|Weve tied up right onto her deck area. Ahmed spoke in a strange, almost French-sounding accent. He looked weary. One of the hardest-grafting skippers in the Red Sea, he had been working to find us new, exciting dive sites. We had already dived two, and now we were at a spot some12 miles north of Ras Banas in the southern Egyptian Red Sea, about to explore a third.|
Its a very nice wreck, I promise you, he said, grinning widely. A man of few words, Ahmed never revealed much about his sites. He seemed to enjoy creating suspense. We lined up at the back of the boat like schoolkids on a day out, desperate to discover what lay beneath. OK, you can go now, he cried, and one by one we plunged over the side.
It was late June, the water pleasantly warm. My heart was pumping, adrenalin flowing freely. How complete would the wreck be, would I have time to take it all in
Visibility was good and, just a few metres down, the outline of a ship began to appear. Mid-morning sunlight floodlit the enormous shape, lying on a sloping sandy bottom. To my left a mast reached towards the surface. Down on my right I could discern the outline of a ventilation duct towering up from the deck.
Finning closer, I could see a large section of superstructure collapsed onto the deck and lying at 45 to it, looking rather odd.
The side facing me had five square windows complete with deadlight covers, all encrusted in coral. Three were stuck wide open, the others sealed tight. Could this have been the bridge A series of fuel pipes ran up and down the ships deck, suggesting that the vessel had been an oil tanker. The rich coral growth pointed to it having been down here for quite a while.
A few fin-kicks further on, I began to see the intact stern end, an awesome sight. On deck was a complete section of superstructure, probably the accommodation block, and beside it a lifeboat davit encrusted in coral.
Below, the drum reels that would have supplied the support cables to the lifeboat as it was lowered were empty. I wondered how many of the crew had made it to safety. On the seabed I checked my computer. It read 30m. I could see that the ship had sunk into the sand and rolled partly to starboard. I headed back, past the accommodation block and probable bridge.
Three of our group had squeezed into a funnel and were posing for photographs. A stream of bubbles escaped as they smiled for the birdie.
Beyond the main superstructure, the landscape changed dramatically. A wide-open deck supported three large-diameter pipes, which disappeared into the distance. One ran along the deck on the port side, while the others were suspended several feet up on an impressive gantry. There were taps and connecting pipes all along the deck.
As I cruised up to the front of the ship with my buddy, all I could hear was the sound of our bubbles and the crunching of a group of parrotfish, grazing on the corals and algae on the deck.
Groupers hurried away to dark corners and a map angelfish put in a sudden appearance from behind a winch. Its brilliant blue and yellow markings showed for an instant as my flashguns caught it full on.
There was something strange ahead Ã the deck came to an end suddenly, but not where one might expect. The bow was missing. We found ourselves swimming into the blue, with nothing to be seen. What could have ripped this section away
Back on the sandy bottom I came to rest next to a huge tap which had been twisted by some 90. I switched my flashguns off and held my camera steady for a slow shutter exposure. I wanted to record this amazing scene of destruction.
Heading back up towards the gaping hole, I looked inside but saw only darkness. Further up still, we came across a beautiful table coral growing out from the wreck. The sun enhanced its shape and texture brilliantly. I had one more shot left, and capturing that dramatic image was a great finale.
Several months later I read about the aft section of a new wreck which British diver Peter Collings claimed to have discovered. It was described as a steam tankerÃ‰ extremely well-appointed. He had identified the tanker as the Atlas, torpedoed in September 1940. This must be the same wreck, I thought. Only something like a torpedo could have caused such destruction.
There is still a lot to discover about the Atlas, such as where the bow section ended up! Its good to know that divers like Collings are putting in time to uncover some of the Red Seas mysteries, and I look forward to the next chapter on this one.
The story behind the Atlas sinking is cut and dried compared to the mystery of how the cargo freighter Hamada went down, further to the north of Fury Shoal. Officially this happened at Abu El Ghosun, just north of Wadi Marsa Lahami, on 29 June 1993, while the Hamada was en route from Jeddah to Suez carrying polyethylene granules. The record of the ships loss stated that she caught fire and was abandoned before hitting the reef and sinking. Rumours of a scuttling have circulated ever since.
