached, the last quarter of 1998 and, with it, my twenty fourth year of Diving, I had yet to visit the Red Sea. I could probably have come up with a number of flimsy excuses as to why not - though the truth was, I simply never got around to it. This often put me at a disadvantage when, even editors would suddenly say - "well you must know what the Thistlegorm is like" or "well it's bit like the Red Sea" - and, of course, I had never been there. As October approached, however, this was about to change - and in quite a dramatic fashion, the oddest part was that it all began with a trip to Grenada.

Now I often travel by unconventional means - after all, I have to get other people to pay my fare and then I have to convince the carrier that allowing my 200kg on board without charging excess baggage really is in their own best interests (thanks again Caledonian Airways!). So, when it comes to the end of any article and I find myself recommending a travel company I have to be very careful.

Thus it was with my piece on Grenada and, after a couple of exploratory calls to companies with whom I was not satisfied, I ended up calling Diving World. Suddenly, I knew I was talking to a company who understood Divers and their needs. No, they did not grab the opportunity to be associated with Grenada in the way that others had tried, they simply pointed me in another direction on that issue (and they were right!) and then brought the conversation around to the Red Sea - after all, Diving World are Red Sea specialists - and they spoke my language.

Yassin Oweiss is the quietly spoken owner of Diving World and, it seems, my call came just at the right time for something he had in mind. Of course, I had a little research and preparation to complete and I started with whatever Guide Books I could find, extracted all the articles I could lay my hands on and found myself studying sites like the Carnatic, Ghiannis D and, of course, the mighty Thistlegorm. By November I was ready - just as Yassin telephoned again.

The trip was now scheduled for three weeks - commencing 18 December. Sounded good to me and I promptly ordered more film. Then he telephoned again. Firstly, he asked me if I knew anything about the Rosalie Moller - I did not (though I did know who to ask!), then he asked for my views on the conservation of shipwrecks - and I made them clear.

I know for a fact that my views are not shared by all Divers - but allow me to explain by using a hypothetical example: Shipwreck (A) is a steel cargo ship sitting upright, virtually undamaged on an even keel - in, say 30m. Generally speaking she is complete and intact with all portholes in place. On the Bridge we find the Bell, Telegraphs and Compass and this the Diver to pause and visualise what it might have been like when the vessel was underway. Then there is Shipwreck (B). Structurally, very similar in size, attitude and condition - except that all the brass fittings have gone. Now, I know which I would rather photograph - but which would you rather dive? My attitude is best summarised, therefore, as "Take only Pictures - Leave only Bubbles" - and do so on behalf of fellow Divers.

That, however, was exactly what Yassin wanted to hear and he then asked me if I would be willing to appear on Nile Television and meet with certain Government Officials. When I agreed, he said that this would take up the bulk of the third week. Back at the drawing board, however, I could find nothing whatsoever on the Rosalie Moller until the National Maritime Museum sent me a fax of an old photograph of her sister ship - the Hubert built in 1910 and pages from two separate books showing "Rosalie Moller - raised after war and broken up!"

Now, as the days progressed - and please don't ask me how, I gained the impression that the Staff of Diving World in Hurghada had actually found a "new" wreck but when I arrived it was the other way around - they thought I knew where it was. Suddenly the trip began to take a different shape as, within moments of arriving we began to discuss the prospect of a search. Certainly the idea had merit - but let's be realistic. Between us we had virtually no information, a faxed copy of an old photograph - and even that was of another ship, and a general area so vague it equated to a search area "south of Plymouth" and on top of that the Rosalie Moller was scrapped over 50 years ago. On the positive side, however, we did have our combined experience and passion for Diving and one or two clues.

I joined the M.V. Miss Nouran - and soon discovered her to be one of the finest Live-aboard Boats currently operating in the Red Sea. Easy to say I know - but, believe me, I saw much of the competition over the next three weeks and, well, you don't want to know about some of those - much less Dive with them! Our Dive Guide was that well known local character Ali Baba - a man who has been deaf since birth but, who can lip-read in five languages. Ali Baba is an exceptionally fine Diving Guide and Instructor with a great sense of humour and, in a world where other Diving Boats can often make things chaotic for the novice, his one outstanding quality is that he cares!

Being the week before Christmas there were only ten Divers on board a vessel equipped to take 16. Below Decks there are 6 double berths and at deck level there is a further four-man berth all with en-suite - and that means your own shower and flushing toilet. Food is served after each of the three main Dives of the day with the evening meal delayed for those who wish to get an extra night dive into an already busy schedule - and do tuck in, there is plenty.

The crew were pretty amazing and looked after our every need. We were assured that they were the best and it soon became easy to see why. They also worked very hard - one minute they were cooking, cleaning and looking after us, and the next they were manning the ropes, laying out mooring lines, driving the inflatable boat or simply helping us in and out of the water.

As with all such trips we were a fairly disparate bunch with a variety of standards, experience and background. This included two pairs of Technical Divers who had ordered Nitrox. I have yet to use mixed gases but the high level of expertise of these four Divers was going to prove most useful in the days ahead.

Saturday 19 December 1998 was a beautiful day and very soon, this small group of Divers - all brought together by chance, set off on a one-week excursion in luxurious style. Within an hour or so we were Diving some of those excellent Reefs that combine to make the entire Red Sea an underwater Marine Park of such unique diversity of flora and fauna that it will always stand as one of the Underwater Wonders of the World. Names like Umm Grammar and Gota Eida Reef were soon tripping off the tongue as we each returned to our floating base excited by what we had just encountered.

Then, with the most successful indoctrination into the delights of the Red Sea behind us, it was time to contemplate tomorrow when we would be visiting the Ghiannis D and the Thistlegorm.

I had become partnered with Shane Brown - a Physical Training Instructor from Nottingham. Shane proved to be a great companion and it was a pleasure to watch him rapidly developing into a very good Diver indeed. He also began to insist (and I tell the truth!) on carrying my spare camera - and many a good Diver has been well paid for much less.

The Ghiannis D was a great Dive. The stern section is particularly dramatic - reaching almost to the surface. The wreck, however, lies in two completely separate sections and the Bows are often overlooked - though, personally, I found these to be the best.

Then, for me at least, it was a very long-overdue visit to the famous Thistlegorm and, I have to say that, as I entered the water, I was wondering whether or not any vessel could live up to the hype - both good and bad, which surrounds this particular ship. As we approached the site, it was midday and Ali Baba was first in the water to secure the mooring line. He takes great pride in his work and secured the Miss Nouran to the Thistlegorm's anchor chains at the bows.

Ironically, the Thistlegorm suffers greatly from those Diving Boats which moor to the shallower reaches of the wreck - such as the Bridge, with some tying to each other. With the larger Boats weighing in at something like 20 tons, it is easy to see how the combined force of these Boats is able to exert pressures for which no big ship's superstructure was ever designed as the long rolling waves continually test their lines. The effect is catastrophic and large sections of the Thistlegorm's Bridge are now found on the seabed on the starboard side, whereas another, even larger section, was seen hanging down and swaying precariously over the port side - all pulled off by the Diving Boats who are dependent on this ship for their very livelihood.

Looking back, I must confess that - before I got into the water, I had wondered why Ali Baba had taken that little extra time to take our line down as far as the anchor chains. Rather obvious when you think about it, he was using one of the Thistlegorm's strong points - but then he cares.

Nevertheless, the Thistlegorm is still an incredible experience and we soon found those WW2 vehicles and motorcycles - exactly as depicted in the many accounts I have read of this truly amazing shipwreck. Even now, the vehicles look as though they are still waiting to be unloaded. With the powerful lights from my twin strobes illuminating this fantastic scene, it was also all too obvious why so many "downbeat" articles persist about this single shipwreck. The motorcycles are now all pushed over as Divers have searched for something to take home. The badges, pedals, twist grips and tool kits are all long gone. As for the other vehicles, only a few steering wheels are left - but, worst of all, in order to get at those steering wheels, or another souvenir from the engine, Divers have forced their way in through the roof or the bonnet of each vehicle - thus maximising the damage caused in search of a trophy - only to throw it away a few months later... I rest my case.

For the rest of Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning, we enjoyed the extensive delights of a vessel that produces a curious conflict within any caring Diver - and even then we had not seen it all. The Thistlegorm is still the most outstanding accessible shipwreck in the world and will remain "The World's Foremost Diving Attraction" for some years to come. Sadly, however, the rate of decline is far worse than I had ever imagined and if not halted - like now!, she will soon become a distant memory - perhaps then, the World of Diving will allow this particular War Grave to rest in Peace...

Monday night found us anchored at Bluff Point where, right below our stern was the smallest remnant of a shipwreck - in only 12m of water. A sheltered spot, a well lit Boat and a small wreck are the ideal ingredients for a good night dive - and this proved to be a veritable haven for fish life with the biggest delight being provided by a pair of very large Moray Eels.

We find the Rosalie Moller
Bluff Point, however, is only an hour's sailing from the general search area for the Rosalie Moller and, with this in mind, Ali Baba invited me to join him and Captain Mohammed Said Hassan. Captain Hassan is widely regarded as the second best Captain in the entire Red Sea. Not that he minds being second best - everyone acknowledges his father as the outstanding figure in this regard - and he located the Thistlegorm in 1963!

Captain Hassan handed me a chart and asked me to plot a certain position. Where he got it I do not know - but it was right on the edge of the general search area. He smiled "We go tomorrow" he said and at 0630 hrs the engines coughed into life. This normally provides an early morning call for all those on board, but today there was an added element of excitement and few were still asleep. Most of us were checking we had a "good fill." Every time Ali Baba looked at me he smiled and said two words "Rosie Muller!" - and somehow, I suspect the ship will eventually become known by this slightly altered name. By 0800 hrs we were searching.

Now, I must confess, the last time I discovered a shipwreck (well sort of!) was 16 years ago. So, my natural optimism was being tempered by a distinct lack of information. I was well aware that the chances of success were slim - in fact we had no chance at all. True, we did know something about a ship that no longer existed and a very approximate location - but altogether hardly enough... To make matters worse, none of us had quite realised before we sailed that the Miss Nouran was not equipped for searching - no reason why she should be. Apart from thick mooring/anchor lines, we had nothing and apart from fenders - no buoys. On top of that, not one Diver had a reel or SMB.

Another very important element to be taken into consideration was the fact that my fellow passengers were all paying guests and here to enjoy as much Diving as possible during their one-week holiday. They had not paid to waste time going up and down in search of something that was, in all honesty, probably not even there!. Ideally, we might have gone diving first - but the search area was well away from the recognised sites and there really was nothing else readily available. Everyone agreed, therefore, we search for Two Hours and no more.

The ensuing search then quickly became a team effort. Chris Gleadow - one of the technical divers, took charge of the GPS - and, sitting right in front of the Captain, directed him accordingly. I watched the Decca screen and had my compass ready to take bearings. Others joined us from time to time and there was a high degree of expectation as the boat was slowly conned - first one way and then another.

The first trace on the Decca screen was simply unbelievable. We passed over the objective from side to side and I stared in disbelief at the image before me. It looked like one of those child's drawings - a "V" shaped hull with a box representing the bridge and a funnel on top. For a moment, I thought someone below decks was feeding a computer image onto the screen - but then it was gone.

Excitement mounted as this information went out - but we had nothing to throw into the water to mark the spot. Then Geof Loe came onto the bridge. He and his wife Trudy were the second pair of technical Divers and, having spent 15 years in the Royal Marines, Geof was quite expert with GPS and Decca. With Geof and Chris working together with the Skipper and Ali Baba how could we miss.

Very quickly our two hours were up - though we carried on with comments like "but we're almost there." Unfortunately, more than a little discontent was beginning to appear amongst some who were not taking part in the search. Then we passed over the shipwreck again and once again we were astonished by the picture on the screen. This time the trace was from end to end and another child-like drawing appeared - a long object on top of which was a box and a funnel. Our boat was barely moving. Chris punched-in the co-ordinates, the Captain scanned the horizon for transits and I took bearings on various distant points and then, yet again, it was gone again - but now we had a plan.

Chris got into the inflatable and directed the crewman to the very spot where the cross-hairs on the GPS met - and they anchored . We now had a fixed datum point within 100m of the wreck (that being the level of accuracy of the GPS). The Captain slowly conned the boat around the Inflatable until we were stopped right over the wreck. Down went the big anchor and the inflatable was recalled.

The first two Divers were Chris and his technical diving buddy - Peter Watts. I handed them both a laminated copy of the photograph of the Hubert requesting they try to identify any key features. It was now after 1100 hrs and this was the first dive of the day. The plan was for them to spend 5 mins searching - unless, of course, they found the wreck, in which case they would spend 20 mins on the vessel before surfacing.

The Captain maintained way on the Boat - lest we should pull free from the wreck in the gentle current, and then we waited. Many optimistic comments were aired as our two colleagues were almost "willed" to find the vessel. After 25 minutes - a good sign in itself, they surfaced and began what seemed to be an agonisingly slow swim back to the stern of the Miss Nouran. Many questions were hurled in their direction - none were answered. Finally, they were standing on the Diving platform and fending this broadside of questions at close quarters.

"It's a Reef!" they said and I was shattered. Not being one who is able to hide his emotions, I tried to change the subject and looked at Ali Baba and said "These people must go Diving!" He agreed and began to think of "where." Just then, unable to contain the deception any longer, both Chris and Peter laughed and with the biggest smile I shall always remember Peter shook me by the hand. "Congratulations, Ned you have found your wreck!" he said. Then he produced the laminated picture - "straight out of the photograph!" he added with great pride and began to point out certain features that were still there - right below us.

The effect was immediate. Excitement on board - and, therefore, our morale, had been through a phase of extreme peaks and lows and now everyone caught the fever as we all prepared to get wet. The crew were equally as pleased and had all contributed to our success. The Captain - however, thought first of his boat and asked if the anchor was secure. Having been told it was, he switched off the engine.

The next pair into the water were Geof and Trudy and some minutes later I followed. One of the first things that Peter had seen as he dropped onto the wreck was the masthead lamp - still at the top of the forward mast and I was ready to take it's photograph. Five, ten fifteen metres - "should be in sight any minute" I thought. Then it was thirty and even forty before I finally saw the seabed - with Miss Nouran's large "grappling iron" style anchor ploughing a light furrow through the soft mud as the gentle current moved her through the water.

Unbelievably, the anchor had pulled free! That furrow, however, lead all the way to my shipwreck and perhaps it was only just out of sight. Then I thought of the others who were a few minutes behind me and pondered whether to go or stay. Just then, out of the gloom, came Geof and Trudy making it quite clear that they had also missed the wreck.

Back "upstairs" I prevented the others from a wasted journey and once again morale hit rock bottom whilst the search was resumed. By now it was 1 pm and the level of discontent from one quarter in particular was such that I became quite concerned. After all, I was not a paying guest and I did not wish to spoil another person's hard earned holiday. I called the divers together and asked them all what they wanted to do. The sentiments expressed from a single source were too strong to ignore - he wanted to leave the site immediately and go Diving elsewhere and we did just that!

Personally, I was gutted. I simply could not believe it. We had just found something very special and within an hour of this important discovery I could only stare at the furious wake created by the twin engines of the Miss Nouran at full speed as we steamed away to find another Dive Site!!!

We dived the site known to many as "the Freighter at Gobal Seghir." Incidentally, I subsequently identified this particular wreck as the Ulysses which was lost in 1887 - but that is another story! It was an excellent dive on a most interesting and photogenic wreck and I studied my fellow passengers with interest. There was no doubt that morale was at rock bottom - despite the many brave faces on display. That night, we anchored at Bluff Point and enjoyed the delights of yet another night-dive on that very small wreck.

The following morning was Wednesday and, once again, the dawn was greeted with the deep-throated roar of the twin engines as they came to life. For almost an hour, Ali Baba, the Captain and myself discussed the possibility of returning to the Rosalie Moller before deciding against the idea. Strange as it may seem, even I was against it - but then, I was hatching another plan. In the meantime, it was full steam ahead for that veritable ship's graveyard - Sha'b Abu Nuhas Reef.

Already it was Wednesday and, this meant it was the last full day's diving. With outgoing flights on the Friday, Thursdays are always limited - so we had to make the most of today. The first dive was a visit to the Greek freighter - Chrisoula K. Shane and I dropped down next to the rear mast and then visited the starboard gangway before rounding the stern to find the propeller. Entering the ship through a large tear through the port side we swam through one of the main holds above a cargo of Italian floor tiles. Eventually we came out on the starboard side and then made our way right up to the Bows before finally returning to base.

By the time breakfast was over, the Miss Nouran was positioned over the Carnatic and once again we were first in. This is another, quite outstanding example of what the Red Sea is able to offer - especially when you consider she went down 130 years ago this year. We even discovered a working porthole - though, for me it is the stern which provides the most photogenic aspect of this truly magnificent shipwreck..

