Five Fantastic Red Sea Shipwreck Dives
When asked what defines scuba diving in the Red Sea, most divers are destined to reply with animated stories of stunning coral gardens, clear water, and diverse marine life. I am in full agreement with this mainstream view. And yet, I now know that there is more.
A recent trip to Egypt added a new dimension to my Red Sea experience, broadening my perspective to embrace the narrative of that species known as Humanus shipwrecktus. They passionately insist it is the submerged history, those stories secreted away in the shadowy remains of its sunken ships, that elevate the Red Sea to its well-deserved reputation as a world class diving destination. Dozens of vessels await your discovery. There are ships from the Age of Steam, maritime casualties of the Second World War, and modern-day watercraft only recently lost. Some are shallow and mellow, while others challenge tec divers.
Here are five of the many fantastic shipwrecks in Egypt’s remarkable Red Sea.
A diver explores between the decks inside the SS Carnatic, which sank in 1969. Rumors persist a few gold coins onboard were not recovered and away discovery.
If rumors of buried treasure aren’t enough to lure you to explore this classic steamship built in 1862, the biological treasures colonizing the Carnatic should be. Brilliant soft corals and hard corals grow on the outside of the ship’s skeleton and clouds of silvery glassfish shimmer inside between decks. Now underwater for more than 150 years, this 297-foot-long British vessel has transformed into a thriving artificial reef, very much an extension of the same Abu Nuhas coral reef which, combined with human error, caused the vessel’s demise in the middle of the night in September 1869. Captain Jones’s navigational mistake resulted in the loss of 31 lives (5 passengers and 26 crew). Enroute from Alexandria to India, the ship’s non-human cargo was cotton, copper sheeting, Royal mail, wine, and a fortune in gold coins, or “specie,” whose value today would convert to several million British pounds. Though the copper was salvaged by enterprising Bedouin freedivers—Abu Nuhas in the Arabic language translates into “Copper Reef”—a Lloyds of London recovery effort secured the mail and the gold (all of it, according to official reports!) Alas.
This is an intermediate level dive with depths between 50 and 90 feet. Orientation is straightforward; the wreck lies pretty much in a straight line, though listing hard to port, and visibility is usually excellent. Carnatic is visited by some day boats from Hurghada and of course the many liveaboards plying the northern Red Sea. So long underwater, the ship’s wooden planking and superstructure have disintegrated, but be sure to swim through the vertical iron supports to explore inside the ship. The view in the bow section is very cool looking out of the circular copper ring through which the bowsprit once protruded. And hovering in the space between decks towards the stern made me feel like I was inside the ribcage of a giant beast. All in all, it’s a superlative dive. Noted underwater photojournalist and Red Sea shipwreck historian Ned Middleton mentioned that the Carnatic “is probably one of the finest examples of a ship of her time to be found underwater anywhere in the world.”
Also called the Tile Wreck, the Chrisoula K sank in 1981 on tis way to Jeddah. The bow is on a reef slope in about 10 feet of water, and the maximum depth is approximately 80 feet at the stern.
Another ship falling victim to the problematic placement of Abu Nuhas Reef in the middle of an oft-traveled shipping channel is the Greek-registered freighter Chrisoula K. This German built, 323-foot-long cargo vessel was on its way from the Mediterranean, via the Suez Canal, to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia heavily laden with many tons of fine Italian floor tiles. Hence its nickname, the Tile Wreck. Thankfully no lives were lost when it ran aground at night on August 31, 1981. All crew were rescued without injury. Once again, the captain—or his officers—are thought to be responsible for the calamity, not bad weather. There certainly was no lack of sophisticated navigational technology when compared with the Carnatic more than a century earlier. It’s almost as if submerged, triangular-shaped Abu Nuhas reef and nearby Shadwan Island are the Bermuda Triangle of the Red Sea. At least six additional ships have met their ends here, including Kimon M and Giannis D, both regularly dived today by wreck afficionados.
