Where Shipwrecks are Commonplace
by Ned (Mr. Wreck) Middleton
The Straits of Tiran are located at the interface between the north Egyptian Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. This is a fascinating destination for divers dominated by four outstanding Reefs located right in the middle of those Straits. Without their presence, the Straits would have been narrow enough, but those Reefs make the navigable channels all the more treacherous. From north to south, they are called Jackson, Woodhouse, Thomas and Gordon Reef and it says much about local seafaring conditions that Jackson Gordon Reefs are marked by the remains of the shipwrecks Lara and Loullia respectively
For large surface traffic, these Reefs act as a "Keep to the Right" direction indicator by demanding that Traffic inbound for the Gulf of Aqaba follows the eastern Grafton Passage - next to Tiran Island, and outbound traffic uses the Enterprise Channel to the west.
With the waters surrounding these reefs being much deeper than elsewhere in the Egyptian Red Sea, one has to look close inshore for shipwrecks and here the diver will find vessels which, by comparison, are relatively un-dived.
This ship was built in Japan in 1972 as a Bulk Carrier of 26,181 grt and launched as the "Ryusei Maru." She is a very large ship with 5 cargo holds and 4 massive cranes towering above her decks. She was powered by two 6 Cylinder diesel engines capable of producing an incredible 11,600 bhp and a top speed of 17 knots. Her dimensions were 174.6m x 24.8m with a draught of 10m.
The ship was renamed several times during her lifetime and, in 1996, she was purchased by the Aksonas Shipping Co Ltd of Limassol, Cyprus for 136 million, renamed "Million Hope" and promptly insured for 41 Million. Just six weeks later, however, she was to become a constructive total loss.
Loaded with a 26,000 tonne cargo of Potash and Phosphates, the Million Hope sailed from Aqaba on 19 June 1996 - only to strike the inshore Reef near Nabq (a few miles north of Naama Bay) in the early hours of the following morning. The 25 man crew were all safely rescued and the Master was later blamed for the loss.
The Million Hope lies approx. 3 miles northwest of Jackson Reef. She is upright with her keel resting on the seabed at between 22 - 24m. Her decks are awash and her superstructure out of the water. The cargo was salvaged leaving the vessel largely intact. Although she is seen from several miles away, she is generally overlooked by divers.
At the bows the diver will find clear evidence of the impact with the bulbous nose having been bent back into the ships hull. At the stern, the four blades on the massive single propeller are each bent hard over. The huge Rudder was snapped clean away from its mountings and lies nearby on the seabed.
The after deck is only in 4-5m of water where the diver will find a large open deck hatch allowing access to the ships interior. Here Not far from this entrance is an enormous Engine Room with engines still in place and a very clear exit out into No 5 hold. It is a long and very interesting swim all the way back to the Bows at deck level but this is a journey which can only be undertaken when sea conditions permit. Along the way, the diver can venture into any one of the holds and, having seen one, you have certainly seen them all. The Bows were particularly interesting, spoilt only because they were the most shallow aspect of the entire dive.
Most curious of all, however, is that on both sides of the ship the diver will find evidence of another vessel - the Hey Daroma, an earlier and much smaller vessel which was almost completely obliterated when the Million Hope settled - right on top of her.
The Hey Daroma
Built in Ardrossan, the "Hey Daroma" was launched in August 1940 and displaced 1,736 grt. She possessed a single action 8 Cylinder engine capable of producing 2,500 bhp and a top speed of 14 Knots. On the night of 3rd September 1970, the Hey Daroma sailed from Eilat with a cargo of water and some time later struck the same inshore Reef that would claim the Million Hope 26 years later. The crew were safely rescued before several attempts were made to refloat the vessel including one where they tried to "push" the wreck off the reef using large tractors. Eventually, however, she was abandoned as a constructive total loss.
Over successive winters the Hey Daroma eventually made her own way back to the sea and for many years was to be found in two pieces. Her bows were on the very edge of the reef top. The remainder of the hull was a reported as being upside down at the base of the reef in 20-24m of water. In 1996, however, the Million Hope came to rest right on top of the hull of the Hey Daroma - leaving almost no trace of the much smaller vessel - except for her bows which can still be seen on the reef a few metres in front of those of the Million Hope.
Built in France, the Agia Varvara was launched in 1950. She was a freighter of 985 grt with a 5 cylinder oil-fired engine capable of producing a top speed of 10 Knots. The Agia Varvara was owned and operated by the Gestar Shipping Company of Famagusta, Cyprus at the time of her loss. On 27 June 1976, the Agia Varvara sailed in ballast from the Jordanian port of Aqaba heading for Port Said. In the early hours of the following morning, however, she drove hard onto the inshore Reef a few miles north of Sharm El Sheikh. The crew were all rescued by the Israeli Navy.