The overall route of the Miss Nouran is something akin to a big circle - working her way from Hurghada during the first half of the week and then slowly back again during the latter part. Our last night at sea, therefore, was spent at Giftun island where we enjoyed a really fabulous night dive and encountered some very different creatures altogether - including a large sleeping Turtle. Thursday was a beautiful day and we were able to sample the delights of two more outstanding Reefs - Elsomaya and Abu Ramada before the Diving was complete.

By this time we were back in radio range so I contacted Mohammed Reda - the local Manager of Diving World. I informed him of our discovery and, as my plan began to take shape, I emphasised the importance of the find to the Company and how I needed to return to the wreck. He then spoke with the Captain and Ali Baba before relaying our news and my request to London.

The response took a little time, but when it came, it was just what was needed. After my second week of Diving was over I could have the Miss Nouran for three days to explore the Rosalie Moller! This was fantastic news - but better was to come. Firstly, I would be accompanied by the same Captain and Crew - and my diving partner would be Ali Baba. Then, Geof and Trudy extended their own holiday to join me - and if that was not enough, Chris and Peter decided that they would go back to the UK on schedule only to return one week later to make the Dive Team complete. Needless to say the Rosalie Moller was never very far from my thoughts during those days.

Friday was Christmas Day - though I have never experienced such a non-Christmas in my life, and a very busy day it was too. A change of boat, new people to meet, another night on shore and, once again we were off. That journey, however, is another story and by New Year's eve we were, once again, back in Hurghada and on New Year's Day I was waiting to welcome old friends back onto the Miss Nouran.

By now, I had logged 42 dives and exposed over 60 rolls of film - but, more than anything else, I still had a date with a mast-head lamp. Geof and Trudy turned up - fresh from their week in the South and we swapped stories until Chris and Peter arrived. We were also made especially welcome by a crew who had become old friends - and took a great delight in sharing our excitement.

This time, we had sufficient buoys and line. Chris and Peter had brought a number of reels and I had borrowed some other items from Divers met during the intervening week. We made a jablix from a water bottle and generally got everything ready.

Once again, we departed on the Saturday morning just as soon as the vessel was refuelled. Although the weather had varied during the past fortnight, today it was perfect and the sea was like glass. Within two hours we were approaching the general area and, this time, we all knew what to do - the Captain was at the wheel with Ali Baba right beside him. Chris sat at the open window with the GPS, Geof manned the Decca and I looked for my compass bearings and made notes. Below us, Peter and Trudy were ready with jablix and buoys.

I noted down "search commenced 1255 hrs" but then everything happened so quickly I had no time for any more notes until I wrote down "Divers in at 1355 hrs!" It had taken us precisely one hour from commencing the search to putting the first pair in and, once again, this was Chris and Peter. They had a choice of two buoys and the one they selected was soon permanently secured to the stern of the Rosalie Moller. We then waited until they sent up a delayed SMB from the bows. This was the signal for the remaining two teams to go into action.

Geof and Trudy, having recovered the spare buoy, fixed it to the bows - replacing the SMB. Having given them a generous head-start, Ali Baba and I then followed them down - he with the mooring line - which he again fixed to the forward anchor chains, and me with my camera. As we descended, I suddenly saw Peter's masthead lamp - just as he had described, sitting proudly on top of the forward mast and it really did become the first photograph I took.

The Rosalie Moller
Launched in 1910 as the "Francis," this 3963 ton cargo steamer was built by Barclay Curle & Co Ltd of Glasgow for the Booth Steamship Company of Liverpool. In March 1931 she was sold to the Moller Line and renamed the Rosalie Moller from when she saw considerable service on the Liverpool - China route until just before the outbreak of WW2.

Like so many vessels, she was regularly used for War duties and in October 1941 was carrying a cargo of coal to Alexandria. With safe passage through the Mediterranean almost impossible at this stage of the War, the Rosalie Moller made the lengthy journey round the Cape of Good Hope, up the east coast of the African Continent and into the Red Sea before being assigned to "Safe Anchorage H" to await passage through the Suez Canal.

These were difficult times and getting through the Canal was dependent on several factors. Enemy activity - especially Air Raids from German aircraft based in Crete, cargo priority and how long other vessels had been waiting had all to be taken into consideration. At this time, however, two vessels had collided further up the Gulf of Suez and were virtually blocking the entire seaway. This is why the "Thistlegorm" - with her much needed and valuable cargo, had remained at anchor for a full two weeks before being attacked and sunk!

On the night of 5 October 1941, German Heinkel 111's operating from Crete, crossed over the Egyptian Coast to search for a large Troopship. This was not found - though one aircraft did find the Thistlegorm and, at 0130 hrs 6 October 1941, the Thistlegorm was sunk. The resulting explosion lit up the night sky revealing even more ships at anchor and 48 hours later two aircraft returned. One of theme found the Rosalie Moller and, at 0140 hours 8 October 1941, she too went to the bottom. Interest in this particular vessel then faded for one very good reason.

After the War, raw materials were in short supply and throughout the Gulf of Suez many shipwrecks were raised and salvaged for their metal or cargo - whilst others were cleared as hazards to shipping. Understandably, many of these ships were wrongly identified by those who had other priorities and at least two accounts of the Rosalie Moller both show her to have been raised after war - and broken up! Of course, she was not.

Diving the Rosalie Moller
This magnificent example of British engineering sits upright on the seabed on an almost perfectly even keel. The Bows are at 39m and the starboard anchor is deployed with the chain running down to the seabed at 50m and out of sight. The port anchor is fully retracted. The railings are largely still in place as are many accommodation blocks, winches, hawsers and other paraphernalia.

Almost eerily somehow, everything still appears to be tidy - clearly the Captain had run a tight ship. The cargo hatches have gone - revealing a full cargo of coal still in place. Pots and pans still hang in the Galley where they are now concreted to the walls above a large stove. Although the wooden decks have rotted away, each and every porthole is still in place - and not a single broken glass to be found.

You will understand, therefore, the high level of expectation as we finally approached the Bridge - but when we got there the cupboard was bare! The Bell, Telegraphs, Compass and Binnacle are gone - even the Captain's safe lay forced open on the floor. Doubtless somebody will tell me, yet again, that these items were removed for important reasons of research and identification - but surely we can all read what is written on a Bell!

Elsewhere, the funnel is still standing - with the slightest list to port, the rear mast is also intact, all lifeboats davits are swung out and at 35m the steering gear at the stern is available for inspection. Below the stern, the rudder is at 45m and hard over to starboard. Curiously, one of the four propeller blades is missing. There is external damage on both sides - being slightly more extensive to starboard. None of the cargo of coal has spilled out.
The vessel is away from the regular Diving routes and does not enjoy the high levels of underwater visibility one expects from the Red Sea. That said, corals are growing on the decks and the fish life can only be described as prolific. This is a wreck where only the largest Grouper are found and, first thing in the morning Jacks and Tuna are seen feeding.

Identification was made possible by the Maker's plate found within the engine room. Also made of brass - it was felt that it too was destined to disappear so it has been hidden deep within the wreck to serve as a permanent proof of her identity.

The Future
Although we did genuinely discover this shipwreck - all by ourselves, clearly we were not the first to have found her - and I suppose we never thought we would be. Yet those who have gone before us have not proclaimed their discovery to the rest of the Diving Community so that others might share the experience. The Rosalie Moller does not feature in any Red Sea Diving programme - so I am left to conclude, therefore, that somebody was keeping the secret all for themselves until they had finished stripping the vessel of all valuables. Then, and only then, might they have permitted other Divers to visit such a finely preserved time-capsule from another age of shipping and yet another age of War in the Middle East. I know nothing of the profits to be made from such finds - but I do know that all future visitors to this magnificent shipwreck are much the poorer for such greed.

Of course, no new shipwreck can ever be "undiscovered" and if I do not tell this story, then somebody else will. For the moment at least, however, I have something of a scoop which I am happy to share. The Rosalie Moller is a significant discovery and one which will enhance Diving within the Egyptian Red Sea. Diving World are planning to make this latest underwater attraction a regular feature for the more experienced Diver and, whilst I am assured - and quite satisfied, that they will make every effort to protect her from looters - she will eventually become "communal property" and visited by many Divers on a regular basis. How long, therefore, before she too is stripped of every item of interest to Divers.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Travel: Ned Middleton travelled with Diving World. For more details contact:

Diving World
Bank Chambers
6 Borough High Street
LONDON SE1 9QQ.
Tel: 020 7407 0019
Fax: 020 7378 1108

Dive Suits: The water temperature in the Egyptian north Red Sea is cooler than most people realise - as low as 16-18°C in winter. A full wetsuit is always best - though many prefer dry suits.

Misc: Bring all your own film, batteries, toiletries and medicines - local stocks can be limited with some items being old and out of date.

Electricity: 220 volts AC with the Continental two-pin system is found in the Hotels but do check the power supply on your Boat.

Currency: Local Currency is the Egyptian Pound (E£). Although exchange rates fluctuate, a good approximation is E£ 5o6 to UK £1. Sterling, DM and US $ are all widely accepted.

Language: The official language is Arabic with English being widely spoken.

Time: GMT + 2 Hrs.

   

A Masterpiece Amongst Shipwrecks

Ecologically, the Red Sea is a magnificent underwater Marine Park of such unique diversity of flora and fauna that it will always remain one of the Underwater Wonders of the World in it's own right. Had there been no shipwrecks, it would still attract visitors - just as the Great Barrier Reef does in Australia or the Belize Barrier Reef does in the Caribbean, though, it must be said that today's Diver is far too demanding to settle for Corals and Fishes and as soon as he (or she!) had earned that T shirt which proclaims "Red Sea - Been there - Dived that" it would be time for something different the following year.

It is an undeniable fact, therefore, that it is the incredible ship's graveyard which attracts Scuba Diving Tourists back to the Red Sea, especially the Egyptian Red Sea, year after year - as though the Divers were made of metal and the ships a veritable magnetic force.

The Gulf of Suez is that narrow strip of water to the north-west of the Red Sea which leads to the Suez Canal and was already a major seaway long before that famous man-made connection with the Mediterranean was ever opened. Time was, when passengers and freight were unloaded at Alexandria and moved overland to Suez before joining a new ship and resuming the journey. Today, of course, they sail right through but, whichever direction they take, it has always been the Gulf of Suez which remains the most treacherous stretch of water of the entire journey.

Today the Red Sea is a highway for many thousands of Freighters, Tankers and even Liners - all using the Suez Canal as they make their way between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Although this route is much shorter and safer than the 1200 mile alternative round the Cape of Good Hope, they still have to successfully navigate unpredictable currents and shallow Coral Reefs - all of which combine to make the Red Sea one of the most testing stretches of water in the world.

Many have come to grief and today there are ancient shipwrecks and modern - with some that are neither, such as the Carnatic lost in 1869 with the loss of 26 lives, the Dunraven in 1876 and the Ulysses in 1887 - each representing a fascinating insight into tragic and incredible stories from another age of transport and, in the case of the Carnatic, another age of Diving. Then there are the WW2 casualties such as the Thistlegorm and the newly re-discovered Rosalie Moller - to name but two and both lost within 48 hours of each other in 1941. Finally, there is that new breed of "modern" shipwreck such as the Kimon M (1978), the Chrisoula K (1981) and the Giannis D (1983).

With so much to offer - in addition to a welcoming climate, it is easy to understand why this relatively small section of the Red Sea has become so popular with Divers to the extent that the Egyptian north Red Sea is probably the most outstanding centre for Scuba Diving in the world.

Of all the shipwrecks in the entire Red Sea, one vessel sits mast and funnel above all others and that ship is, of course, the SS Thistlegorm. Such is the pulling power of this single shipwreck that she attracts more Divers than any other underwater site - anywhere in the entire world. In fact, the Thistlegorm has consistently remained "The World's Foremost Diving Attraction" ever since she was re-discovered in the early nineties. After my own very first visit to this vessel, I found myself calling her "The Mighty Thistlegorm!"

The Ship

The Thistlegorm was built by Joseph Thompson & Sons of Sunderland and launched in June 1940. She was 126.5m (415 feet) in length and displaced 4,898 gross tonnes. Powered by a triple-expansion, 3 cylinder steam engine that generated a very comfortable 365 horsepower. She was one of a number of "Thistle" ships owned and operated by the Albyn Line. With her construction being part funded by the British Government, however, she was destined for "War" duties from the moment she was launched.

Unfortunately, apart from the official photograph of her launching, there appears to be no pictures of the Thistlegorm from her days afloat.

In the official history of the Albyn Line, a Mr Harry Bansall recalls his own experiences on the ship. Being well connected within the Company, he had asked to go to sea and was soon offered a berth as fifth engineer in the brand new ship at the age of just 18.
Despite her designation as an "Armed Freighter" with an additional armoured Gun Deck built over the aft section, an overall shortage of weapons, meant that only an old 4·7" gun and a heavy calibre machine gun - both of WW1 vintage, were all that could be spared for the Thistlegorm. Her maiden voyage was to the USA to collect steel rails and aircraft and her second voyage was to South America for grain. It was during this journey that the Captain decided on some mid-ocean gunnery practise.

The traversing mechanism of the 4·7" gun was badly worn and had been replaced with a manual mechanism which meant that a second person had to push the barrel around by hand as it was being fired! After the first shot, the second round jammed in the breech. Such misfires are always dangerous - because an attempt to fire the round has been made and it can, therefore, now explode at any time. A long rope was, therefore tied to the firing mechanism and this led away to a shelter behind the aft mast house. The resultant flash engulfed the entire stern of the ship - with the projectile managing a whole 50m before dropping into the sea. Thus ended all gunnery practise.

The Thistlegorm's third voyage was to the West Indies from where she returned with sugar and rum. This, however, culminated in a return to the Clyde where she was laid up for two months for repairs to her boilers before being assigned her final cargo.

The Final Journey

By May 1941, the Thistlegorm was in her home port of Glasgow being loaded with supplies essential for the British 8th Army and the relief of Tobruk. Though described on the manifest as "MT" (Motor Transport), this - probably deliberate, non-description hid a wide array of Land Mines, Shells, Ammunition, Weapons, Bedford Trucks, Armoured Cars, Bren-Carriers, BSA Motorcycles, Trailers, Vehicle spares, Aircraft and Aircraft parts, Radios, Rubber thigh-boots - and a great deal more besides.

To save cargo space, the Motorcycles were placed onto the back of the Bedford trucks - three at a time before loading. Finally, being a commercial company, the Albyn Line were also taking the opportunity to deliver two sets of rolling stock to Egyptian Railways - each comprising an 0-6-0 Railway Engine, one Tender and one Water Carrier - all six items being carried as deck cargo.

Because of her classification as an "Armed Freighter" the Skipper - Captain William Ellis, had an additional team of nine Royal Navy personnel on board to man these guns. Thus it was that on 2nd June 1941 Captain Ellis ordered the mooring lines slipped before easing his ship out of Glasgow - a port that neither the ship nor nine of those on board would ever see again.

Sailing independently down the west coast of the British Mainland, the Thistlegorm made good time to her secret rendezvous off the south coast of England. Here she joined a large convoy and, being Armed, was assigned a prominent position - towards the leading edge, by the Convoy Commodore.

With Axis Forces occupying almost all of the northern Mediterranean coastline - and Malta under constant siege, the safest route to Alexandria was via South Africa. This was a lengthy detour - although the journey was, nevertheless, uneventful. After refuelling in Capetown - where they were joined by the Light Cruiser HMS Carlisle - a Light Cruiser of 4,190 tons, the Convoy proceeded up the east coast of Africa before finally entering the Red Sea.

By the time they arrived at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez it was the third week in September and the Thistlegorm was immediately assigned to "Safe Anchorage F" to await further instructions. The Master let out the starboard anchor and some 250m of chain and allowed the gentle current to push the vessel back until he was satisfied that all was well. This was "good holding ground" and, at long last, the main engines were closed down. All they could do now was wait for clearance to proceed through the Suez Canal to Alexandria.

These were difficult times and getting through the Canal was dependent on several factors. Enemy activity over the Canal - especially air raids from German aircraft based in Crete, cargo priority and how long other vessels had been waiting, all had to be taken into consideration. At this time, however, two vessels had collided further up the Gulf of Suez and were virtually blocking the entire entrance to the Canal - an event that led to the "Thistlegorm" - with her much needed and valuable cargo, remaining at anchor for a full two weeks.

Up until now these "Safe Anchorages" - each with it's own letter of the alphabet, were regarded as exactly that, Safe! There were no enemy ships and enemy aircraft rarely ventured this far south. This was, however, all about to change when German Intelligence received information that a large troopship (possibly the Queen Mary) was due to travel through the Suez Canal with 1200 reinforcement British Troops destined for North Africa.

Having mastered the relatively new skill of night flying, Heinkel He 111's from II/Kg26 (No 2 Squadron 26th Kamp Geswader) based in Crete were alerted to the possible presence of such a large vessel. Their task was to seek and destroy. At 2250 hours on 5th October 1941 two twin-engine Heinkels crossed the north Egyptian coast heading southeast in search of this prize.