When Peter Collings first dived the wreck in 1995, he discovered the engine-room forward tool-kits to be missing, and also found a charred mattress and pieces of half-burnt wood on the bridge. It seems the crew had ample time to gather their personal items and even tools before escaping in the lifeboat.
We found the wreck on its starboard side in just 14m of water, its propeller suspended several metres above the sandy seafloor. It was lying tight up against the reef and seemed intact.
A slight swell was running and, as we were explored, an eerie grinding sound echoed around us. It was unnerving until I realised that one of the hinged cargo doors was moving backwards and forwards with the swell, bashing against the side.
Despite being under water for such a short time, the Hamada was already becoming well colonised by hard corals, with a variety of species on its hull and deck railings. Inside the holds, however, it was as if the ship had just sunk.
There was no sign of marine life and many of the pallets were intact. Surrounded by suspended polyethylene, I felt some surprise that no one had tried to salvage it. Good-quality polyethylene granules can fetch as much as£800 a ton!
I had a quick nosy inside the engine and boiler-room, with their resident shoals of sweepers and cardinalfish , then checked out the bridge, from which most of the exciting bits had been removed. Back outside, I passed a life-vest still strapped to the side of the ship, and on the sand came across the unusual sight of a fork-lift truck lying on its side. The Hamada is a good wreck dive. Perhaps one day it will become a classic.
One that has already attained such status is the Tienstin, a small tugboat that rests on a shallow reef at Shaab Abu Galawa, not far north of the Hamada. It was discovered several years ago but its history remains largely unknown, though it is thought to have sunk in the 1950s after running onto the reef.
The first time I dived the tug we arrived late in the day. The light had all but gone and I was disappointed, having heard that the wreck was covered in coral and a beautiful sight. But we had just enjoyed a great dive with sharks on a secret plateau, so I was hardly in a position to complain.
I was determined to salvage something photographically from the dive. We chugged out in the dinghy to the corner of the reef and, as soon as we hit the water, could see the wreck lying up against it. I had never seen such complete encrustation, and by big corals. It was the perfect romantic shipwreck image of which photographers dream Ã and the light was all but gone.
In moments like these you can either cry or have a brainwave. With too little light down at the stern, I headed up to the bow, which rested at an angle on the shallow reef.
Hovering in just 1m of water, inches above a nasty-looking fire coral, I checked the light. It was just OK, and the view was superb. After firing my film, I noticed caves directly behind me. The tug could not have landed in a better spot.
If this was one of the sexiest wrecks I had seen in the Red Sea, one of the ugliest had to be the German dive-boat, the Neptune. Ahmed was our skipper again. He had spent two hours snorkelling off Zabargad Island, trying to find a 70m freighter known to have sunk nearby. He spotted a large anchor chain and wreckage and thought he had found it, but it turned out to be Neptunes remains.
It sank in April 1981. Engine-starting problems had been compounded by a series of crazy mistakes and she was simply blown onto the reef and broken up. There was plenty to see scattered on the reef, including the onboard compressor, toilets, sinks and, believe it or not, a motorbike,
I found the wreck very disappointing, however, and it was just as well a manta ray showed up to save our dive.
Its not always clear how ships meet their end. On the sheltered side of Mikauwa Island, below one of the popular mooring spots between 20 and 40m, lies a fishing trawler. We found it sitting perfectly upright on a steep sloping sandy bottom, and it appeared to be in excellent condition.
Tour operator Tony Backhurst told me that until a few years ago several lifting bags could be seen on the wreck, suggesting that someone had tried to salvage it.
The supposition is that the crew of the trawler were the worse for wear when they let the ship run onto the reef in, at a guess, 1997 or 1998. I could find no trace of coral on it, only a number of lionfish.
Most of the first shipwrecks I ever dived were in the northern Red Sea. I knew little of their history, and neither did our skippers. The Kingston was a favourite. The first time I dived this British cargo ship, sunk way back in 1871, I had to swim like a salmon heading up-river just to get onto it, such was the swell and current.