I found this site to be particularly productive in terms of photography. Spend at least two dives here if possible as there are numerous photogenic setups. Back at the stern in about 85 feet is the intact propeller. Whereas most of the ship is upright, the rearmost quarter rests on its starboard side, making the prop and rudder shot obvious and impactful. Stacks of the square, still-bundled tiles—moodily illuminated by natural light pouring through holes in the hull—can be seen in the holds. The engine room is a must for those with the lust for rust who have the necessary training and experience to safely penetrate into this overhead environment. Ask your guide to show you the drill press in the workshop and the oven in the kitchen. (I missed them on my first tank!) To round out the dive(s), make use of your safety stop by shooting the stately, coral encrusted bow in just 12 feet of water. Intriguing and mysterious sidenote: Some have posited that this ship is actually the Marcus, and that the real Chrisoula K lies deeper below…
A railway engine wheel rests on the wreck of the Numidia, a 137-meter British cargo ship that can in 1901 off the northen end of Big Brothers Island.
Beyond the reach of dayboats, the remote Brothers Islands in the middle of the Red Sea are liveaboard-only territory. Low-lying and barren above the waterline, the two Brothers below are a marine park renowned for plunging walls, potentially strong currents, prolific fish life, and sharks. Humanus shipwrecktus will also be especially keen to visit the Numidia and Aida wrecks off the northern corner of Big Brother Island. I personally prefer the former, a huge British cargo ship now cemented to the reef at a gravity-defying angle, almost straight up and down from 25 feet deep to a dizzying 240-plus. The new Numidia was on but its second voyage, proudly cruising through a warm July night in 1901, its impressive triple-expansion steam engine propelling its considerable 454-foot length and 6,399 tons along at a respectable 10 knots, when it smashed into the Island. Within clear sight of the active lighthouse just 400 yards away! The Officer-of-the-Watch had most likely fallen asleep at the wheel, one hour into his shift.
For those with the requisite skills and gear, a deep dive to, or at least toward, the Numidia’s stern could be rewarding. From 150 feet downward, noteworthy nautical scenery include the towering king mast, holds 3 and 4, the aft castle, and beneath the rounded poop deck, the rudder and propeller at more than 240 fsw. Exploring these serious depths is more about surveying ship structure than marine life, which is fairly sparse. From 150 feet upward, however, small but bright soft corals carpet most metal surfaces, glowing under your torch light. When the current is just right, they bloom in rainbowed hues. Because the often strong north to south prevailing current is mostly blocked by the ship’s port hull, it is generally best to position oneself on the starboard side to comfortably view the bridge area, forward hold with its open ventilation hatches, and the vibrant wreck-become-reef at the top. Orange anthias fish flutter over deck winches and twisted metal, while coral grouper and barracuda predators patrol the fields of cauliflower coral and lionfish lurk in the nooks and crannies. Admiring the iconic, massive railway engine wheels in 30 feet and lovely coral gardens in the shallows is a perfect way to finish your tour of the Numidia.
The Salem Express, a 330-foot passenger ferry, sits between 35 and 100 feet of water. More than 300 people died in the 1991 shipwreck, and opinions are split on whether people should dive the wreck today. Some reuse to dive the ship out of respect for those who perished, while others pay their respects underwater. The vessel should not be penetrated as there are human remains within.
Every shipwreck has stories to tell. Some are truly tragic. The Salem Express’ voyage of celebration ended in unimaginable grief. Full of devout pilgrims having just visited Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the 330-foot passenger ferry was nearing its home port of Safaga on December 16, 1991 when gale force winds and near-zero visibility led an experienced captain to make a disastrous midnight miscalculation. Weaving through the labyrinthine Hyndman Reefs close to the Red Sea’s western shore, a shortcut to Safaga from the south rather than the much longer northerly approach through deeper, open water, the ship hit a reef and began taking on huge volumes of water immediately, listing sharply to starboard. Panic ensued. Chaos reigned. The crew never even had the chance to deploy the lifeboats and rafts. Twenty minutes later the vessel was on the bottom 100 feet down. Four hundred seventy of the 650 people onboard died. One hundred eighty survived. Many of these somehow managed to weather the storm, tread water, and drift to shore through the nightmare.