Aided by a clear moonlit night, they searched in vain for the big ship until fuel levels became critical. Then, just as they were on the point of returning home "empty handed," one of the pilots spotted a ship at anchor. Turning away in order to put his aircraft in the best possible position for an attack, the pilot turned again as he continued to lose altitude. He came in low over the sea and, as he approached the bows of the Thistlegorm, he released two bombs right above her.

Both bombs penetrated No 5 hold - aft of the bridge, detonating a great deal of ammunition and the resultant explosion sent the two locomotives spiralling into the air as the ship was ripped open like a huge tin can. Even to this day, the rear decks are peeled back towards the Bridge leaving many a Diver wondering what exactly he is looking at. Some contemporary accounts have even described this as "Armour Plating!"

The vessel began to sink and the crew quickly abandoned ship - with hardly any time to launch the lifeboats, most of them leapt straight into the sea. One injured man, however, was trapped on the blazing deck and desperately needed help. Crewman Angus McLeay wrapped some rags around his bare feet and ran across the hot steel plates and rescued him - an action for which the 30 year old McLeay from Stornoway was awarded the George Medal and Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea.

Caught unawares, the Thistlegorm had been given no time to defend herself and badly damaged, she quickly sank - the event was timed at 0130 hrs 6th October 1941. Captain Ellis and the other survivors were rescued by HMS Carlisle and then taken to Port Tewfik where he reported that four members of his crew of 39 and five of the 9 Royal Navy ratings had all lost their lives. Such was the part played by Captain Ellis in the evacuation of his ship and the saving of so many lives, he was subsequently awarded the OBE - for "Services to the War Effort" by King George VI.

The spectacular loss of the Thistlegorm, however, had lit up the night sky - revealing more vessels at anchor to the retreating German aircraft. From that moment on, those hitherto "Safe" anchorages would never be quite as safe again.

The Ship Today

For many years, British vessels passing the site where the Thistlegorm went down would dip their flags as a mark of respect to those who lost their lives. The ship itself, however, remained undisturbed until the early fifties when Jacques Cousteau discovered her. He raised several items from the wreck - including one of the motorcycles, the Captain's safe and the ship's bell. Indeed the February 1956 edition of "National Geographic" clearly shows the ship's bell still in place and his Divers in the ship's "Lantern Room" - all of which were also still in place at that time - but not, apparently, when the vessel was rediscovered by modern Scuba Divers.

Cousteau later published a book although, deliberately or otherwise, it contained wrong co-ordinates and, once again, the Thistlegorm passed into obscurity. All that changed in the early nineties when a group of divers happened upon her by chance. In so doing, they had re-discovered one of the greatest shipwrecks of all time.

What makes this ship so extra-special is a combination of several factors. To begin with, despite extensive damage aft of the Bridge, the main section is upright and on an even keel. Then, there is the story of her passing, with all it's ingredients of War, Heroism and Tragedy - something that can never be recreated for any vessel deliberately sunk. Lest we forget, even the Titanic would have passed into obscurity were it not for the manner of her sinking! Then, prevailing conditions and accessibility all come into play - and the Red Sea is hardly bleak and wind-swept. An acceptable climate and relatively warm waters, therefore, come into the equation which also includes very good underwater visibility and a maximum depth of just 32 metres.

What more could be asked of any shipwreck you might ask - and the word "Cargo" springs to mind. In the case of the Thistlegorm, that cargo is a veritable underwater "World War II Museum."

Diving the Thistlegorm

In December 1998 I was visiting the Red Sea for the very first time and, with a most successful indoctrination into the delights of some outstanding aspects already behind me, I found myself contemplating my very visit to the Thistlegorm. For me, this was a very long-overdue visit and, I have to say that, as I entered the water, I was wondering whether or not any shipwreck could live up to the hype - both good and bad, which had gone before.

Then as now, I was visiting the Red Sea as a guest of Diving World and spending a week on board their luxurious live-aboard Diving boat "Miss Nouran" - an excellent live-aboard by any standards. Easy to say I know - but, believe me, I saw much of the competition over those two visits and, well, you don't want to know about some of those - much less Dive with them! Our Guide on the first trip was that well known character Ali Baba - a man who has been deaf since birth but, who can lip-read in five languages. Ali Baba was an exceptionally fine Diving Guide and Instructor with a great sense of humour and, in a world where other Diving Boats can often make things chaotic for the novice, his one outstanding quality is that he cares!

Our Guide on the second occasion was Geof Loe - an ex-Marine who has previously spent 15 years at sea in another career. During the past year, however, he and his delightful wife Trudy have made Diving their new way of life and I was now very impressed by his approach and overall knowledge. On both occasions however, Both Ali Baba and Geof explained the difficulties associated with mooring above the Thistlegorm. The first person into the water is always the Dive Guide and they took a chain loop attached to a stout rope all the way down to the anchor chains at the Bows while the Skipper kept "way" on the boat to make the task easier.

Once we were secure, the engines were switched off and, my Diving Partner and I always tried to be first in. We followed the rope halfway down before crossing to the Bridge just as soon as it came into view. Dropping down in front of the Bridge we suddenly saw those three WW2 vehicles on the starboard side of No 2 Hold - exactly as depicted in some of the many accounts I had studied.

Below these we found another level with sufficient room to swim into the hold, over the tops of many more vehicles still parked as though, even now, they were waiting to be unloaded. Behind each cab, we found three motorcycles - stowed in this fashion purely for the sea passage. With the powerful lights from twin strobes illuminating this incredible scene, it suddenly became all too obvious why so many "downbeat" articles have also been written about this single shipwreck.

The motorcycles have been pushed over by Divers searching for something to remove and keep. The badges, pedals, twist grips and tool kits are all gone. As for the lorries and trucks, there are only a few steering wheels left - but that is not all. In order to get at those steering wheels or, in some cases a souvenir from the engine, Divers have smashed their way in through the roof or bonnet of each vehicle - thus maximising the damage caused in search of their wretched trophy.

So much for the cargo - what about the ship's brass fittings, I thought, and of course these too were all long-gone. I could not help but wonder how many visiting "tourist" Divers will have had either the time or the equipment to remove anything of significance - telegraphs, portholes etc.

Perhaps those writers who have had the audacity to publish photographs of these stolen goods have the answer... Strong words I know, but the SS Thistlegorm is an unofficial War Grave and whilst the Ministry of Defence would never seek to prevent Scuba Divers from visiting the ship - and never have!, they do regard all items taken from her as simple theft!

But worse was to come with the discovery that the greatest damage of all, occurs each and every day and is caused by the Diving Boats themselves. Anything up to 20 Boats might be moored over the Thistlegorm at any one time. The first to arrive generally tie up to the shallower reaches of the wreck such as the Bridge - and the shallower the better for the Dive Guide who has to retrieve the mooring line at the end of the day. Then, when there is no more space, the Boats tie to each other.

Some of the larger boats weigh several tons, so it is easy to see how the combined force of such a fleet - all pulling together as they take a single wave, is able to exert pressures that no ship's superstructure was ever designed to withstand. In 1998 large sections of the Thistlegorm's Bridge were to be found on the seabed off the starboard side, whereas another, even larger section, was found hanging down and swaying precariously on the port side.

When I returned in 1999 the Bridge section was even shorter and the large portion hanging down the side of the wreck had finally fallen to the seabed below. Even as our own craft lie quietly tugging at her mooring line, another vessel came upon us so suddenly that, for a brief moment she was wedged between ourselves and an adjacent boat. Seeing that she had been slightly damaged by the mild impact, I hailed the "skipper" and drew his attention to the existence of a sharp protrusion hanging menacingly under their Diving Platform. He really was not that fussed!

It remains the supreme irony, therefore, that the World's foremost Scuba Diving attraction is literally being pulled apart by the very Diving Boats who are dependent on her for their livelihood!

Looking back to that day in 1998, I must confess that - before I got into the water, I had wondered why Ali Baba had taken that little extra time to take our line down as far as the ship's anchor chains. Suddenly, it was rather obvious - he insisted on using one of the Thistlegorm's strong points. In 1999 Geof Loe insisted on doing exactly the same and, for me at least, this says an awful lot about Diving World!

Despite the manner of her sinking and the ongoing destruction, the Thistlegorm is still in a remarkable condition. The front two thirds or so remain largely intact and sit upright on a sandy seabed at a maximum depth of 32 metres. The starboard anchor is deployed, some railings are still in place and all the winch houses, winches, blocks, windlasses and other paraphernalia are there to be found. Working our way from Bows to Stern, the Diver drops down from the forecastle to the main deck and is immediately confronted by two 4-wheeled railway water carriers on either side of No 1 Hold - with the one on the port side resting precariously over the edge of the Hold.

Each hold contained two levels with the upper level being known as "tween decks." Throughout the ship, these tween decks provided a storage space that was, in effect, a large shelf that stretched under the decks of the ship and several vehicles are still found here. Bedford trucks and a number of Motorcycles are found on the starboard side. Although the same is found on the port side, the top of the hold is damaged and bent downwards and, with the presence of that water carrier, perched somewhat menacingly over the edge, this side tends to be less well visited.

Below this, in the hold itself, much of the cargo of parts and spares has come to look like an accumulation of debris that serves to obscure much that might have been of interest - including more vehicles, trapped beneath.

Above No 2 Hold on either side are the two Tenders beside which are two "torpedo" shaped Paravanes. Here, there are more interesting vehicles in the tween decks but below these on the port side, the Diver will discover two large Armoured Cars built on Rolls Royce Chassis - looking like a pair of armour-plated boxes with tiny viewing holes for the driver. The plating is some two inches thick - though the doors have now come away revealing a curious communications system that few would understand today.


On the starboard lower side, however, there begins that incredible journey. Swimming gently above the vehicles, there is plenty of room to explore and inspect the various Lorries, Trailers, Motorcycles and other items as you journey below the bridge and pass through No 3 hold. Here are the small arms - weapons of various calibre in packs of 6 or 8 placed "Butt to Muzzle" and each pack now concreted together as a single entity. Beyond this, is the fuel store - virtually empty after such a long journey. To one side, however, there is a large gap where the Diver is quite easily able to exit through the bulkhead which once formed the outer wall of No 4 Hold.

Emerging into the daylight, the Diver is confronted by the devastation and twisted metal that surrounded the sinking. A little further on and Ammunition boxes form a large pile of fairly uniform debris - on top of which is an up-turned Bren carrier with it's characteristic tracks. Further over to the left is another resting on it's side. Jutting out from the fore section is the broken drive shaft and some 20m further on is the remainder - sticking out of what remains of the stern. Below this, is a number of very large shells - possibly 14inch and once destined for a British Capital Ship.

The stern itself is canted over at an angle of 45 degrees and is as interesting as any other part of the ship. The two deck-mounted guns are still in place and are best viewed from below - where they make excellent silhouettes against the distant surface.

Turning around and swimming back - but this time above the wreck, the Diver passes over the most extensively damaged section once again, before the ship begins to take shape. Here, is that upper deck which was "peeled" back almost as far as the Bridge. The evenly spaced steel girders which once supported the deck are now on top and who knows what lies trapped below it. Off the port side, one can also see the remains of one of the two Railway Engines - sitting, remarkably, upright the seabed. Finally, there what remains of the Bridge which, even though it was stripped bare long ago, is still well worth a visit.

A gentle current generally prevails from bow to stern. Large Grouper, Blacktip Sharks, Jacks and Tuna are amongst the largest fish encountered - with the latter two species providing an early morning display of speed and agility as they attack shoals of smaller fish at breakfast time. All the common Reef Fishes are also present - including a pair of Lionfish just aft of the Bridge.

Postscript

From a Divers viewpoint, what makes a good shipwreck is largely dependent on the individual. Few, however, would disagree that the Thistlegorm is amongst the very best and, as I have said, she stands mast and funnel above the rest. After a dozen or so carefully planned Dives - which allowed us to explore many different aspects of this spectacular shipwreck, it is easy to see why she was catapulted from obscurity to become the World's Foremost Diving Attraction - almost just as soon as she was rediscovered.

The Mighty Thistlegorm is now a legend amongst Divers and her place will be forever enshrined in Diving's own "Great Hall of Fame." In the meantime, however, she is a victim of her very own status and continues to decline at a serious and alarming rate. Sadly, none of us shall ever see this shipwreck as good as she was (relatively speaking) on the day she was re-discovered - and that was only a few short years ago. How long she can now last is anybody's guess but at the present rate of decline (and my own observations are based on just the last 12 months!) I would suggest less than ten years - at which point the overall Diving in the Red Sea will start to decline...

After all, what is a Fleet with a Flagship?

FURTHER INFORMATION

Travel: Ned Middleton travelled with Diving World. For more details contact:

Diving World
Bank Chambers
6 Borough High Street
LONDON SE1 9QQ.
Tel: 020 7407 0019
Fax: 020 7378 1108

Dive Suits: The water temperature in the Egyptian north Red Sea is cooler than most people realise - as low as 16-18°C in winter. A full wetsuit is always best - though many prefer dry suits.

Misc: Bring all your own film, batteries, toiletries and medicines - local stocks can be limited with some items being old and out of date.

Electricity: 220 volts AC with the Continental two-pin system is found in the Hotels but do check the power supply on your Boat.

Currency: Local Currency is the Egyptian Pound (E£). Although exchange rates fluctuate, a good approximation is E£ 5o6 to UK £1. Sterling, DM and US $ are all widely accepted.

Language: The official language is Arabic with English being widely spoken.

Time: GMT + 2 Hrs.

   

The numbers 1939-1945 we be forever synonymous with a time of great upheaval that reached almost every corner of the world. These were War years when the Ministry of Transport laid claim to all vessels that were either British Owned or Registered. Shipbuilding in Britain would never again know such a high rate of production - but then, the country would never again sustain such high losses. British Merchant ships were lost to Aircraft, Warships, Submarines, Commerce Raiders, Mines, Internment and, even occasionally to accident and, in the National Maritime Museum, the list of those Merchant Seamen who went down with their ships at this time in our history, runs to three volumes.

There were Atlantic Convoys, Mediterranean Convoys and the dreaded "PQ" Convoys to Murmansk. Some of these were so brutally slaughtered that only one or two vessels survived when hundreds went to the seabed. Some of the older vessels, however, were spared these Convoy duties - largely because they were too slow and could not keep up. These were the mighty "little ships" - left to carry the "flag" in home waters, doing what they could to keep British trade from grinding to a halt. Though occasionally, of course, they were used for the "War Effort" when the need arose.

The Rosalie Moller was just such a ship. Built in Glasgow by Barclay Curle & Co, she was launched as the "Francis" in January 1910 and went into immediate service with the Booth Shipping Line. She was a smart ship for her day - which after all, was at a time when the much loved sailing ship was barely a thing of the past. At 355 feet (108.2m) she displaced 3,960 tons and her triple expansion engines produced a very credible 10 knots.

By 1931, however, she was becoming a little too old for the Booth Line and was sold to the Lancashire based Moller Line in March of that year and immediately re-named "Rosalie Moller" after the grandchild of one of the Directors of the Company. Up to this point the vessel had plied British and European Coastal waters - but Messrs Moller now had other plans for the gallant little Cargo ship and soon she was operating along the east coast of China between Shanghai and Tsingtao.

By the late thirties, however, War in Europe was looming and the more it became an inevitability, the more people consolidated their financial position. The Moller Line, like any other shipping line, was only too aware that if War was declared, they would probably never see many of their vessels again - and "Loss or Damage due to War Causes" is still an exclusion clause on almost all Insurance Policies. The options, therefore, were simple; either they recalled their vessels - and stood by ready to assist the country at a time of great need, or they risked financial ruin by losing too many ships.

By 1940, the Rosalie Moller was back in Liverpool and it was at this time she became the proud command of Captain James Byrne, a very experienced Master Mariner. Byrne was a rather loud Australian who's Trademark was his bush hat. He was also a man who ran a tight ship and hated "Jerry" with every fibre of his body. By this time, of course, the Rosalie Moller was an old ship by any standards and her Chief Engineer spent his time nursing her engines from crisis to crisis in order to get the very maximum out of them. By now, this was only 7 knots - yes 7 MPH! Nevertheless, the vessel was ideal for collier duties and was soon making a significant contribution by transporting anything up to 4,500 tons of best Welsh coal to whichever port the Royal Navy demanded.

Ever since the advent of steam driven Warships, the British Navy discovered the value of "Best Welsh." Though few could explain why, it was an established fact that "Best Welsh" burned brighter and made less smoke. The benefits for a Navy at War - with a fair proportion of it's vessels still being coal fired, were, therefore, obvious. On the one hand, Welsh coal was the equivalent of more miles per gallon - but less smoke into the bargain, gave the British Navy a distinct advantage which amounted to being able to spot the enemy before being seen themselves.

Regularly loading at Cardiff and taking his valuable cargo to any of the Navy's ports from Rosyth to Portsmouth - and even occasionally Gibraltar, James Byrne was often seen at the helm of his beloved ship with his large wooden pipe clenched firmly in his teeth, issuing orders left right and centre. He was a hard task-master and, whenever he barked, the crew jumped - though they all knew that, if ever they got into a tight spot, they would not wish to be with anyone else.

