Volume II, Number 6 June 1st, 2001
Wreck Diving in the Egyptian Red Sea
By: Ned Middleton
The Red Sea is famous among divers - and quite rightly so. As a professional underwater photo-journalist who gets paid for each item published, I endeavour to return home from each trip with a maximum number of potential articles, and this is how I learned about shipwrecks. The Egyptian Red Sea is home to some of the most magnificent coral reef formations that I have been privileged to see. Describing where the diver might find masses of hard corals, or the best place to see soft corals or perhaps sharks or turtle is, however, subject matter for a single article about the Red Sea as a whole..
On the other hand, when it comes to shipwrecks, Egypt has more than its fair share and each of these has a very individual story to tell. Curiously, up to about 3 years ago, many of these were not well documented at all.
One of the tasks that is very much associated 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 vitally important - so much so that, for instance, I find it utterly incredulous that at least one guidebook published in 1999 still describes the "SS Kingston" as the "Sarah H."
Similarly, there are those who claim to know of no fewer than 7 wrecks on Shab Abu Nuhas Reef whereas seasoned travelers are familiar with only four - all of which are outstanding wreck dives, which lay across the northern shore of this treacherous piece of real estate. The western-most is the well-known "Giannis D" which was launched as the "Shoyo Maru" and later became the "Markos" before adopting her final name. There are still those who insist on incorrectly calling this ship the "Markos" and whilst that in itself is not a problem, false rumors of another vessel called the "Marcus" have led more than one researcher off onto a false trail.
The Giannis D So already we have two names for one ship. The next shipwreck along this stretch is the "Carnatic" and no problems there. Then there is the "Chrisoula K" which was launched as the "Dora Oldendorf" and is regularly called the "Olden" because that part of her previous name is still outlined on the hull. Clearly size does not matter here because the "Chrisoula K" was a vessel of 3,720 gross registered tons and the "Olden" a 27,288 ton bulk carrier which sank on 2nd February 1987 in the open Red Sea and is now found in over 3,300 feet of water.
The Chrisoula K The final wreck on this particular reef has, for some unknown reason, been known as the "Seastar" for a good many years. I have no idea from where that name originated and can find no trace of any "Seastar" ever having been lost in the Red Sea. Her real name is the "Kimon M" and she is very similar - in terms of size and age, to the "Chrisoula K". So there it is, four wrecks that have seven names still in regular use and even published.
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" is known as the "Wood Wreck" because of her cargo of sawn timber, the "Carnatic" is the "Wine Wreck" on account of the bottles that were recovered, the "Chrisoula K" became the "Tile Wreck" and the "Kimon M" is the "Lentil Wreck."
The Kimon M
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.
Similarly, last year, I was informed that a leading German magazine had published an account of another shipwreck - the "Carlisle," a secret wreck site apparently somewhere north of the "Thistlegorm." Of course, I have no way of knowing whether or not any vessel actually exists, but it is interesting to note that, in 1941, the survivors of the "Thistlegorm" were rescued by HMS Carlisle - a Light Cruiser of 4,190 tons which was later damaged by enemy fire in the Mediterranean where her career as a warship came to an end.
So, why all the secrecy? Sadly some divers keeps their new finds secret until they have stripped the vessel of all the attractive items - and in contravention of Egyptian law. There are also those who claim to know the location of a secret wreck site when nothing actually exists. Finally, there are those divers who keep the details of their new find a secret until they are able to become the first into print with full details - and I expect to be joining this group after my next trip to Egypt in June when I shall be able to confirm (or otherwise) the results of our research.
The truth about any wrecked ship is largely obtained through thorough and painstaking research and a fear of going into print with the wrong information (remember: reputations are hard to build and easy to ruin). In short, one must be as sure of ones facts as is possible to achieve.
Looking at the Egyptian Red Sea objectively, I would say that this is one tourist destination with a very bright future. On land, things are changing at an incredible pace and the numbers of flights continue to increase with each successive season. As far the sea is concerned, the underwater flora and fauna are already well protected and thankfully, divers do seem to be generally more and more aware of their responsibilities in this regard - we do not collect shells or coral and we no longer hand-feed fish. There is still, however, considerable more education required when it comes to shipwrecks and I do fear for the future of the Thistlegorm. Having said that, attitudes towards taking souvenirs are changing and many of todays divers are quick to rebuke any fellow traveler who appears to be intent on breaking the rules.
If I have any ambition here, it would be to be amongst the first to visit a virgin shipwreck - complete with bell, binnacle and telegraphs all in place, and then report this find in national (and even international) diving magazines so that others might share the same experience. I would then like to return after a year or so had passed and find all those artefacts still in place. If ever that were to happen I would be satisfied in the knowledge that I had helped a maximum number of people to enjoy the same experience as myself. Such an ambition may even be realised later this month (June 2001) - so watch this space for an update.
Neds More detailed bio.
My first 17 years as a Scuba Diver were whilst I was serving in the Army. Teaching those Gurkhas was, therefore, a very pleasant change from the norm. I finally retired in May 1993 and became a professional underwater photo-journalist. I have 3 books published and they are called:
Ten Years Underwater
Diving Belize (published by Aqua Quest in the USA and available through Amazon books (go to their web-site and look up the book and the "5 star" customer review rating).
Maltese Islands Diving Guide. (published in July 1997 in Italy and now available in 4 languages (English, French, German, Italian). This book sold over 25,000 copies in the 3 years to December 2000. This means I am the author of a "Best Seller!"
For the past 3 years I have been working on a new book about the shipwrecks of the Egyptian Red Sea. This largely came about because I could find no truly accurate accounts of these fantastic shipwrecks. For example one very popular book uses photographs of 3 different wrecks to illustrate a wreck called the "Seastar" when no such wreck exists.. Then there are all the misnomers - such as that favourite "Sarah H." I intend to explain away and, therefore, destroy all these many myths which cause so much confusion. I will include only the accurate and up to date information and, in so doing, I am able to reveal new information on already well-established wrecks. I am confident I have finally also finally identified the unknown cargo boat at Zabargad Island (and that has been a 3 year search!) and, as already stated above, I shall be visiting a newly discovered shipwreck 14-28 June.
Such definitive works take considerable time and this new book runs to a "two volume set" totalling 20 Chapters. I have already completed over 45,000 words and a marine artist of the highest standing has agreed to illustrate the book which should be completed by the end of the year and, hopefully on sale in mid 2002.