The poignant wreck of the Salem Express, scene of one of the worlds worst maritime disasters, makes an impressive and unforgettable dive, explains Kurt Amsler.
|Although its some years since it met its tragic fate, divers are bound to be profoundly moved by the Salem Express. And it goes without saying that visitors to wreck must act with the utmost respect, due to the many hundreds of people who perished here so tragically.
The Salem Express was a sizeable roll-on roll-off car ferry, hefty but also angular, with two huge engines. Its sheer size makes the wreck an awe-inspiring sight and, as it lies in comparatively shallow water, divers can make their way right round it and thoroughly explore the deck and the ships superstructures.
Disaster struck close to midnight on 15 December 1991, when the Salem Express, crowded with passengers returning from Mecca, hit one of the banks of coral that just break the surface south of Hyndman Reef, off Safaga in the Egyptian Red Sea. The collision left a gaping hole in the forward part of the hull, and caused the huge stern door to burst open.
The ferry immediately began to take on enormous quantities of water through the two openings and in a matter of minutes the 100m-long vessel was swallowed up by the sea.
According to official figures, there were 690 passengers on the Salem Express, and only 180 survivors. However, there are claims that many more passengers were on board than were listed, and that as many as 1600 people perished in the tragedy.
The Salem Express now lies on its starboard side at the foot of the reef, with its deepest part in 30m and its port side 10m from the surface.
The dive starts from the stern, which, thanks to its massive square shape, can be made out even at some distance. The huge port-side propeller is an awesome object, although it hasnt yet been colonised by marine life. By contrast, the starboard propeller is lying under the hull, away from the light, and is adorned in soft red corals. Those on its hub and blades in particular have grown to an impressive size.
Once over the rail on the port side of the vessel, head for the well-preserved main deck and poop deck. Light conditions here are at their best in the morning. By afternoon, this area is in shadow. As you come to the stern, youll see a metal structure that was once the deck roofing; bollards and mooring cables, airducts and a winch are still clearly visible.
After reaching the first super-structures, continue for about 15m on to the poop deck, where youll see the two davits.
Next, fin along the bulwarks on the starboard side, down to deeper water. Youll eventually come across the lifeboats, now lying on the seabed but still roped to
the ship - chilling evidence of the speed with which the Salem Express went down. Numerous pieces of the sheet-metal roofing have broken away and lie scattered on the bottom.
From a distance, you can also make out the ships two enormous funnels, each emblazoned on both sides with a huge letter S set in a laurel wreath.
From this point, its about 20m to the upper deck, straight up above the main deck. On the roof, you can see antennae and a large radar device facing - now blankly - out towards the open sea.
At this stage of the dive, youll be facing the foredeck and the main door. If you continue to explore along the ships port-side bulwarks, you eventually come
to the sternpost, which suffered serious damage. And just nearby is a huge anchor, hanging from the hawsehole.
When preparing your ascent, your best route is to swim along the port-side rail, where the water is about 10m deep. Your remaining supply of air should be more than sufficient to let you surface at your leisure.
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