Too slow for Convoy duties, the time eventually came for the Rosalie Moller to venture further afield. The Royal Navy's "Force K" was operating out of Malta under the most trying of circumstances with a need for refuelling facilities at both ends of the Mediterranean - i.e. Gibraltar and Alexandria. With Axis Forces occupying most of the north Mediterranean coastline, Malta was under constant siege and, whilst Warships were generally able to look after themselves, Merchant vessels rarely broke through the constant barrage of Air and Submarine attack.

The Rosalie Moller had already made a couple of trips to Gibraltar and unloaded her precious cargo of "Best Welsh" at the small dock known - even to this day, as Coaling Island, in the centre of the great Harbour itself. Getting in unscathed was hard and whenever he did see an enemy Aircraft Byrne would leave the Bridge - and the wheel, momentarily just to shake his fist at the enemy above. Leaving Gibraltar, however, was much easier because he always departed just as soon as it became dark so that he was well out into the Atlantic before daybreak.

In July 1941, the Rosalie Moller's engines were given a thorough overhaul before being assigned the task that would prove to be her last. At the end of that month she took on 4,680 tons of "Best Welsh" and her Master was ordered to sail independently for Alexandria. With the Mediterranean route out of the question, the only safe passage was via South Africa - and that meant rounding the Cape of Good Hope for the very first time in the vessel's 31 years afloat.

It was a long and uneventful journey and on 11 September she slipped her mooring in Durban before sailing up the east coast of Africa. After another brief stop at Aden, the Rosalie Moller finally entered the Red Sea and, on reaching the Gulf of Suez, was assigned to "Safe Anchorage H" to await further instructions. The Master let out the starboard anchor and some 200m of chain as the gentle current pushed the vessel back. This was "good holding ground" and, at long last, the engine was closed down. All they could do now - was wait

From now on, being called forward to proceed through the Canal was dependent on several factors. Enemy activity - especially Air Raids from German aircraft based in Crete, cargo priority and how long other vessels had been waiting, all had to be taken into consideration. Things were made worse, however, when two vessels collided further up the Gulf of Suez and virtually blocked the entire seaway. This is why the "Thistlegorm" - with her much needed and valuable cargo, remained in "Safe Anchorage F" for a full two weeks before finally becoming lost.

Up until now, however, these "Safe Anchorages" - each with it's own letter of the alphabet, were regarded as exactly that - Safe! That is until German intelligence heard a rumour that a large troopship (possibly The Queen Mary) was due to travel through the Suez Canal carrying 1200 British Troops to reinforce North Africa. Having perfected the relatively new skill of night attack, Heinkel He 111's from 26th Kamp Geswader Squadron based in Crete, were tasked to search for this Troopship and duly crossed the Egyptian coastline just before midnight 5th October 1941.

Aided by a clear moonlit night they searched in vain for the big ship until fuel levels became critical. Then, just as they were on the point of returning home "empty handed," one of the pilots spotted a ship at anchor. Turning away in order to make the best possible approach, the pilot turned again as he lost altitude and came in low over the sea. Heading straight for the bows of the Thistlegorm, he dropped his two bombs right over her and both penetrated No 4 hold - aft of the bridge. This detonated a great deal of the ammunition in that hold and the resultant explosion ripped open the upper decks as though they were nothing more than a tin can - in fact, even to this day, the rear decks are peeled back towards the Bridge leaving many a Diver wondering what he is looking at - even described as "armour plating" in some accounts!

Caught unawares, the Thistlegorm sank at 0130 hrs 6th October 1941 - taking with her four members of the crew and five Royal Navy ratings - employed to man the deck guns. The spectacular loss of the Thistlegorm, however, lit up the night sky - revealing more vessels at anchor to the retreating German aircraft, and all knew they would be back. In the meantime, the on-going efforts to clear the final approaches to the Suez Canal were increased.

On the nigh of 7th October 1941, however, the Skipper and crew of the Rosalie Moller were blissfully unaware that, at approximately, 2258 hrs two more twin-engine Heinkels had crossed the north Egyptian coast. The Aircraft were heading Southeast - and straight for them. Even if they had been forewarned, there was nothing they could have done.

Captain Byrne had a bunk on the Bridge of his ship and, awoken by the noise of Aircraft engines, stepped outside. Unarmed and, therefore, unable to defend his ship, the Master of the Rosalie Moller could only watch as one of the aircraft spotted his vessel and came in for a low level attack.. Characteristically, James Byrne could only shake his fist in a last gesture of defiance as the aircraft passed close above him. He was later reported in the War Diary as stating:

"2 bombs released, one striking No 3 Hold at 0045 hrs. Vessel sank 0140 hrs 8 October 1941, two Crew missing." It was almost precisely 48 hours after the loss of the Thistlegorm.

Taken from the same War Diary - and now declassified, on 10th October 1941, the Admiralty sent a "SECRET" message to Washington with regard to salvage. The message commenced:

"(1) Following ships now lying sunk Red Sea and on adjacent NE African Coast. In Gulf of Suez and straits of Jubal THISTLEGORM (4,898 tons bombed badly damaged)..... ROSALIE MOLLER (3,963 tons bombed)...."

Thus it was that within two days of each other, both the Thistlegorm and the Rosalie Moller went to the bottom - and with a combined loss of eleven lives. Interest in the Rosalie Moller, however, then faded for one very good reason. After the War, raw materials were in short supply and throughout the Gulf of Suez many lost ships were raised and salvaged whilst others were cleared as hazards to shipping. Understandably, many of these were wrongly identified by those who had other priorities at the time. At least two separate and independent accounts of the Rosalie Moller both record "after war - raised and broken up" - even though she never was!


Finding the Rosalie Moller
I was visiting the Red Sea as a guest of Diving World and spending a week on board their luxurious new live-aboard Diving Boat "Miss Nouran." Before I departed I had been asked about the Rosalie Moller and done a little research. As the days progressed - and please don't ask me how, I gained the impression that the Staff of Diving World in Hurghada had actually found a "new" wreck but when I arrived it was the other way around - they thought I knew where it was! Within moments of my arrival, therefore, we were actually discussing the prospect of a search. Certainly the idea had merit - but let's be realistic. Between us we had virtually no information (although I did possess a faxed copy of an old photograph of her sister ship), and the general search area was so vague it equated to something like "south of Plymouth!" On top of that - according to two sources, the Rosalie Moller was scrapped over 50 years ago. On the positive side, however, we did have an optimistic outlook, our combined experience and passion for Diving - plus one or two clues.

Our Dive Guide was that very popular Instructor Ali Baba from whom I learned a great deal. The Skipper was Captain Mohammed Hassan - widely regarded as the second best Captain in the entire Red Sea. Not that he minds being second best - everyone acknowledges his father as the outstanding figure in this regard - and he located the Thistlegorm in 1963!

Captain Hassan handed me a chart and asked me to plot a certain position. I think it came from his father - but I really don't know. It was right on the edge of the general search area and when I showed it to him - he smiled "We go tomorrow" he said and we did. At 0630 hrs the engines coughed into life. This normally provides an early morning call for all those on board, but today there was an added element of excitement and few were still asleep. Most of us were checking we had a "good fill." Every time Ali Baba looked at me he smiled - "Rosie Muller!" he said each time - and somehow, I suspect the ship will eventually become known by his version of her name. By 0800 hrs we were searching - and, would you believe it, we actually found it.

A full account of how we found the wreck is another story, but I really must record the names of the four Divers who, along with Ali Baba, Captain Hassan and his crew, made it all possible. Chris Gleadow, Peter Watts - both from the Midlands and Geof and Trudy Loe from Plymouth. Four very experienced Technical Divers who just happened to be paying guests onboard the Miss Nouran at a time when they were needed most - and without them, I would have no story.


Diving the Rosalie Moller
Today, the Rosalie Moller stands as a magnificent example of British engineering from the early 20th Century. She sits upright on the seabed on an almost perfectly even keel. One of the first things we saw as we approached the wreck was the forward mast - still with the mast-head lamp in place at 17m. Below this, the Bows are at 39m and the starboard anchor is deployed with the chain running down to the seabed at 50m and then out of sight. The port anchor remains fully retracted. The railings are largely still in place as are many accommodation/winch houses, blocks, winches, hawsers and other paraphernalia.

Almost eerily somehow, everything still appears to be tidy - clearly Captain Byrne had run a tight ship and, if he was to have lost his vessel under such circumstances, he would have been happy with how she looks today. The cargo hatches are gone - revealing the full cargo of Best Welsh Coal still in place. Pots and pans still hang in the Galley where they are now concreted to the walls above a large stove. Although the wooden decks have rotted away, all the portholes are still in place - and not a broken glass anywhere.

You will understand, therefore, our high level of expectation as we finally approached the Bridge - but when we got there the cupboard was bare! The Bell, Telegraphs, Compass and Binnacle are all gone - and the Captain's safe was forced open on the floor. Doubtless somebody will tell me, yet again, that these items were removed for important reasons of research and identification - but surely we can all read what is written on a Bell - and enjoy seeing it in it's rightful place!

Aft of the Bridge, the funnel is still standing - with only the slightest list to port, the rear mast is also intact, all lifeboats davits are swung out and at 35m at the stern, the steering gear is available for inspection. Below this, the rudder is at 45m and hard over to starboard. Curiously, one of the four propeller blades is missing. There is external damage to both rear quarters - being slightly more extensive to starboard. Incredibly, the damage that caused the ship to sink is hardly noticeable and none of the cargo of coal appears to have been lost.

The vessel is not on any of the regular Diving routes and, unfortunately, does not enjoy the high levels of underwater visibility one expects from the Red Sea - 15-20m being maximum. That said, corals are growing on the decks and the fish life can only be described as prolific. First thing in the morning Jacks and Tuna are seen feeding on the large shoals that congregate here and in the evening only the largest Grouper are found.

Identification was made possible by the Maker's plate found within the engine room - Barclay Curle of Glasgow. This was also made of brass and might also, therefore, disappear - so it was hidden deep within the wreck to serve as a permanent proof of her identity. Nothing whatsoever was removed from the wreck.


The Future
Although we did genuinely discover this shipwreck all by ourselves, clearly we were not the first to have found her - and I suppose we never thought we would be. Yet those who have gone before us have not proclaimed their discovery to the rest of the Diving Community so that others might share the experience.

The Rosalie Moller does not feature in any Red Sea Diving programme - so I am left to conclude, therefore, that somebody was keeping their secret until they had finished stripping the vessel of all valuables. Then, and only then, might they have permitted other Divers to visit such a finely preserved time-capsule from another age of shipping and yet another age of War in the Middle East. I know nothing of the profits to be made from such finds - but I do know that all future visitors to this magnificent shipwreck are much the poorer for such greed.

Of course, she can never be "undiscovered" and if I do not tell her story, then somebody else will. For the moment I have something of a scoop which I am happy to share. That said, I have already formally informed the Egyptian authorities of this discovery and I have urged the Minister of Tourism to consider placing a Protection Order on this and all other shipwrecks in the Egyptian Red Sea - for the good and benefit of future generations of visiting Divers.

The Rosalie Moller is a significant discovery and one which will enhance Diving within Egyptian waters. Diving World are planning to make this latest underwater attraction a regular feature for the more experienced Diver and, whilst I am assured - and quite satisfied, that they will make every effort to protect her from looters, she will eventually become "communal property" and visited by many Divers on a regular basis. How long, therefore, before she too is stripped of every item of interest to Divers I cannot tell.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Travel: Ned Middleton travelled with Diving World. For more details contact:

Diving World
Bank Chambers
6 Borough High Street
LONDON SE1 9QQ.
Tel: 020 7407 0019
Fax: 020 7378 1108

Dive Suits: The water temperature in the Egyptian north Red Sea is cooler than most people realise - as low as 16-18°C in winter. A full wetsuit is always best - though many prefer dry suits.

Misc: Bring all your own film, batteries, toiletries and medicines - local stocks can be limited with some items being old and out of date.

Electricity: 220 volts AC with the Continental two-pin system is found in the Hotels but do check the power supply on your Boat.

Currency: Local Currency is the Egyptian Pound (E£). Although exchange rates fluctuate, a good approximation is E£ 5o6 to UK £1. Sterling, DM and US $ are all widely accepted.

Language: The official language is Arabic with English being widely spoken.

Time: GMT + 2 Hrs.

   

Perceptory overload is not a phrase I care to utter often. But when you mix three species of shark, two species of ray, humphead parrotfish, and perfect visibility all in dive, one's mind gets set upon by unheard of concentrations of neurotransmitters and it finds it difficult to cope. This was the very feeling I had two days before starting to write this article as our group discovered a plateau of immense beauty and what's more, as far as we could tell, it had never been dived before.

As I write, everything is north - Red Sea diving-wise anyway. Even what most people consider south his still north. Reefs with names such as Elphinestone, Zabagad, St Johns are so far to the north they may as well be at the pole. Even the exceptional Sha'ab Rumi and Sanganeb are north. That's because if you had a map of Sudan, found Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast and headed southwards you'd come to Suakin, now a ruined town, but once the area's main trading port. From here head almost directly east towards Saudi Arabia and if you have a good map it would show you where I sit and write these words - in a sheltered lagoon named Sha'ab Anbar 15 minutes west of the 38 degree East longitude line.

We are exploring; on a voyage to discover new Red Sea reefs, which in time I'm sure, will become the new Elphinestone, Zabagad, Brother Islands Sha'ab Rumi or Sanganeb.
Starting from Port Sudan the ex-research vessel Ciprea turned south and navigated the narrow channel between the coast and a large heavily reefed and uncharted section of sea. Looking at the Admiralty Chart, I saw great swathes outlined in blue with 'Uncharted' written ominously within. The chart itself is a mish mash of surveys from 'Miscellaneous Soundings', 'US' Government Charts' and 'Commercial Surveys' all dating from 1859 to 1984, and most were completed at the start of the last century when a weighted line was the most accurate way of testing depth. Our Captain, luckily had been through these waters before and was accustomed to the 'plot and guess' navigation technique.

Getting wet
The first site was a new one for everyone, including the Captain. Sha'ab Ata is at the far southern end of the uncharted area and is crowned with a small beacon to warn any captain stupid enough to wander out of the shipping lanes, which lead to Port Sudan, that the area is fraught with danger. Ata's coral platform is sausage shaped on the surface and the gradation of blues radiating outwards looked promising.

Hitting the water and looking down as the first person to see a new reef fills the soul with a sense of achievement. During the descent, I saw stepped ledges leading towards the depths and at 30m we stopped and started forward. The hard corals were pristine and the number of intact and healthy table corals were, I'm sure, reminiscent of how the northern Red Sea used to be. In these now popular dive sites the delicate, slow growing coral species are the fist things to be sat on, smashed through and toppled over, but here that was not the case. Nothing had been touched by the hand of man. Fishermen sometimes came to this reef, but their small boats had done little if any damage.
Finning along the south side of the main reef, we were shadowed by a small tuna, which was interested in what we were. I say small, but it was a fair- sized fish in the same way a baby elephant is a fair sized animal. It cruised the ocean side of our group throughout the dive only breaking off when the last person was in the boat.
Large reef fish through were harder to find. Grouper were visible, but their numbers kept in control by the fishermen, and we were still not far enough from the shore for many pelagic species. Still, there was a large shoal of black snapper, the odd batfish, coral trout, a mass of butterflyfish and angelfish and several juvenile Napoleon wrasse. It was a pretty reef, not exceptional in terms of excitement, but it held the beauty of a glamour model with good colours and pristine corals.
From Ata, the Ciprea headed east into the oceanic Red Sea for real to one of the few places that provide boats sanctuary from wind and waves. Heading beam on wasn't particularly the nicest way to make a sea crossing, but the quickest, and with a northwesterly blowing there wasn't much alternative, but the Ciprea is a metal vessel, built for the North Sea and rode the water well - Hamdoo lilla!

The Admiralty Chart shows Sha'ab Anbar as a very long, slightly bent line of coral just below the surface. In reality, it is a very long slightly bent collection of broken reefs with a sheltered lagoon in the north. It has a north point, west and east walls, a south wall and a south eastern plateau.

Some of it has been dived before, but the majority of this five mile long obstruction to shipping is virgin territory. The wind blew out diving on the north side unfortunately, but with so much else to discover it wasn't a problem.
The west wall was our starting point. The swell effect disappeared around five metres down and we started down the wall, which wasn't as sheer as I imagined it would be. Small shelves and gentle slopes were more usual than vertical drops which made for an interesting topography.

Again, the corals were outstanding. Hard formations that are usually so delicate and consequently so often broken were commonplace and with orchestral precision constructed a pretty wall.

Our first shark of the trip appeared here. A decrepit white-tip reef shark with the wrinkled face of a 90 year old women ambled through the reef, as if she were carrying two heavy Sainsbury's bags, and trying to catch the number 47 bus home to feed the 67 cats. It was quite pitiful really, but in another way quite heartening to know this creature had reached such an age without loosing her fins and life to fishermen.