A combination of a relatively shallow attitude and an exposed position mean that after 25 years the vessel is now rather broken up. The stern is found resting on the seabed at 20m and pointing up the reef. The brass fittings are still in place - as is the very bent propeller. The rudder, however, is found on the seabed a short distance away. Above the stern, the diver is able to investigate inside the lower part of the bridge castle. Curiously, a large portion of the engines lie exposed on the reef at 6-8m.
Nearby is another large section of superstructure, complete with funnel. This is the upper part of the bridge castle which has become entirely separated and now rests on the seabed at 20m. On the side of the ships funnel is an open access door.
Certainly, the Agia Varvara is not one of Egypts greatest shipwrecks - and, as far as visiting this wreck is concerned, she does suffer from being in a remote location. Of course, she is where she is, and everything considered, provides a refreshing alternative to those shipwrecks which have been systematically looted by those who think only of themselves. It was interesting to discover that Paolo - with all his vast experience of the area, was not the only local Dive Guide who had never dived this wreck before my visit.
This General Cargo vessel was built by VEB Schiffwerft in their Neptun yard at Rostock, in the former East Germany and launched as the "Kormoran" in 1963. Her name was later changed to "Adamastos" until, in 1980, another change of owner saw her renamed Zingara.
A rather smart ship of 1,582 grt, her dimensions were 82.4m x 12.6m with a draught of 4.25m. The Zingaras hull was "ice-strengthened" and comprised 2 cargo holds forward with engine room and bridge located at the stern. She was powered by a 6 cylinder diesel engine capable of producing 1,365 bhp and a top speed of 12 knots. The Zingara was owned and operated by Montemare di Navigazione S.p.a. and registered in Naples at the time of her loss.
The Zingara sailed from Aqaba on 21st August 1984 with a cargo of Phosphate Rock. The following day she ran aground on Laguna Reef immediately north east of Jackson Reef and was subsequently declared a total constructive loss. Certain factors have given cause for considerable speculation about her loss.
With the "outbound" traffic required to keep to the right (i.e. to the west of the centrally placed Reefs), it was more than a little strange that the fully loaded Zingara hit the reef on the eastern side of the Straits - making her more than a little off course. Furthermore, any inspection of the wreckage will reveal the simple fact that this ship struck the reef with such considerable force as to be driven hard onto the reef removing her bottom completely.
Leaving speculation to one side, even with the name "Kormoran" permanently etched in large steel letters on her bows, her true identity remained something of a mystery for many years. One published account of this ship even describes this wreck (under the name Kormoran) as a large Bulk Carrier!, and goes on to describe the Zingara as an entirely different ship - lost several miles away...
Whilst the Zingara is very broken up, everything seems to be neatly laid out between bows and stern - as though she had be deliberately arranged by some giant hand. A small part of the stern breaks the surface - acting as a marker for the wreck. From here, and in every direction, the diver is treated to a magnificent underwater terrain of hard corals at their finest with many now growing on the wreck. There are also some really spectacular Napoleon Wrasse - we saw five incredible specimens on our very first dive.
The stern rests over on its starboard side with railings and bollards still adorning the after deck Below these the rudder and propeller are still in place. This then gives way to large sections of ship no longer in their rightful place. First of these is what remains of the bridge castle - complete with two very large brass portholes - and it is always a joy to investigate wrecks that have not been looted.
Elsewhere, large steel plates lies across the seabed with deck winches lying upside down on which hard corals are firmly established. One of two masts lies across the seabed - pointing towards the open sea. Next the diver will find a very large section which is upside down and also complete with handrails. This was part of the forward decks and leads immediately to the focsle - which is the right way up. The large windlass and the two anchor chains are all still there - and everything covered in yet more hard corals. Over on the port side, the raised steel letters "KORMOR" are easily seen although the "A" and "N" are obscured by yet more coral. This part of the ship creates a most fascinating scene. It is almost as though the deck had been removed from the hull and laid on top of the reef and, being the way it is, it is easy to imagine the rest of the ship as being still there.
Altogether, the Bows and Stern are the most photogenic aspects of the entire wreck - which has a lot to offer the serious diver as that second or even third dive of the day after deeper dives elsewhere.
As already mentioned, the northernmost and southernmost of the four central reefs are dominated by the shipwrecks Lara and Loullia respectively. Please note, the correct spelling is Loullia and not Louilla as shown in an earlier article of mine - and for which I apologise. Although she has begun to break up over the past 2 winters, the Loullia (3,461 grt and wrecked in 1981) still remains high and dry on top of the reef and is, therefore, of no interest as far as actual diving is concerned. The Lara, however, is very different.
When I first saw the Lara, I thought something was very strange about the way in which she appeared to have been "salvaged." I was convinced there was more to this vessel because she was different from any other wreck I had ever seen abandoned up on top of a reef.