To some, this wreck poses a difficult ethical question. Knowing what we do about this story, this history, should we even be scuba diving here? By doing so, are we trespassing, or disrespecting the dead and their ravaged families who were awaiting their return? Though this ship is often dived today by both day boats and liveaboards, most guides prohibit any penetration by their guests. (Many of the ship’s inside compartments were also sealed off by the Egyptian Navy after recovering some, but far from all, of the bodies.) The diving community is definitely split on the matter of tourism here. For example, a buddy of mine has traveled the globe in a quest logging hundreds of dives on wrecks large and small, famous and obscure. But he excused himself from joining me underwater on the Salem Express when I chose to drop down into a silence made deafening after listening to our cruise director’s site briefing. I paid my solemn respects alongside the vessel’s empty lifeboats, and then swam slowly past a television set, a very 1980s stereo boombox, a suitcase. These normally meaningless, mundane items almost unworthy of notice were now, here, profoundly important. My mind flooded with the horror of what the owners of these artifacts must have experienced on that terrible night 30 years ago. Ninety-five feet under the sea, I wrestled with the gravity of it all.
Motorcycles stacked in the back of trucks in Hold 22 on the SS Thistlegorm, which sank in the northern Red Sea in the Straits of Gubal in 1941 during World War II.
The most popular shipwreck in the Red Sea, and undisputedly among the very best wreck dives in all the world, is the SS Thistlegorm. An entire book could be written on this single vessel; suffice to say, it is a must-see for all visiting Egypt. The 417-foot-long, 59-foot-wide armed freighter rests in just over 100 feet of water near Sha’ab Ali, in the Straits of Gubal to the west of the Sinai Peninsula’s southern tip. Purpose-built to serve in the British fleet during World War II, her promising career was cut short at 01:30 hours on October 6, 1941 when a German Heinkel He 111 aircraft buzzed low and dropped two bombs onto the completely unsuspecting Thistlegorm. (This had supposedly been a safe anchorage, “off the radar” of the Axis forces in the region. The ship’s crew had been anchored here for two weeks waiting for clearance to continue their northward mission.) It was a perfect strike. The bombs hit just aft of the bridge, detonating some of the ship’s considerable cargo of munitions earmarked to resupply the British army. The resulting explosion ripped open the boat and down she went. Nine of the 48 men onboard perished.
Legendary underwater explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau discovered the wreck and was first to dive it in 1955, bringing a remarkable chapter of wartime history to the world stage in a 1956 edition of National Geographic. Cousteau kept the ship’s exact location under wraps, however, and it was not until the early 1990s that it was rediscovered by the diving masses and became the scuba phenomenon that it is today. Day boats from Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh come here, as do liveaboards. Dozens of divers may be in the water at once. Visiting via liveaboard and splashing early in the morning can help minimize diver traffic.
What is everyone coming to see? The cargo! The Thistlegorm is packed to the gills with treasures including tanks and other vehicles, giant shells and other ammunition, land mines, rifles, and airplane wings. I was spellbound with the motorcycles, Morris jeeps, and Bedford trucks in Hold 2 on the two decks between 60 and 80 feet. There’s something indescribably otherworldly about seeing these military land machines under the waves with red soldierfish swimming about and a curious broomtail wrasse following me around. The huge 40-mm anti-aircraft gun and 4.7-inch machine gun on the stern deck were also highlights. And the locomotive off in the sand on the port side... What is it doing so far away from the ship? Well, the colossal explosion blew this multi-ton train (and another one on the starboard) completely off the deck some 100 feet laterally through the water to its current parking place. Imagine the destructive force of that explosion that doomed this ship. Imagine what the crew of the Thistlegorm saw, and heard, and felt.
Shipwrecks are windows into the past, portals capable of transporting divers back in time and thereby creating connections to people and events we never knew in life but can now feel all around us.
The author recommends Ned Middleton’s excellent book “Shipwrecks from the Egyptian Red Sea” for both inspiration to explore these wrecks and the astounding amount of detailed background information. Cole visited all five of the ships mentioned in this article, as well as additional shipwrecks, while onboard Emperor Divers liveaboards.