As with most coral reefs, the shallower parts exhibited the larger concentration of life. From 10 metres to almost the surface, the west wall was superb and improved by the topography, which turned from steps and slopes to indentations and small pinnacles. Each indent in the reef face became it's own small bay with resident small fish and regular larger visitors. Large ? groupers patrolled the edges awaiting for a small wrasse or fusilier to make a mistake and fall foul of its large dental attributes; soldier fish hid in any recess they could find that was dark enough; and, at one point, the coral itself became obscured by a massive and densely packed shoal of Naso Lituratus (LOOK UP COMON NAME).

It was another good dive on a site maybe no one else had seen before, although being the only safe anchorage for some miles, I wager not. Still, it was a good and thoroughly enjoyable relaxing late afternoon excursion.

The east wall was similar in look, but perhaps slightly more interesting. Starting at the northern edge the wall descended quickly into a steep slope full of sea whips and small coral outcrops. A massive globular formation followed, but apart from a crashed alien space craft overlooked for hundreds of years, I couldn't imagine what had formed it. It contained nothing but sand and encrustation, so I left perplexed. Immediately after, the reef returned to its normal routine of slopes, shelves and indentations. A host of coral species litter the sea floor all shrouded in antheas, butterflyfish, angelfish and groupers - the usual suspects as it were. A small group of barracuda flitted past, but again, there was nothing exceptional. Nothing to really get our socks off. The group was all very experienced divers who craved pelagics preferably with teeth, but they were eluding us.

At five metres we found one of the many small openings into the lagoon and I followed a pufferfish inside. It studied me suspiciously with a large eye and picked up the pace and hurried away in a fluster I've only ever observed in that particular group of fish. Inside, the coral gardens were pretty and well populated - good snorkelling territory - but very tame for what we wanted. In northern Egypt this one small place would be a good dive site in its own right, but we craved more. And boy did we get it.

True expedition stuff is what we came for. An adventure, a voyage of discovery. However, I don't recall Indiana Jones having to endure a 50 minute boat ride across a rather choppy sea in a small inflatable full of other people. The south of Sha'ab Anbar though is not a place large liveaboards would care to hang around, the shallow reefs are a death trap for anything larger than a small dinghy. So there we sat in the lee of the reef kitting up all desperately hot in the relentless Sudanese sun wishing we were in the water.

"Don't worry there's probably nothing here anyway," came the sound of typical British optimism. Our destination was the south west point - the big toe that Sha'ab Anbar sticks out into the oceanic Red Sea. If Sha'ab Rumi and Sanganeb to the north can have stunning plateaus, we figured why not Anbar? Two metre high breakers pounded the shallow, 4m deep, plateau, but in front of that was another, deeper, horizontal piece of real-estate and in the ocean any land which is flat is more valuable that a studio flat in Fulham.

I rolled in and immediately headed down out of the surge which was threatening to alleviate me of my lunch. The plateau 24 metres beneath was sand, coral only visible at the rim where it rose up to form a crater-like look. Starting at the south side we headed deep passed the plateau and saw very little. Oh dear.

Coming back though I caught sight of a white-tip reef shark resting on the sand. These small sharks have the ability to pump water across their gills, thus they can 'rest' on the bottom. I came up over the lip carefully and caught sight of another and another and then another. Four sharks all resting on the sand. Things were looking up. We continued along the rim of coral looking out into the blue. Two grey reef sharks appeared swimming back and forth in the current. Although not particularly large or even dangerous, grey reefs look the part - quick as a jet fighter when they want a burst of speed and armed with the equivalent natural weaponry. The two were joined by another slightly larger individual and then a hammerhead appeared. For some unknown reason this species of shark holds a certain fascination among divers. Ask anyone which shark they wish to see most and it'll almost certainly be a hammerhead. At 2.5 metres long this individual wasn't exceptionally large, but its body was toned like a bodybuilder's and its distinctive scalloped hammer for a head ensured everyone stopped to watch.

Further on, the coral rim merges into the wall of the main reef signalling the place to turn. As we did so, a spotted eagle ray descended the reef wall and glided ballerina-like over the plateau. Now my senses where feeling frayed and put upon. Calm down, calm down they screamed. There is only so much a person should see on a dive, but it wasn't over yet. Swimming back at 17m above the plateau towards the wall that leads to the 4m plateau, the water ahead glistened with the twisting bodies of barracuda. A shoal of maybe 50 individuals hung in a ragged line from 15m to near the surface. Passing by, I reached the wall and found myself surrounded. Spotted Grunts, or to give them their more apt name, spotted sweetlips, in numbers I have never seen before hung swishing in the surge. The shoal was immense and flanked by the larger giant sweetlips. Both species flicked in and out of the coral heads with the worried look impala have on the African planes, wary of what predator may be lurking ready for a mistake. What a wonderful finish to a sensory overloading dive I thought, and then a large male hawksbill turtle swam off the plateau top around the small group of divers left in the water descended and settled on the bottom. No more, my brain said - up now before I explode.

We couldn't leave Sha'ab Anbar without diving Jerrycan Point (so called because an old barnacle encrusted jerrycan was floating past when we first dived it) again and it still held surprises. And so the next morning we were again fighting the swells which kicked off somewhere to the north. The breakers over the shallow plateau would have surfers across the world salivating in anticipation, but divers looking on in fear. They were quite large to use the great British ability for understatement.

But after 40 minutes in the harsh sun we were pretty keen and over the main plateau the water was calmish. In and down are the best rules for that sort of surface and once under you can drift slowly to the bottom. White-tip reef sharks again rested peacefully on the sand clearly visible as we made our way across the plateau to the coral rim where we descended to around 30 metres and looked into the blue. A large white-tip reef shark swam by saw the larger creatures and high tailed it away, but it was soon followed by a grey reef shark which was slightly more interested. It cruised passed at a respectable distance a couple of times and then found its way above us and swept across my head within touching distance. Sharks, in my experience, especially grey reefs are fearful of bubbles and dart away or move off slowly at the first sign, but this little madam swam straight through my oral Jacuzzi, turned and headed down the reef. A tiny piece of time that my brain has filed under 'experience'. The end of the rim came quicker this time without the hammerhead, but then without the slight current I wasn't that hopeful. We were, however, rewarded on our third dive with a large hammerhead over the plateau, but not this time.

We headed for the main reef and as I glanced up my mind shouted at me to stop again. Descending in front of me was (and you, dear reader, are just going to think I made this up) an eagle ray - probably the same one as the day before - and a huge shoal of massive humphead parrotfish.

Like a wave of WWII bombers they swept in from out of the sun screaming "Tally Ho. Bandits dead ahead." And having re supplied with a fresh supply of ammunition they simply opened their bomb bay doors and, in synchronisation, released a hail of defecation. Humphead parrotfish are the sickle carrying hooded reapers for coral. They crunch their way through tons of the stuff per year and once the nutritious animal part is digested, the limestone that's left is dumped out of their systems adding more sand to the plateau. They dived over and around us and then span around like sheep wondering what to do next and not really knowing. I wasn't sure if they meant to scare us away or were perplexed as to what we were and when they finally arrived they still didn't have a clue like the unconventional heroes in books about the American depression of the 1930s - big bulking dimwits. Still, incredible to see.

My brain had had enough of my eyes at that point and I wasn't permitted to see anything new, so it was lucky the turtle stayed away and the sharks all remained the same - nothing too different. The barracuda were still there, but scattered and less of an attraction. The coral wall though is something too behold and I hadn't even noticed it the day before. Densely packed hard corals punctuated with soft corals and sponges. Reef fish, of course, are in good numbers, exceptional numbers actually, rounding off the dive well once again.

With our appetites whetted, it was time to find a really serious dive, the sort of thing an adventurer would look for. A lonely place, surrounded by ocean and chattered about only by the seabirds that rest on the exposed coral. Such a place is Sha'ab Quisier, a narrow slice of reef which rises up from the depths and has just made the surface. It is endowed with a beacon, so someone had been here before, but if anyone had dived it was anyone's guess.
The swell still wasn't doing us any favours and the north wall was a total no hoper, but we edged as far around the eastern side as we dared, jumping in as late as we could. The reef lanced up from a 60m deep plateau and then dropped off into the abyss. The chart said 560m, but the real answer could have been much more.

In a small cleft in the reef another shoal of large humphead parrotfish descended rugby player-like onto a small and terrified juvenile white-tip reef shark which hastily retreated. The parrotfish though were obviously inquisitive and wanted to discover more about us and followed the group. They were joined a short while later by a shoal of big eye travelly the exhibited the same 'follow the leader' behaviour I have seen them do to sharks and so perhaps they figured we were of that ilk.

The reef geography was vertical in its orientation for the entire dive. Rainbow runners, skipjack tuna and ? came in from the blue turning when they had seen what we were. A spotted eagle ray also glided passed well below us. It was a pleasant dive. Nothing spectacular, but enjoyable for such spoilt eyes.

Nakhalat al Qaseer though, a little to the west is completely different. A tiny speck of light blue in the dark blue of the Red Sea, this reef is still developing and hasn't yet reached the surface.

I descended a little way off the reef itself and saw the coral wall with a dazzling concentration. Every millimetre was covered in (NAME CORALS). Above, in front and blow me swarms of reef fish - antheas, wrasse, emerald green triggerfish, damselfish, clownfish and butterflyfish - shrouded the reef out to around a metre, but they never strayed very far into the intermediate zone patrolled by travelly, tuna, jacks and filled with fusiliers. Below, a 55 metre deep plateau, well more of a ledge actually, provided a resting place for a large white-tip reef shark which moved off at our appearance.

At around only 100 metres in circumference, Qaseer is easily navigable in one dive, which allows divers to see both north and south points. And almost immediately on reaching depth on the south point a grey reef shark appeared. As we followed the east wall another came in for a look and then turned northward and disappeared, but not for long. The same shark cruised over the 42 metre deep northern plateau and she was joined by a hammerhead and several white tip reef sharks.

In short Qaseer is a Godzilla of a dive, a mammoth discovered in the frozen Arctic, something truly to behold. And I'm not a friendly face around the superlatives camp, but sometimes you find a site that would devour every kind of lative, super or otherwise Qaseer was going to be a tough one to match, but Pender matched it; almost.

Two minutes after descending on the larger, yet still sunken reef called Sha'ab Pender a hammerhead cruised above us in a slow arc before heading out to sea and then the reef kicked off for real. The coral concentration was just as intense as the previous dive and the fish life too stood up well to scrutiny. In truth, the north wall has more prolific life, but the south is no slouch and at times my field of vision was simply full of fish which blossomed from the reef wall like a cherry tree in Spring.

Moving down the wall, a shoal of skipjack tuna came in from the blue, turned and came around again and, as if they went to get their mates for a look at the new creatures, twice as many appeared lead by the same large individual who had first spotted us. The tuna family are very well developed creatures and exhibit an inquisitive nature that is seldom seem in the wild. Big eye travelly too exhibit the same nature.

But for all the productivity of the fish, it's the corals building both Qaseer and Pender higher in the water that deserve the credit. Both reefs top out at 6m, a perfect place to perform a safety stop, in a dazzling array of species - the backbone of any reef and they are all in perfect condition. If you see a reef that breaks the surface it is full of dead structures, making it look so barren, but not here.

Almost as good in appearance was Sha'ab Jibna or north Jibna Shoal. Stuck way out on its own, the corals on this site weren't at first our real concern as cruising just off the reef was a shoal of around 100 scalloped hammerheads. I kid you not. The shoal was enormous densely packed, and, quite extraordinary for hammerheads, inquisitive. One especially was a real three year old with a "What's that?" fetish. The 1.5metre long shark repeatedly swam directly at several divers breaking off only a couple of metres from a collision. The others too, although a little more wary came into the reef several times for a look. Sadly the depth ensured our time with these interesting beasts was limited, but if I had to choose a word to best describe the experience it would have to be a simple - WOW!

Highly explosive
One thing the southern area of Sudan lacks is a decent wreck. That's not to say there aren't any, but none so far have been found. So to start any trip, either going north or south you dive the Umbria, made famous by Hans Hass in the 1950s. The vessel was Italian, and sailed out of Trieste laden with general cargo and war supplies bound for the Italian east Africa. The year was 1943, Italy was still not at war, but the rest of Europe was. Port Sudan was under British control and the Umbria's cargo was not a secret and nor was the fact Italy was about to enter WWII, on the other side.
The British frigate ? shadowed the? long freighter soon after it left Suez and as it reached Port Sudan the authorities requested it put in for a paperwork check.

The Captain, a man named?, realised it was a ruse, but could do little about it and, as directed, anchored his vessel within the safe water in Wingate Reef just outside the port.
The British kept the vessel making up new checks and dragging their feet hoping Italy would enter the war while it was still in their possession so they could score the booty of 360,000 aerial bombs, detonators, and a general cargo, which would certainly make life in Port Sudan a little easier.

The Captain though heard the news via radio before the British and ordered the ship scuttled. By the time the British realised what was happening, it was too late. The Umbria heeled over onto her left side and settled on the seabed.
After the war a ban was imposed on diving the wreck because of the still live munitions aboard, but diving pioneer Hans Hass went ahead anyway and came back with some stunning black and white photographs.
These days the wreck is a popular dive, but retains its beauty because of one simple fact. No anchor has ever touched this vessel since it sank. They don't have to as the right side lifeboat davits just break the surface. The larger liveaboards tie up to the buoys provided and their inflatables tie onto the davits. It has ensured the railings, and walkways in the top 10m are as intact as those lower.

The wreck is becoming a reef faster each year and hard corals cover the hull, sponges and soft corals drape over the railings and reef fish live, feed and breed on the surperstruture.
Within the holds, the bombs are still quite visible as are bags of cement, set solid now of course. Also, back within the hold directly in front of the wheelhouse lying side by side in constant darkness are three Fiat 1100 Lunga cars, which would make a classic automobile enthusiast cry. They are now looking quite sorry for themselves, but have done well to survive for so long.

The Umbria is, in my opinion, better than the Thistlegorm. Sure it doesn't possess motorcycles, jeeps or shells, but sadly, these days the Thistlegorm doesn't really either. It's cargo is pretty mashed up, as it the wreck itself. Constant anchor and diver damage has, not will, taken its toll.
The Umbria is penetrable on a novice or expert level and the engine room is a favourite with many experienced divers. It is a large open space, clean of any marine growth and just as the engineers left it when the order to man the lifeboats was given on June ? 1943.

The Umbia caused my eyes to finally divorce my brain. My neurotransmitters couldn't cope with the workload and my time in Sudan had run out. I lost count of the number of sharks I had seen. In the northern reaches very often you can count them with one hand and still have fingers to spare. If you are a coral reef enthusiast a shark nut or just someone who appreciates diving that comes up from the depths and slaps you in the face, then I cannot urge you to book a passage fast enough. Get there before everyone else does.


Sudan Travel facts
Getting There: At present Diving World is the only UK-based dive travel operator to offer trips to Sudan. Several sailing dates are planned throughout the year, although if you have a group of eight or more then you can basically pick when you want, providing a boat is available.

Climate: Sudan is hot pretty much all year. In summer it as if hell has paid the earth a visit as temperatures soar into the 40s and 50s centigrade. Few dive boats run during this season. The best times are the spring and autumn, although if you are looking for hammerhead action choose the earlier parts of the year before the thermocline gets too low.
Currency: The local tender is the Sudanese pound, although most transactions are completed in US dollars - the currency of choice for many nations who spend great amounts of time slagging the US off.

What to buy: Not much. On a liveaboard you'll have to buy drinks and you can find a few items for sale in Port Sudan, but Oxford Street it isn't.

Local conditions: It is true that Sudan is a country at war, however, the troubles (between Muslims and Christians) is far in the country's south, and seeing as you could fit the UK into Sudan several times over it's almost like saying don't go to Europe because here's trouble in the Balkans. The sporadic fighting is well away from the capital and even more so from Port Sudan. Visitors to the Port will find a relaxed culture deeply entrenched in the Muslim faith. The people are friendly, warm and welcoming.

Visas and Tax: A Sudanese tourist visa is essential to enter the country. It costs £55 although they are not the easiest things to obtain and it is often easier to allow the booking agent to arrange it for you.
Once in Sudan each person has to pay a local Port Tax of US$172 (although the amount does change, so check with your booking agent before travelling). To leave each person must pay a US$20 departure tax.

Help: The British invented bureaucracy, the Sudanese took it to new heights, but thankfully there are local agents to smooth out much of it, although you cannot escape it completely.


For more details contact Diving World on 0207 407 0019 or e-mail surf@diving-world.com

   
     

If anyone were to ask me what was the best value for money diving trip available today, this would be the one I would whole-heartedly recommend.

With this years opening of Egypt's legendary off shore diving sites specially licensed and equipped live aboard vessels can now offer divers the chance to join special two week expeditions to dive four world class areas all in one trip. This area of the world has always been special to me; somewhere I will never tire of. It gave me enormous pleasure to join MY Greta as a guest of Diving World: The Southern Red Sea pioneers, for this pioneering cruise and another breath of fresh compressed air...