The Lara has been stripped to such an extent that, on the surface at least, there now remains nothing more than a framework of metal with no superstructure whatsoever. I may not be a salvage expert, but I have seen many abandoned vessels and I have come to learn that the removal of steel plates from any vessel wrecked in a remote location is rarely, if ever, justifiable because the expense involved is far greater than the value of the metal recovered. If things were different, surely the 26,000 tonne Million Hope would have been stripped bare long ago.
The Lara was a Cypriot freighter of 4,752 grt built in Germany and launched in 1956. In November 1982 she sailed from Aqaba and drove hard onto Jackson Reef where she became stuck fast. Almost immediately rumours began about an insurance fraud - an allegation supported by the discovery of only sufficient fuel on board to reach the reef on which she foundered. It was also claimed that somebody remained on board the stricken vessel for over 2 years - giving rise to further allegations in connection with drug trafficking.
In later years, it seems that people were in the habit of boarding the wreck to help themselves to whatever bits and pieces they could remove and this, apparently became something of a problem for the Egyptian authorities. Although the actual date is not clear, it would seem that in 1996 (although it may have been some years earlier), those authorities ordered the Lara "demolished" - a most interesting development as far as diving is concerned.
In February 2001, Paolo Guiotto was leading dive along the reef immediately below the Lara. It was a route he had taken many times before and one that he does whenever sea conditions permit. On this occasion, however, the light penetration was also perfect and, looking down, he saw wreckage. He decided to investigate at some later date. Although the prevailing sea conditions prevented a return for some weeks, Paolo did send me details of his "find" and I began a routine investigation process. I was also very excited at the prospect of a "brand new wreck" also resolved to return at the earliest
This came about in June and our priority was one of identification. After two dives, however, we realised that we were looking at the rest of the Lara - and the most interesting bits at that... Slowly but surely, as we inspected the wreckage, it became quite apparent that the ship had been cut into very large sections and then simply pulled down and dropped over the reef. And when I say "very large sections" I mean very large sections.
The first of these was part of the stern, complete with propeller, at a depth of 53m. This was followed at 61m by the most curious cross-section of a ship I have ever seen. It was as though a giant knife had sliced through the vessel from top to bottom - right through the Bridge all the way to the keel. At the base we could clearly see the curved shape of the double hull with a ladder leading upwards to a straight line across from left to right. Next to this was another ladder which stretched up to the next deck level and, above this was yet a third ladder which seemed to reach up to the bridge. It was a fascinating sight which reminded me of one of the cross-sectional drawings from one of those very detailed books about the Titanic - though on a much smaller scale of course.
Incredibly, the sections cut away and dumped over the reef provide the most experienced of divers with a shipwreck just waiting to be explored. Whenever I see a wreck high-and-dry up on top of a reef, I often say to myself "What a waste of a good dive site!" - but not in this case. The best of the Lara is underwater and provides a most fascinating, albeit very deep and advanced, dive.
About the Straits
As an all-round Scuba Diving destination, the Straits of Tiran are quite exceptional. In addition to what I can only describe as some truly varied shipwrecks, we swam with Turtle on three occasions - the largest of which stayed with us for over 20 minutes (and there was I - out of film again!). This is also where Hammerhead Sharks are now regularly encountered and the largest Napoleon Wrasse make a daily appearance. Altogether, therefore, the Straits of Tiran has something for everyone. Do enjoy.
Dive Suits: The water temperature in the Egyptian north Red Sea is cooler than most people realise - as low as 16-18C in winter. A full wetsuit is always best - though some people prefer dry suits.
Misc: Bring all your own film, batteries, toiletries and medicines - although Naama Bay is quite good, local stocks can be limited with some items being out of date.
Electricity: 220 volts AC with the Continental two-pin system is found in the Hotels and Boats - but do check the power supply beforehand.
Currency: Local Currency is the Egyptian Pound (E). Although exchange rates fluctuate, a good approximation is E 52 to UK 1. Sterling, DM and US$ are all widely accepted and the much needed "Hole in the Wall" facility exists in Main Street Na'ama Bay
Language: The official language is Arabic with English and other languages widely spoken.
Time: GMT + 2 Hrs.
Photographic: There are several shops in Na'ama Bay for processing films and a few facilities offering a limited selection of underwater cameras for hire.
Traders: Local traders will approach and try to sell their wares. They can be quite persistent but are always polite. By all means buy, but if you do not require anything - be firm but also polite.
Travel: My itinerary was arranged by Scubaway and I stayed at the Karamana Hotel in Naama Bay.
Scubaway, Aeolian House, 128a Church Road, HOVE, E. Sussex, BN3 2EA .Tel: (01273) 746261. Fax: (01273) 735419
Airline: Flights were by Monarch Airlines - An excellent service and very helpful with excess baggage requirements.
Diving: TGI Sinai can be contacted through Scubaway.