Most of the front section was broken but I saw amazing classical pillars standing proud, and two ancient boilers sitting on the reef. Further on we reached the intact stern.
Swimming through the superstructure, past fantastic sea-fans and table corals growing out from the ceiling beams, we reached a propeller covered in pink and orange soft corals. On its far side, several large grouper observed us in some amazement before slowly retreating.
Heading away to the side of the wreck we could see the whole stern end, more impressive than the crumpled bow. Lying on the reef we discovered the crows nest, every inch of it coral-coated.
Since that dive Ive returned several times, and although the wreck is magnificent, the soft corals and sea-fans arent quite so impressive. The fish are as numerous as ever, however, with schools of grunts, parrotfish wrasse and fusiliers cruising in and out of the stern passages.
The Kingston lies off the south-east corner of Shag Rock, south of Shaab Ali and the Thistlegorm. A number of other less-well-known wrecks lie in the area, including at least one aircraft and two other steamers.
In those days before the Thistlegorm was discovered, we always seemed to end up at Bluff Point and a brilliant little wreck called The Barge. In the late 1980s it was pristine and an oasis for life, though now it has ended up as a mooring point and sadly has been ruined.
Only a short distance away, however, lies another wreck we used to know as The Cable-Layer, where the reef was littered with long cables encrusted in white corals.
Some 80ft longer than the Kingston and called the Ulysses, this cargo steamship sank after hitting the reef in 1887 and is similarly encrusted in brilliant corals. Where the wreck is broken in two there is a huge flywheel and engine. It is thought that part of an even older wreck lies beneath it.
The Ulysses lies on a steep slope, with its stern resting in 29m. The light was much reduced and I saw a couple of huge grouper and a reef shark disappearing rapidly into deeper water as we made our approach.
If there is one place divers long to visit now, it has to be the Brothers Islands (see page 61). Although best-known for their amazing corals and shark action, the Brothers also boast two beautiful shipwrecks.
The first time I dived there involved one the most hair-raising journeys I have ever made in a rubber duck. We were airborne every few seconds, and the boat was so full of water you could have snorkelled in it.
Once in the water, I watched my Nikonos 15mm viewfinder part company with my camera and disappear into several hundred metres of water.
It wasnt a brilliant start, but as it turned out the sacrifice was worth it, because soon I was swimming past a pair of giant locomotive wheels, resting on the reef in around 12m of water. These belonged to the Numidia, or Loco Wreck as it was known for many years.
The vessel is believed to have sunk exactly a century ago, in July 1901. Beside the huge wheels, a small section of wreck sheltered a shoal of colourful sergeant-majors.
Further down, I found myself inside the main section of the wreck, looking out through a wide hole on a bunch of circling jacks. Back outside, a turtle swam by me, then in the distance I glimpsed a shark. So much was happening, and I found myself down at 40m, with my companions swimming above me like giant birds. All of a sudden I was feeling absolutely on top of the world. The first signs of narcosis were setting in!
Leaving the Numidia, I headed back at 20m, keeping an eye on the blue for sharks and the other wreck, the Aida 11. This was originally a French gunboat which had been converted into an Egyptian troop-carrier. It sank in 1957 while the crew were apparently trying to fix its moorings.
The wreck split in two as it slipped down the steep wall. Part of the ship, including the engine block, now lies suspended in 10m, while the rest is some 20m below.
If you tried to do both wrecks on a single dive you would have to treat this as an extended range dive to get any sensible time on both wrecks. On this occasion I chose to photograph the Numidia from a distance. A more comprehensive exploration will keep for another day, as is the case with so many Red Sea wrecks I have yet to discover. I cant wait.
|Fork-lift truck on the Hamada |
|map angelfish on the Atlas |
|the trawler wreck at Mikauwa |
|the Tienstin, a picture-book tugboat dive |
|the two boilers on the Kingston at Shag Rock |
|sergeant-majors on the Numidia at the Brothers |
|Locomotive wheels on the Numidia |
|prop on the Numidia at the Brothers |
|The boiler room of the Hamada |
|the Ulysses wreck, which sank at Bluff Point in 1887 |
|the fishing trawler at Mikauwa Island is still in good condition |