MY Greta is one of a new class of all-weather steel Safari vessels plying the Red Sea waters, capable of extended expeditions with a range of over 2,000 nautical miles. She is equipped with every conceivable navigation aid, which includes state of the art GPS plotter, depth sounders, Sat. phone/fax, a quality SSB and two FM radios. This equipment allows safe night navigation, which is a huge bonus when long distances have to be covered in one go, divers waking up the next morning already at the dive site.

Marine Park
The new Marine Park legislation covers all of the Egyptian offshore Islands, namely: Zabargad, Rocky Island, Daedelus and the Brothers. Strict rules ensure only able, seaworthy offshore vessels are eligible for operating consideration. These eligible vessels are then awarded area licensing termed area 1 and area 2 respectively. The logic in the division of these two areas is however strange and complicated.
Greta is one of only two vessels with Area 1 & 2 licensing and authorisation, which means it can legally operate in all of the new marine park sites. The new Marine Park is strictly managed too, and more often than not a Marine Park Ranger will travel with the boat as in this instance. Egyptian Navy Helicopters randomly patrol the Park reporting directly any vessel travelling or moored inside the protected areas. Any unauthorised vessel caught in these areas will be boarded, impounded and taken to the nearest Naval Base. These measures are a welcomed step in the right direction regarding conservation, ensuring both reef and marine life gets the chance to develop without the over-interaction of 'Homo Aquarian'.
Each of the Parks Rangers are well-trained knowledgeable divers and Photographers. 'Yasser' our Ranger was no exception, taking his job very seriously with a firm belief in the protection of a natural marine environment. He quickly became known as the 'Lone Ranger', his camera: 'Tonto'.
Entry into the Marine Park costs the individual Diver $35.00 per week or $65.00 for two weeks and remember this is not included in your holiday price, it is paid before the boat sails.

The trip began with great debate and anticipation as old friends were reacquainted, and new ones were introduced. Everyone onboard sharing a common excitement about the voyage ahead...

The Brother Islands. (El Akewein)
Over the last thirty years the Brother Islands have become synonymous with perfect diving. Nowhere on earth can match the potential of these unassuming looking volcanic extremities, located 45 nautical miles from the nearest landmass. The Brothers combine every aspect of diving together in one small area: Walls, Plateau, Caves, Wrecks, Corals and HUGE Fish.
Due to the Gretas ability to navigate at night we arrived at Big Brother at 03.45 hrs and were moored under a star-filled sky 20 minutes later, with everyone except the crew and myself still fast asleep. Our 5-hour voyage was as smooth as a ferry crossing the channel. Above us the intense light beam from the tower pointed out the island's position around a 360-degree horizon, the sea was choppy but we hardly swayed on our mooring. As daylight arrived the barren island glowed red; the aging lighthouse looking even more battered than I remembered it. A slight swell broke over the fringing reef, lapping against the eroding rock face revealing its volcanic basalt origin, shining black in the bright sunlight. In the distance south of us, sat Little Brother.

At 07.00 hrs the famous 'Ali Baba' called one of his lengthy 3D briefings, heralding the first of our dives which was to be along the morning wall on the islands east side. As the Zodiac dropped us into the clear blue water the slight current took us southward along a reef wall dropping vertically below us to around 70m. A deep chute cut into the wall provides the perfect environment for numerous types of fan corals, including an impressive gorgonia, taking advantage of both the current and the cooler upwelling bringing food from the depths. This wall is literally alive with the colour and motion of a million Anthias. Jacks darted in and out of the blue trying to pick them off but not quickly enough to surprise the throbbing mass. A large cave provided a moment's respite from a quickening current, giving a chance to admire some colourful sponge and coral growths. As you would expect the cave was shelter for numerous soldier fish and a very large Sabre Squirrel fish. Out in the blue sizable Tuna fish shimmered past on the lookout for an easy meal. Towards the southeast corner of the reef the wall begins to spread out into a slope before leading onto a 25 - 60m plateau. It is on this corner that things began to get interesting as large individual Barracuda arrived from the fringing blueness for a service by cleaner Wrasse inside a shallow recess in the reef wall. Several small Napoleon Wrasse showed an interest in the groups activities but kept their distance. Then below I spotted something really special: A medium sized 'Thresher' Shark just above the Plateau. As illusive as ever this cutest of sharks on detecting our presence, slipped quickly away off the side of the plateau.

Our second dive of the day was via a bumpy ride to the northern end of the reef to marvel at the both natural and artificial reef. Descending quickly from the choppy surface the sheer beauty of the soft corals and the contrasting colours and shapes of the hard coral hit us right between the eyes as another million Anthias danced amidst the surge. Leveling off at 25m we swam around the corner of the reef wall below an impressive overhang to notice a huge intimidating black shadow slipping from the shallows into the depths below: The Hull of the 120m British ship wreck "Namibia". A large indentation in the reef wall marks the spot where she hit, but now she makes amends as a reef in her own right. Almost every part of the wreck's superstructure is covered with cascades of pretty soft corals over an entire covering of hard coral species. The ship's cargo of Locomotive wheels have now become natural works of art. The most visually striking feature are the empty lifeboat davits now festooned with soft corals like a hanging garden. This shipwreck has to be the single most beautiful of all warm water wrecks; bar none. The deeply penetrating surge and strong currents (which promote the abundant soft coral), on this occasion, prevented much duration for us, holding any kind of stable position proved difficult in the least: "Humming" would be an understatement. The wreck can be safely penetrated and offers a 'still' contrast from the current. Slipping back southwards along the Western Wall through a dense covering of reef fish it wasn't long before the broken forward section of the Aiada came into view below us, its hull looking vertically up the steep slope. This ship, an Egyptian troop carrier lost during the 1950's in dense fog has now become a living structure too, and home to a living cloud of marine life. Both of the wrecks are best dived in minimal currents for maximum enjoyment, but investigating the entirety of either one is a no-no as their bows lie at 70 & 82m respectively. The reef wall above the wrecks has large cracks and recesses cut into it filled with schooling fish, the edges softened with fan corals and impressive Black Coral trees.

Nightlife
The two 1500w Halogen lights above the rear of the dive platform attracted some interesting visitors: Three large 'Silky' Sharks were investigating the brightly-lit area below the rear of the boat, their fins periodically breaking the surface in search of prey drawn in by the lights. In the past these sharks would be fed from the boats, but now thankfully it is against Park Policy as feeding encourages an unhealthy inquisitiveness on the part of the shark. Between twilight and Dawn these sharks turn from passive to predator, anyone daft enough to have entered the water would have been instantly torn to pieces...

Thresher
The following morning 'Grant' the onboard Videographer and myself decided to drop from the dive deck onto the plateau to look for the 'Thresher' I had seen the day before. Descending quickly we saw the three Silky Sharks still buzzing around but this became insignificant as I spotted the 'Thresher' on the western edge of the plateau. Trying to breath quietly is difficult at the best of times, but add excitement into the equation and you may as well be blowing a trumpet, but we did manage to get within 15m of the shark before we were rumbled. Not an ideal photographic distance in milky viz, but a fantastic visual experience of this most illusive and cutest of sharks with its large eyes and iridescent skin glinting in the vertical shafts of sunlight. Grant did manage some nice video footage before this most beautiful of fish remembered a prior engagement. Ascending back towards the boat we were intercepted by two of the Silky's which gave a better photographic opportunity. It was obvious to me that with the shark's unnatural attraction to the shot line from the boat they had obviously been fed from such a line in the past. At one point one of the sharks swam vertically up the line, in a similar fashion to 'Sid the Silvertip' on Elphinstone does, which can be quite unnerving for people.

Little Brother
Arriving at Little Brother early in the afternoon we found that Rudi Kniep had taken all of the mooring lines lay during the previous weeks for his No 1. Which is typical of this guy's "I own the Red Sea" mentality that his doing his limited popularity no favours at all. "Watch this space..." Due to the very limited mooring opportunity off this small island it presented big problems for our crew to safely moor. Kniep made no effort to move over; instead he made sure all of his clientele were getting in the water before the crew could finish.

It only takes literally seconds in the water to realise what a fantastic reef this is, almost like swimming along a rainbow's edge, reflected in the dense array of spectacular soft corals. The vertical wall along the south west of the reef is covered in hard coral formations producing pretty dramatic overhangs, which in turn create the perfect situation for fan corals and branching black coral bushes. Some of these bushes in turn offer a perch for small soft coral and sponge growth producing a decorative appearance. Inside the many crevices are large numbers of soldierfish and bigeye, along with the almost metallic Sabre Squirrelfish. Several long-quilled Lionfish offered a glance to the passing traffic but remained their non-cooperative selves when a camera was raised. Below us swam a large grey reef shark, above us numerous great barracuda, and to the side two big Tuna. The effects of the Anthias became mesmerizing, almost hypnotic as they pointed out a confused current.

On the Eastern side of the island the reef wall drops to 20m then slopes down sharply to around 70m. Here you can find an array of giant gorgonia descending the slope, upright and splayed across the current. In amongst the gorgonia a school of fusiliers hung lazily, making little effort to move away even amidst our presence. A little way further a Common Lionfish swam just above the reef, maybe for a snack before the sun got too high and bright. Swimming at stop depth back towards the boat we were approached again by the same three silky sharks we had encountered on big brother. The divers behind me were buzzed very closely by the trio, a female diveguide almost crapping herself on the shot line as a result.

An afternoon dive along the Western wall provided the opportunity for some creative photography with the late afternoon sunlight providing rich colours and strong shadows around the soft and hard corals. Plenty of sharks around, spotting at least four out in the blue and below us, with a large contingent of Barracuda loitering in the shallows. A large school of Black and white Snapper came in to the reef gathering in the shallows of a deep recess in the wall, changing from white to black to disappear within the growing shadows.

Sussed
During this dive the 'Lone Ranger' spotted seven or eight grey reef sharks going berserk under No1.... It then became obvious to him that scraps of food were being lowered into the water creating a situation not only to please his German guests but a possible hazard for any divers still in the water too: A practice he had perfected on Elphinstone, and aped by his staff. Big mistake on this occasion, it was Tonto'd!

Daedelus (Abu Kezan)
Before the sun set the moorings were carefully removed and we were on our way towards Daedelus eleven hours sailing south of little brother. The wind had dropped by nightfall and the going was steady, the only indication we were moving was the sound of the two engines purring away and the occasional flying fish bouncing off the hull.
Daedelus is an isolated circular reef rising up from the depths to within a few cm of the surface. A lighthouse station is positioned centrally on the reef with two long jetties out to the reef southern wall. The eight man crew of the station spends three months at a time on this most exclusive of locations, receiving fresh supplies every month. Their living quarters contain all the mod cons including a satellite TV.

All the walls around Daedelus drop steeply from the surface on three sides, the southern end of the reef having a large flat fringing plateau. The Hard corals around the whole reef are extensive in species and distribution making way only for soft coral, sea fans and black coral bushes. Our first dive here along the eastern wall, swimming south the visibility here is the best I have every seen in the Red Sea being almost limitless. Trying to take everything in on this virtually undived reef makes the neck muscles ache, add to that the sight of a large singular Hammerhead swimming parallel to us, and sightings of numerous grey sharks made it gobsmackin! Large caverns and swim-thro's in the reef wall hide the big-eyed from the sun and provide protection for numerous schools of copper and slender sweepers.

After our first dive and breakfast was done we were invited onto the station and allowed to climb the 150 steps to the top of the lighthouse. As you can imagine the view from the top is horizon to horizon, and gives an uninterrupted view of this magnificent reef. The colours of this lighthouse are now quickly fading, and would be a good project for a paint manufacturer to sponsor...

The southern Plateau below the jetty drops at 90 degrees straight to 30m with no stops. Here is the evidence of a hundred years of occupation in the shape of barrels, anchors, chains and even a large container. This south-facing wall is literally carpeted in 'mustard' soft coral with sprinkling of the prettier species in purples and reds. The wall has some impressive caves winding away in to the reef. Inside one particular cave were three common lion fish, two of which made great models. The plateau's flat sandy bottom has coral formations rising from it, each seemingly a nursery for juvenile fish species. At 40m the sand gives way to another wall dropping down to around 80m. Beneath the jetty 40 or 50 cornet fish were lying in wait to pounce on any small fish venturing off the reef top, quite a spectacle.

Rocky Island
We arrived at Rocky at 06.30 hrs after another night of cruising which almost everyone slept through, the high peaks of Zabargad in the distance looked beautiful in the morning light. I was anxious to get into the water to see how much change had taken place during the 34 months since my last visit; I was filled with anticipation as I rolled off the zodiac. Dropping down to 25m and swimming towards the prominent ledge on the southeast corner we were greeted by five Blacktailed Sharks, small but powerful sharks of about 1.5m in length. As we ascended up towards the ledge the sharks whizzed around in front of us, but stayed well off the reef. As the current strengthened the sharks lined up off the ridge and swayed about like kites in the wind. I was disappointed not to see the emergence of any sizable sharks, but I was under no misconception that they were not around. In the past sharks were fed here for the entertainment of the guests, but now the practice is outlawed and sightings are due to a natural inquisitiveness. Sharks acting naturally are a joy to watch, especially small groups as you would find on Rocky interacting with one another. On the second dive two sizable Hammerheads we seen below the ledge, but they made no effort to ascend. However one of the most amazing spectacles I have every witnessed was given by a group of eight Napoleon Wrasse 20m off the ledge. Arriving in one's and two's the Napoleons grouped together in the current and mimicked what the Sharks had been doing earlier, skipping around like a group of children in a windy playground: Wonderful to see. The napoleons dispersed as a small group of sharks ascended the depths to the edge of the ledge at 25m. Here they received a very hurried scale and polish by several Cleaner Wrasse, the Wrasse actually entering the mouth of the Shark to pick out a treat!

With favourable conditions the Whole Island was accessible for diving enabling the group to drift from west to east across the north wall, and north to south along the deeply scarred, sheer eastern wall to explore the many nooks and crannies. Since my last visit the coral growth on the southeastern edge of Rocky has become more prolific and varied the prettier soft corals attaining a height of around 20cm, Acropora species reaching palm-size proportions, and the black coral bushes are now changing into trees.

Zabargad
Well it's good to be back, I thought to myself as we approached Zabargad to moor off the edge of the turquoise 'Lagoon of the Doves' in the late afternoon sunlight. Looking up towards the blackened peaks of this barren volcanic offspring instills a sense of timeless and peaceful isolation; you would have to be a house brick not to feel it! Thankfully now under the full protection of the new Marine Park Zabargad and its dependants can receive their long awaited consideration.

As the sun arose over a calm sea Cameraman Brian thingy and myself were allowed to accompany the 'Lone Ranger' onto the island to take photographs and video (Normally not allowed). This mile long white sandy beach is one the Red Seas major Turtle Factories, and it wasn't long before we came across fresh tracks leading from the sea across the sand into the beaches interior and one of the nest pits. Halfway along the beach the nest pits become dense, and give the landscape a cratered appearance. On this beach alone were 386 nest pits! There were signs of human footprints too and digging around several pits meant that fisherman had been steeling the eggs. The birdlife on Zabargad is prolific, at least six species of sea birds nest here plus Osprey, Falcon and Swallow. Standing on the very top of Zabargad's peak gives an overview of the islands geological origins and incredible panaramas of the hills, bays and unspoiled lagoons; a real privilege.

As the sea was so settled it presented an opportunity for the group to dive on the southwest corner and the southeast corner of the island in the same day.
The unique topography of these particular sites is both varied and interesting providing a visual feast of marine life. At the moment the Red Sea is blessed with big Manta Ray, resulting in the groups elated return after such a sighting. They were fortunate enough to spot a large Sailfish of the southeast plateau, with numerous shark species cruising along the walls.

The Navy's ex-Russian patrol helicopter buzzed us on our mooring, taking a very close look at what was going on and no doubt checking that our license allowed us to be there. It was, and they left.

The conditions were perfect too for diving the small freighter wreck in the eastern bay, in fact I couldn't believe my eyes at how good the viz was; allowing ambient light photography as deep as 18m! Since my last visit to the wreck the coral growth has increased by the power of ten and the wreck is now starting to look quite pretty in places. The bareness of the davits, winches and railings now embellished beneath a coral makeover. The internal completeness of the wheelhouse is amazing, dials still readable and still continue to fluoresce. The only sign of degradation was the rubber on the window mountings, causing one of the front windows to fall in. The marine life in and around this 40m wreck has increased too along with the coral colonisation to include Moray Eels, Squirrel and Soldierfish with the smaller coral dependant fish in and around the Acropora species. Maybe a few more years of limited human interaction will see this wreck as pretty as Abu Galawa's tugboat...

Return Leg Highlights
Whoever made the quote "Time is too short" made a massive understatement, it was time to begin our 250 mile return leg back to Hurghada. The wind had strengthened and the sea had become quite rough as the Captain guided the boat northward towards the distant Fury Shoal, reaching Sataya by nightfall.

After the incredible experiences of diving the big 5, one may have expected an anticlimactic voyage north, but that was not to be the case...

Three of the reefs I will never get bored with are Sha'ab Maksur, Sha'ab Claudio and Abu Galawa, a days diving that includes all three is a good one. Sha'ab Maksur's southern plateau just gets better and prettier, each of the main ergettes becoming denser in soft corals and spreading over the surrounding plateau. It's a photographers dream dive. So too the intricate caverns of Sha'ab Claudio where shafts of sunlight stream in through cracks in the roof to produce some magical lighting effects. Plus the sheer fun of exploring its labyrinth of passageways and grottos.

Although the steelwork on the Abu Galawa wreck has taken a beating by the weather; collapsing its stack and forward vents, the coral growth around the hull continues to impress, home to the extremes of marine life, from the tiniest Nudibranch up to the largest of Grouper. The fringing reef of Abu Galawa still remains undiscovered its wealth of coral growth and surprising marine life forsaken for the wreck or the more renowned sites.

Sha'ab Sharm is a strange reef where you can see everything or absolutely nothing, with absolutely no way to forecast any particular sightings. The 14th of June was one of those strange days, calm with very little current sweeping over the southern plateau. As Nik and I swam over the plateau to its eastern extremity the force was with us... Up over the ridge appeared five Hammerheads together with three grey reef sharks and a school of Barracuda. The sharks stayed around for a good few minutes, but the charge of the 'Light Brigade' from behind me persuaded them to leave into the blue.
Our return journey took us on to Elphinstone and Panarama, two of the best dives in middle Egypt the latter reef supplying the magazines cover shot of a strangely deformed turtle. The carapace of which is bent in on the right-hand side and concave on the top left. The turtle has coped with it over the last twenty or so years, having no obvious effects on an otherwise normal lifestyle.

Well this trip certainly made for happy logbooks, and almost certainly inspiring a need to return for more. A two-week voyage like this allows the diver to cover the maximum of interest in one journey, which in the long run saves time and money over a conventional one-week safari, and you will rarely see another boat. Add to this the ability to be on another reef 90 miles from the last the next morning after a good nights sleep there are no hugely boring interludes between dives. The maximum duration of any one leg was only five hours in daylight, this gave us plenty of time for film processing, testing and proving that the new 'Jessops' Slide film is a real winner for underwater photographers.

Greta is amongst the best-equipped Safari boats I have yet to travel on with its Automatic E6 processing lab, full Nitrox ability and even a Draeger Rebreather unit for hire. Two weeks allows ample time too for unhurried courses for Nitrox, Nitrox Rebreather and of course Photography.
As well as the Marine Park itinerary The Greta will be making two-week safaris to the southern extremes of Egypt to take in more world-class in St. John and beyond. Giving the discerning diver unbelievable opportunities.

Diving World and their Captains have the same kind of pioneering spirit that keeps me breathing, and they have some radical plans for the future. It was a great pleasure for me to travel and dive with this most genuine of people.

   

Wrecks you should know

Unfortunately, at least as far as shipping is concerned, the Island of Gobal Seghir (little Gobal) lies right at the very edge of the busy shipping lane which takes its name from the Island's big brother. The Straits of Gobal are found at that point where the north west Red Sea begins to narrow as it becomes the Gulf of Suez. Approaching from the other direction, it comes right at a time when Captains - out of Suez, tend to relax, thinking that the more hazardous stretches of water are behind them - as many have discovered to their cost. Today, of course, there are radar reflectors and solar-powered lights - but over one hundred years ago things were very different indeed.

In 1887, the Suez Canal had been open for just 18 years and the Red Sea still presented new experiences and very new lessons for many a seasoned ship's Master - most of whom had never seen such things as "Coral Reefs" which always seemed to lurk menacingly below the surface. Even today, these are hazardous waters - imagine how treacherous they must have been at night without any form of warning light.

On the morning of July 15th 1887, Captain Arthur Bremner paced the decks of his beloved Ulysses only pausing to study his pocket watch one more time. Above him, the tall building proclaimed "East India Trading Company" in large letters and, although that Company had long ceased to exist, he often found himself loading at these same warehouses right in the heart of London. Once again he checked his watch and once again he studied the River. He wanted to make the best possible use of the ebb tide and, at last, the time had come to depart. He barked a succession of orders and, as the mooring lines were slipped, he duly set sail - destination Penang.

The Ulysses was a sleek vessel with proud lines and, unlike many of the hybrid "sail and steam" ships of the period, she responded well to either form of power - thus giving her a definite advantage when competitors were becalmed. With a following wind to see them safely out of the Thames, none would have guessed that this would prove to be the last voyage for this brave yet ill-fated little ship which, in the 16 years since her launch, had enjoyed a somewhat chequered career.

Captain Bremner gave his personal attention to every aspect of running the ship and only when they were in the wide open stretches of the Atlantic and, later, the Mediterranean, did he allow the Officer of the Watch to exercise complete control over "his" ship. As with so many trips, it was a long and uneventful journey to Port Said where, all of a sudden, Captain Bremner was very much in demand as he attended to Customs officials, Port Authorities and Pilots as he dealt with all the rules, regulations and paperwork that went with the job. Leaving Port Said, he then remained at hand to assist the Pilot as they made the 100 mile journey to Suez.

Once the Pilot was dropped, Captain Bremner took command once again and, almost immediately, he was negotiating the narrow confines of the upper reaches of the Straits of Suez. Perhaps, if he had trusted his more senior Officers things might have turned out differently, but as the many hours passed, this ship's Master got little or no rest as he continued to study and double check every single detail of navigating his ship safely through such dangerous waters.

These many hours of relentless concentration demanded the highest levels of physical strength and endurance until, at long last, the Sinai began to fall away to the east and the Egyptian mainland even further away to the west, as the Ulysses approached the wider and safer shipping lanes of the open Red Sea. Finally, satisfied with his work, Bremner eventually handed over control to the Officer of the Watch and retired to his cabin.

In the early hours of August 17th the Ulysses struck Gobal Seghir and within moments, the Captain was awake and had taken control of the situation. His first duty was to conduct a thorough check - both internal and external, of every single aspect of the ship's condition and, at first it seemed that the Ulysses had sustained little damage and the pumps could easily handle the small amounts of water being taken on. Regarding the incident as nothing more than an unfortunate grounding, Captain Bremner decided to wait and seek help from any passing ship - something that was not long in coming.

It was still before daybreak when the lights of the British Steamship "Kerbela" came into view and she quickly responded to the rocket that was fired to attract her attention. Unable to render assistance himself - though he would certainly have rescued the crew had it been required, the Master of the Kerbela agreed to make all haste for Suez and send assistance - which he did.

The Times newspaper of August 18th 1887 included the following entry under the large heading WRECKS AND CASUALTIES: "Lloyd's agent at Suez telegraphs that the Kerbela, British steamer, reports that the Ulysses, British steamer, is ashore at Jubal Island, and is leaking a little. Assistance has been sent."

Hardly a cause for concern should anyone with an interest in either the ship, cargo or crew have read the item. It would not be long, however, before that "leaking a little" was to become much worse. At daybreak, Captain Bremner assessed the situation once again and repeated the process at regular intervals throughout the day. The Ulysses was stuck fast on a Coral Reef close to Bluff Point. Damage assessment still indicated minor leaking and nothing much had changed - apart from a worsening in weather conditions and a slight increase in the sea state. Still convinced his ship was not lost, Bremner decided against dumping any cargo overboard in the belief that the vessel would eventually be pulled free or perhaps, even float off with the rising tide.

Of course, by the time the Kerbela had reached Suez it was already late on the 17th and the Agent's for the Ocean Steamship Company were not able to despatch that much needed assistance until the following day. Up to now, Bremner, had totally underestimated the power of a Coral Reef to inflict damage on a steel-hulled vessel and had, therefore, refused to jettison any cargo. As the ship gently pivoted on the Coral head that held her so firmly in place, the leaks slowly got worse and he had no option but to take appropriate action.

He decided to jettison part of the cargo in shallow water - from where it could be recovered once assistance arrived. No sooner was this done, however, separate parties of armed Arabs and Maltese landed on the otherwise deserted island and began plundering the jettisoned cargo.

Deciding that no more cargo would be removed from the ship for the time being, water levels were continually monitored. What went undetected, however, was the slow, irreversible process of the ship steadily rocking to and fro in the increased sea state. This unrelenting process was weakening the hull of the ship and, without lightening the load - it was only a matter of time.

Whether, through fatigue or simple error, Captain Bremner had made the fateful mistake - either by setting a wrong course or by issuing wrong instructions, will probably never be known. One factor that may have played a part in his thinking, however, was an instruction by the Company to make certain all cargoes reached their allotted destinations - on time and intact!

In a manner not uncommon amongst a number of fleets, the Ocean Steamship Company selected a "theme" when naming their ships. Their theme was Greek Mythology and names like Achilles, Ajax, Hector and, of course Ulysses became the norm. After a period of successful trading, the Company expanded and ordered five new sister ships of approximately 2,000 tons each - all built between 1869 and 1871. The Priam was built by Scott and Co and the Hector, Menelaus, Sarpedon and Ulysses by Leslie and Co of Newcastle. The entire fleet, however, went through a period when they were clearly not as invincible as their names suggested - something that very nearly brought the Company to it's knees.

In October 1875 Hector was lost outside Amoy Harbour. In March 1876 Orestes was also lost, this time off Galle and, the following September, Sarpedon met the same fate off Ushant. These combined losses to the Company - in terms of Cargo and Vessels, amounted to well over a quarter of a million pounds - and all within a year. That, however, would have been more easily managed had the rest of the fleet avoided further mishap. When cargo after cargo was lost through a succession of groundings, collisions and breakdowns, the Company suddenly found itself in the serious financial predicament of having to find additional funds for repairs and replacement ships at a time of falling income.

Within her first year afloat, Ulysses went ashore in the Red Sea and was so badly damaged, she had to return to England for extensive repairs. The Minutes of the Company's subsequent AGM recorded a heavy financial loss from that particular voyage. The following year, she let the side down once again - by losing her propeller and running aground near Singapore. Then came a succession of broken shafts with Ajax, Antenor and Agamemnon - the pride of the fleet, all having to be docked for repairs. Ulysses, however, picked the worst possible moment for such a breakdown and was very nearly lost altogether.

Such catastrophes continued to plague the Company until Teucer was lost in 1885 - also off Ushant, after which, the epidemic seemed to have passed. Whilst the Company had been insured for the greater part - they had, nevertheless, endured a period of considerable financial loss. Each Captain was, therefore, well aware of Company policy which required him to deliver his entire cargo in good order and in the most reasonable time.

Meanwhile, however, the rivets slowly loosened as the ship continued to be pounded by a moderately rough sea and the damage steadily increased until, on the morning of August 19th, the Ulysses was down by the stern. At about mid-morning two Lighters with labourers arrived from Suez and shortly afterwards HMS Falcon arrived to offer protection. Realising the seriousness of the condition of the Ulysses, the Captain of the Falcon also lent some of his crew to assist with unloading whilst others were landed to guard that which had been jettisoned.

It was a long, dirty and laborious task in the most testing of conditions - made even worse by the intense heat which predominates in August. With the engines engulfed and the pumps silenced, foul water was now deep in the holds. The workers had to wade deep into this unpleasantness - at least up to their armpits, but sometimes they also had to swim underneath. Without power, they then had to haul the cargo out of the hold and into the sea where it was man-handled over coral reefs to the shore before finally being carried some one third of a mile to the Lighters.

Throughout these many days of toil, two other passing ships belonging to the Ocean Steamship Company, hove to and offered assistance. By now, however, the Ulysses itself was passed saving. Eventually, Captain Bremner could do nothing more than watch as his ship settled onto the seabed stern first - in an almost leisurely fashion, with her bows and bowsprit still in view and pointing upwards at a sharp angle.

Satisfied, that nothing more could be done, on 6th September 1887, all parties returned to Suez. The Lighters were so fully laden that additional space had to be found on the decks of HMS Falcon for a considerable amount of the salvaged cargo. On arrival, Bremner made his official report on the loss of the Ulysses - which was then officially listed as "Abandoned." Bad weather then set in for a few days during which the crippled ship sustained considerable damage before finally disappearing below the surface forever. No specific date for the final sinking was ever recorded.

Back in England, there then followed two separate and very complicated claims for salvage - both of which were very unusual. The first was brought by the Ocean Steamship Company in respect of the services rendered by the crew of the Ulysses - unusual because ship's crews do not normally benefit from the salvage of their own vessel, and for the services rendered by their own passing ships. The second was brought by the Captain and crew of HMS Falcon - unusual for the crew of any "HM" Ship to benefit from the ordinary course of their duties.

The cargo of the Ulysses was being carried under a bill of lading which exempted the Ocean Steamship Company from liability for loss caused by negligence of the Master and crew. The Company was, therefore, stating that once the Ulysses was aground and it was established she would not be refloated, the duties of the Master and crew had come to an end and they were as entitled to a share of salvage as any other party. The claim then stated that any such award to the Crew was, however, the property of the Company - in who's employ they were at the time. They also claimed expenses in connection with their other ships which had attempted to render assistance.

As for the Captain and crew of HMS Falcon, their case was entirely different. All parties agreed that HMS Falcon was employed to protect the Ulysses and her cargo from plunder and that no salvage was payable in respect of such duties. At the same time, however, crew members had assisted with the salving of the cargo by getting it out of the hold and carrying it a considerable distance to the Lighters. Finally, a proportion of the salved cargo had been carried back to Suez on board HMS Falcon. They claimed that they were entitled to salvage for those acts which were outside the normal scope of Naval duties,

On June 26th 1888, Sir James Hannen, advised by a board of Trinity Masters, presided over these two claims which had been combined into a single action. Dealing with the claim submitted by the Ocean Steamship Company first, it was clear that Sir James was unhappy with certain aspects. In summarising the action before him, he referred to "a valuable cargo estimated to be worth £60,000 carried under terms which exempted the Ocean Steamship Company from all liability." He went on to say "I do not know what circumstances brought about the stranding of the Ulysses but the result is that the Ocean Steamship Company treat the matter as though they were strangers who rendered a salvage service to their own ship and the cargo."

He duly referred that matter to the Registrar General of Shipping - tasking him to apportion how much of the salvage work undertaken by the crew of the Ulysses was due to the ship and how much to the cargo and how much to both activities.

Turning his attention to the claim made by HMS Falcon, all parties agreed that particular elements of this claim were outside the normal duties of "HM" ships and he duly awarded the Captain and crew of HMS Falcon the princely sum of £1,000 - with the recommendation that, in view of the offensive nature of the work involved, the normal course of giving so large a proportion to the Captain should not be followed in this instance.

Two months later, The Ocean Steamship Company settled their claim out of court for an undisclosed sum.

The Ship
Technically described as an "Iron Screw Steamer - Planked" the Ulysses was built in Newcastle by A. Leslie & Co and launched in 1871. Her dimensions were 312' x 33.6' x 25.5' with a displacement of 1992 tons (1843 net). Although rigged for sail, she was a typical of the new age of sea travel with her sleek sailing lines having that relatively new feature - a funnel approximately amidships. Below decks was a single 2 stroke, 2 cylinder coal fired engine capable of producing 225 HP - also made in Newcastle by P Stephenson & Co.

To some of the more traditional seafarers, these relatively new 'Steam and Sail' vessels were nothing more than hybrids because they were neither one type of ship nor the other - and it is true that many of them possessed the worst sea-keeping qualities, rather than the best, from both types of propulsion. The Ulysses, however, was an exception to this rule. She was a well made vessel that was, perhaps, just a little unlucky.

The Ulysses' cargo was described as "general merchandise" - a term which was used to describe any consignment of various commodities. Whilst the manifest no longer exists, the resultant court hearing specifically mentions quicksilver (Mercury) as part of that cargo. There is no doubt that an overall value of £60,000 was a vast amount in those days. A few remnants of that part of the cargo which was never recovered are still found within the ship to this day - especially wire, which would seem to indicate drums of electrical cable.


Diving the Ulysses
I was visiting the Red Sea as a guest of Diving World and spending a week on board their luxurious live-aboard Diving boat "Miss Nouran." Our Dive Guide was that very popular Instructor Ali Baba who explained that, with prevailing winds being generally "onshore," our Skipper - Captain Mohammed Hassan would carefully lay out two anchors onto the sand and allow the wind the push the boat gently back towards the Reef - thus presenting the dive platform right above the wreck and avoiding any contact whatsoever with the Corals.

I was very impressed with the way in which these two experts worked together - always taking great pride in getting each separate set of circumstances down to a fine art - but then they regard both the corals and the wrecks as far too important to damage!

Located just to the west of Bluff Point, the Ulysses lies "up" the Reef with he stern at 27m and her bows in very shallow water. The main body of the wreck is now on it's port side and most of the decks have rotted away revealing a framework of iron girders - not dissimilar to that of the Carnatic on Sha'b Abu Nuhas Reef - in many way a very similar vessel and lost in 1869.

The currents - generally from the west, can be quite severe and, should they be running, it is best to get down into the shelter afforded by the wreck - i.e. along the decks - or even inside. The stern reveals the beautifully rounded features that were the style of day - as sail began to give way to steam. The rudder and propeller are still in place and altogether serve to make this entire section very photogenic indeed. Above the stern a number of original features - such as bollards, winches and railings, can still be identified.

The wooden decking is long-gone revealing a steel ship's structure held together by iron cross members. These are what gave the ship it's strength and they have continued to provide that strength underwater for over 110 years. With virtually no chance of becoming lost within the wreck, the Diver is quite able to enter the vessel and explore both internal deck levels with plenty of natural light reaching every corner.

At amidships, there still remains some evidence of the small wheelhouse that was once located below the funnel. The "Bridge" had not yet been designed and many a Captain still preferred to con his vessel from the open decks - from where, at least, they could see. The wheelhouse was only used in the most adverse of conditions. Masts, spars and other items litter the seabed at this point.

Further forward, the vessel is well broken up and there are many separate structures to be found - all the way up to shallow water. The larger sections are home to thousands of Vanikoro Sweepers with all the other usual Reef Fishes is attendance. The entire vessel is well colonised by all the nearby Corals and Soft Corals which have, through their many years of growth, added a whole new - and very beautiful, dimension to this particular shipwreck - and, indeed the Reef.

Until very recently, the Ulysses was still upright - though she has always pointed "up" the Reef. The prevailing currents coupled with the passage of time, however, finally pushed the vessel hard over onto her port side where, she will undoubtedly remain as one of the many truly outstanding Dive Sites of the Egyptian Red Sea for some considerable tome to come.

Postscript
Arthur Wellesley Bremner was born Liverpool in 1843 and gained his Master's Certificate in 1867 at the early age of 24 years. He was awarded the Lloyd's Medal for Saving Life at Sea in 1884. Was First Mate on the Ulysses from 1885 until he took command of the ship on gaining his Master's Certificate. After the Loss of the Ulysses in 1887 he never returned to sea.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Travel: Ned Middleton travelled with Diving World. For more details contact:

Diving World
Bank Chambers
6 Borough High Street
LONDON SE1 9QQ.
Tel: 020 7407 0019
Fax: 020 7378 1108

Dive Suits: The water temperature in the Egyptian north Red Sea is cooler than most people realise - as low as 16-18°C in winter. A full wetsuit is always best - though many prefer dry suits.

Misc: Bring all your own film, batteries, toiletries and medicines - local stocks can be limited with some items being old and out of date.

Electricity: 220 volts AC with the Continental two-pin system is found in the Hotels but do check the power supply on your Boat.

Currency: Local Currency is the Egyptian Pound (E£). Although exchange rates fluctuate, a good approximation is E£ 5o6 to UK £1. Sterling, DM and US $ are all widely accepted.

Language: The official language is Arabic with English being widely spoken.

Time: GMT + 2 Hrs.

   

Wrecks you should know

One of the tasks that is very much associated with research and the correct identification of any shipwreck, is being able to unravel all the available information and misinformation and then set aside that which is patently incorrect before proceeding along the right path. These days it seems that too many writers are so keen to get their work into print that accuracy is often ignored. For me, accuracy is so important that, I find it utterly incredulous that at least one guide book published in 1999 still shows the Kingston as the Sarah H - but that is a story for another day.

Amongst all this confusion, there is none more than that which surrounds the wrecks of Sha'b Abu Nuhas Reef. Seasoned travellers to the north Egyptian Red Sea will be familiar with four outstanding Wreck Dives which lay across the northern shores of this treacherous piece of real estate.

The western-most of these is the well known - and correctly identified, Giannis D (note the spelling!). This vessel, however, had two previous names; "Shoyo Maru" and "Markos" - the latter of which is still found outlined on the vessel's hull. In fact, there are still those who insist on incorrectly calling this ship the "Markos D." That in itself is not a problem but false rumours of another vessel called the Markos (and even Marcus) have led more than one researcher off onto a false trail.

Similarly, a short time ago, I was informed that even a leading German magazine has recently published an account of another ship - the Carlisle, a secret wreck site apparently somewhere north of the Thistlegorm. I have no way of knowing whether or not any vessel actually exists, but I do find it somewhat curious that, in 1941, the survivors of the Thistlegorm were rescued by HMS Carlisle - a Light Cruiser of 4,190 tons. This ship was later damaged by enemy fire in the Mediterranean where her career as a Warship came to an end.

Of course, the local Egyptian seafarers have their own, quite excellent, way of identifying each wreck. With true identities being unimportant, they simply call each vessel after the cargo it was carrying. Thus, the Giannis D became the Wood Wreck on account of her cargo of sawn timber, the Carnatic became the Wine Wreck on account of the bottles that were recovered, the Chrisoula K became the Tile Wreck - she remains full of Italian Tiles to this day, and the one remaining vessel - wrongly known by either name Seastar or Olden, was called the Lentil Wreck.

Confusing? Not really!, - at least not until one starts to read so-called authentic accounts of the "SS Lentil" - a vessel which, like the Sarah H, never actually existed. Similar confusion also surrounds the Chrisoula K - simply because her former name was the Dora Oldendorf.

Not far from the Chrisoula K is that very wreck which was carrying a cargo of Lentils - 4,500 tons of bagged Lentils to be precise! She is of a similar size, tonnage and age to the Chrisoula K and many leading accounts of either ship show photographs of the one whilst describing the other. This is largely due to the fact that the Chrisoula K is often described as the Olden - mainly because part of the word Oldendorf is still found on her hull. Of course, when Divers then discover her to be full of Tiles, they automatically assume that the Olden must be the other wreck nearby.

For the record, the Olden was a 27,288 ton Bulk Carrier with twin propellers. Loaded with Barley, she left Suez on 31st January 1987 and then struck an un-named reef in the north Egyptian Red Sea two days later. She pulled herself clear but was in serious trouble and later sank in lat. 27° 31.2'N, long. 34° 17.1'E. As anyone armed with the correct chart and a parallel rule will observe, this large Bulk Carrier now resides in the open sea approx.14 miles due east of the SE corner of Shadwan Island in over 1000m of water - yet more than one log book has claimed a dive on this ship!

There is no doubt whatsoever that the vessel known by the Diving Trade as the Chrisoula K is correctly identified, but with one vessel having a previous name that contains the word Olden, both vessels being called by this name from time to time and Barley being accepted as probably meaning Lentils, it is easy to see why so much confusion can occur.

The truth, however, is largely obtained through thorough and painstaking research and a fear of going into print with the wrong information. In short, one must be as sure of one's facts as is possible to achieve. So, having been satisfied - without any doubts whatsoever, that the Giannis D, the Chrisoula K and, incidentally, the Carnatic are all correctly identified and named - just what is the name of that one remaining shipwreck - a short distance further to the east?

The answer is, the "Kimon M" - and, I must confess to a little luck because I happened upon her name by accident in an alphabetical list of ships whilst researching the Kingston!

The Ship
The Kimon M was a 'General Cargo Vessel' of 3,714 tonnes (gross) with 4 cargo holds - two forward of and two aft of a central bridge structure. She was built in the German town of Hamm in 1952 by HC Stuicken & Sohn. Her dimensions were 106.4m (349') x 14.8m (48.5') x 6.81m (22.3'). She was powered by a 4 stroke single action 8 cylinder diesel engine built by Waggon & Masch - also of Hamm, and capable of delivering a very credible 2,940 bhp. Whilst Hamm is in the heart of North Rhine - Westphalia, the town has direct access to the Dortmunder-Ems Canal which eventually links with the River Ems and out into the North Sea at Emden.

The Kimon M does not appear to have changed her name throughout her career during which she was widely regarded as a sturdy little ship with good sea-keeping qualities. Her last owners were the Ianissos Shipping Company of Panama and her last Skipper was one Captain Juan Cavilieri.

In December 1978, the Kimon M was in the Turkish port of Iskenderun - a small coastal town found at the extreme north east corner of the Mediterranean Sea, with Captain Cavilieri personally supervising the loading of 4,500 tons of bagged Lentils. The Captain was a man who liked to keep to a tight schedule and he knew that the Turkish dockers were always in need of direct supervision. Loading here was always a long, laborious and dusty task - none of which was helped by the searing heat as the Captain barked his orders which were then relayed to the workers through an interpreter.

Finally, when the loading was finished, the hatches were battened down and made waterproof for the long journey to Bombay. Tides do not exist in this corner of the Mediterranean so a Pilot was requested just as soon as the Ship was ready and the paperwork completed. Iskenderun is on the shores of a large Bay which opens immediately into the Mediterranean - making the Pilot's task as easy as they come. No sooner had he arrived on board and cast off, therefore, it seemed that his task was over and he was already returning to the Pilot launch. As for Cavilieri, he was in need of a rest and, taking only sufficient time to check and confirm his course of SSW, he went below and retired to his cabin.

It took just over two days for the Kimon M to cover the 400 miles to Port Said where, suddenly the Captain was once again very much in demand as he dealt with Pilots, Port Authorities, Customs Officials and all the rules, regulations and paperwork that went with the job. Then there would be the Suez Canal itself before the Captain had to consider the narrow confines of the more hazardous upper reaches of the Straits of Suez. Day after day Captain Cavilieri spent most of his time on the bridge - drinking black coffee in order to stay awake and give his personal attention to every detail of navigating his vessel safely.

These, long periods of hard concentration were taking their toll and, as the ship approached the wider and, therefore, easier to navigate, Straits of Gubal, he saw the Sinai begin to fall away to the east and the Egyptian mainland even further away to the west. Satisfied that the more dangerous stretches had been safely negotiated, the Captain finally handed over control of his ship to one of his more junior Officers and went below.

From here, it would be several days before they left the Red Sea and entered the Indian Ocean and, for the time being at least, this Captain needed some sleep. It was not long, however, before he was very rudely awoken by an event that would signal the end of his career and the end of his ship. With the engines set at Full Speed the Kimon M had driven hard onto the north east corner of Sha'b Abu Nuhas Reef. The date was December 12th 1978. A passing cargo ship - the "Interasja," immediately responded to the distress call and picked up all the crew and delivered them safely to Suez two days later.

Lloyd's List - for 13 December 1978, contained the following item:
"KIMON M. (Panamanian). Port Said Dec 12 - MV Kimon M, Iskenderun for Bombay with about 4,500 tons of Lentils, reported stranded near Safaga, exact position still to be ascertained. All crew reportedly abandoned vessel and rescued by MV Interasja, arriving Suez Dec 13-14. (Note Kimon M had passed Suez Dec. 10.)"

Lloyd's List - for 14 December 1978, updated that information:
"KIMON M. (Panamanian). London, Dec 12 - Kimon M struck wreck in position lat. 27 25N, long. 33 55 E. Strait of Gubal. Vessel requires tug assistance on Lloyd's open form (See issue of Dec 13.)"

It is not known which wreck the Kimon M claims to have hit prior to grounding. Certainly, this was almost 3 years before the Chrisoula K would go aground - but other ships are known to have grounded here and then been successfully refloated. Perhaps, one such grounded vessel gave the impression of being in deep water and the Kimon M simply meant to go around her? More importantly, of course, the position given by Lloyd's puts the Kimon M right on that north-east corner of Sha'b Abu Nuhas Reef - where she is still found to this day.

The Kimon M today
I was visiting the Red Sea as a guest of Diving World and spending a week on their luxurious live-aboard "Miss Nouran." Our Dive Guide was Geof Loe - an ex-Marine who has previously spent 15 years at sea in another career. Last time we met he was a paying customer and now he was in charge of the Diving programme. I was very impressed by his approach and overall knowledge. Clearly the past year has been a very busy one - both for him and his lovely wife Trudy - who also works for the same company, and I suddenly found myself learning a great deal.

I was especially pleased with the way in which the Miss Nouran was moored over the wrecks. Geof explained that, with prevailing winds being generally from the north, our Skipper - Captain Hassan would carefully drop the anchor onto the sand and allow the wind the push the boat gently back towards the Reef - thus presenting the dive platform right above the wreck and avoiding all contact with the Corals. The way in which these two worked closely together was very impressive - but then this Company regard both the corals and the wrecks as very important!

As reported in 1978, the initial impact drove the Kimon M K hard onto the top of the Reef where she stayed for several days. With some of the cargo recovered during the first day or so after the wrecking, that which had become contaminated with seawater was automatically abandoned. Initial surveys reported the damage to the hull to be so extensive that she was classed as a "total constructive loss" whilst still very much with her Bows up on the Reef.

Prevailing winds and currents then took their turn - in this story of how a Dive Site came about, and soon began to push the ship hard over onto her starboard side. Throughout this time, the rather extensive Bows section - all the way back to No 2 Hold, were being continually pounded until they were eventually reduced to scrap metal. The remainder of the wreck then fell back into the deeper water and came to rest at the base of the Reef - still on its starboard side.

The one final indignity to befall this ship was the salvage of large parts of the main engine. With the Salvage Tug firmly secured above the upper, port side, of the Kimon M a large hole was cut into the vessel and the main bulk of the engine removed. Today, this is exactly as the ship may be found.

Diving the Kimon M
Commencing at those Bows, storms and rough seas have now reduced these to a scattered collection of metal pieces that are largely indistinguishable from each other. The main bulk of the wreck itself, however, provides a very exciting dive. It is as though the vessel has been cut straight across the middle of No 2 hold - with scattered debris and the remains of the forward mast being all that exists in front of that cut. Immediately aft of No 2 Hold is the Engine Room and the bulkhead between the two has also disappeared. This, however, has created one of the most exciting underwater scenes it has ever been my privilege to see and photograph.

We arrived on the wreck above the port side and dropped into the hole cut by the salvage team. Looking backwards, we found the remains of the engine room - with easy access to all parts. Turning our attention forwards, however, we were looking into a large oblong box with those Divers in the distance - right at the break, neatly framed against the Reef. Between us were a small number of Batfish.

Emerging from the hole, we then followed the port side all the way down towards the stern where we found a large single propeller and rudder (remember the Olden had two!). From here we made our way around the very distinctive and pointed stern to the rear decks. This area is of particular interest because the vessel rests so perfectly on her starboard side offering a variety of different dives to cater for all levels of experience. For the more able Diver, there is penetration through the various accommodation blocks right down into the engine room - whereas, for others, the vessel offers an investigation of numerous external features which include the stern, a swim into open cargo holds, those same accommodation blocks and, of course, the Bridge.

Being the least damaged section, many features of the stern remain intact complete with bollards, capstans and railings etc. The decks themselves are, of course, vertical, and are already well colonised by small outcrops of coral and all the popular Fishes one might expect to find on the nearby Reef. Away from the decks, the main masts lie parallel to the seabed and one of the main booms still defies the inevitable laws of gravity and reaches straight upwards to within 6m of the surface.

At the front of the Wreck, the seabed at the base of the Reef is between 25-27m. The hole in the port side is at 17m from where everything gets gradually deeper until one reaches the stern where the seabed is at 32m.

For me, that view of No 2 Hold from within the engine room was the best part of the wreck. This is closely followed by that Engine Room itself which, in spite of the main engine having been salvaged, leaves much for the Diver to see and explore. There are pressure valves, gate valves, vents, dials and gauges of all sizes on each and every side. There are pipes and railings stretching in every direction, steel ladders - now canted over at the wrong angle, and metal walk-ways now on their side. Altogether, they add to the experience as the Diver tries to visualise what it was like when the Chief Engineer and his staff went about their work.

Of course, the vessel has long been regarded as a natural extension of the nearby Reef and, early in the morning, Tuna and Jacks can be seen darting madly into shoals of smaller fishes as they feed. In the late afternoon, however, it is the turn of the Grouper. During the intervening hours of daylight, many of the more richly coloured Reef Fishes have made the Kimon M their home as the vessel slowly continues it's transformation from man made object to Coral Reef - until, that day when it will inevitably disappear forever under the weight of nature.

By then, of course, she will have become a long-forgotten part of Egypt's rich maritime history.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Travel: Ned Middleton travelled with Diving World. For more details contact:

Diving World
Bank Chambers
6 Borough High Street
LONDON SE1 9QQ.
Tel: 020 7407 0019
Fax: 020 7378 1108

Dive Suits: The water temperature in the Egyptian north Red Sea is cooler than most people realise - as low as 16-18°C in winter. A full wetsuit is always best - though many prefer dry suits.

Misc: Bring all your own film, batteries, toiletries and medicines - local stocks can be limited with some items being old and out of date.

Electricity: 220 volts AC with the Continental two-pin system is found in the Hotels but do check the power supply on your Boat.

Currency: Local Currency is the Egyptian Pound (E£). Although exchange rates fluctuate, a good approximation is E£ 5o6 to UK £1. Sterling, DM and US $ are all widely accepted.

Language: The official language is Arabic with English being widely spoken.

Time: GMT + 2 Hrs.