As the years go passing by
ITS A BEAUTIFUL MORNING. The sun laces a million diamonds on the surface of the Red Sea for our final dive of the week. Conditions couldnt be better, yet some of the 22 guests on board are sitting this one out. Because down there, over the rail off the port side, lies the Salem Express.
Sunk on 15 December, 1991, during a voyage from Jeddah to Safaga, the roll-on/roll-off passenger ferry went down with 470 lives lost. Despite the recovery efforts, the wreck was later sealed with bodies still inside.
Perhaps I should say that the mood on the dive deck was sombre, that we hardly said a word as the wind picked up, and that the sun shrank behind threatening clouds that sprang from nowhere, but that would be disingenuous.
Truth is, I am up for this. I really want to dive the Salem Express. Im not going as a passing ghoul, but because Im drawn to wrecks, period.
IT WOULD BE FOOLISH HOWEVER, as a recreational diver, not to address the moral aspect while adding the Salem to the logbook, considering that its a tomb, and a relatively recent one at that.
And because Im now finning towards the once personal possessions that litter the seabed in the shadows - a crusty ghetto-blaster, a shoe and a suitcase, its rotten lid gaping wide.
This isnt the first wreck Ive explored on which lives were lost. Its not even the first this week. Thirty-one went down with the Carnatic, nine on the Thistlegorm, two on the Rosalie Moller.
Indeed, my interest in wrecks stemmed from diving those sunk in WW2 in the Pacific theatre, where there were tremendous casualties and where remains still lie, though Ive never seen any, and never wanted to seek them.
It doesnt take many wreck dives before one imagines the horror of those aboard as their island sinks beneath them. The drone of the bombers, angry specks in the sky homing in on their kill, the ensuing blast, the fire, the choking smoke, the confusion, the panic, even the smell. How could I even begin to relate to that
The silent hulks of twisted, tortured metal help to inspire imagination.
Wrecks themselves, their metamorphoses as they slip from our world to the next, softened by coral, changing their forms, mysterious and surreal, captivate me. There is a certain frisson.
I admit it, wreck diving fascinates me. I find it exhilarating. I spend far too much time trawling YouTube for clips, reading books, listening to the experts, researching, planning trips, buying the T-shirts - and sporting the anorak.
So I have no objection to diving a wreck that holds dead people, be it sunk in 1941 or 1991, whether I know there are remains or not, whether they were soldiers, or as on the Salem Express, pilgrims. Its the wreck itself I dive for, rather than any sentiment attached to it. But you can understand that this is
a decision for the individual, and I would always respect a diver who says: No thanks.
Such polarisation within the diving community raises yet more questions. Is there a difference in attitude when exploring wrecks lost through different circumstances For example, natural causes, as with the SS Yongala, lost in a cyclone off Bowling Green Cape, Queensland, Australia in 1911, with all 122 on board.
What about a tragic accident, as was the case with the Liban, which collided with the steamship Insulaire off the coast of Marseilles in 1903, taking nearly 200 down with it.
AND WHAT OF ACTS OF WAR Is there a perceived difference between the loss of men on a fighting ship, which not only had the means to protect itself but was designed to send others to the bottom, and the merchant vessels of Truk, or Coron, which were essentially sitting ducks
Is the scale of tragedy greater still with the loss of a Hell Ship Take the Oryoku Maru, which was bound for Japanese labour camps with Allied PoWs who died of suffocation and starvation at the hands of their captors, until sunk by US aircraft in an attack that killed 300 more
Those who survived the Hell Ships ordeal are determined to tell their story, to preserve the memory of their comrades for future generations.
Yet this wreck, in Subic Bay, in the Philippines, was later demolished, because it impeded a shipping lane.
If these distinctions seem contrived, consider the wreck-diver who pulls a face at the prospect of diving a ship sunk to form an artificial reef. Or the dive operator who promotes the weaponry of his premier dive.
And Im aware that the guns, bombs, and munitions that I slavishly photograph are for my memory, no
Rightly or wrongly, we rate loss on a daily basis every time we hear the news. Who Where When How, and how many What is our proximity to the event What is an appropriate reaction
Divers will always visit watery memorials as long as theres something to see, but most of the names who went down with the ship well never know, and frankly we wont care to find out, whether theyre our brave lads or not.
All the artefacts that can be pilfered will be, yet we can still experience that unique window to the past that a shipwreck offers. We can still see the evidence of how such a catastrophe unfolded with our own eyes.
The sunken vessel itself tells a story, even if all the prizes have been nicked.
The disaster of the Salem Express will fade with time, as it has with its more established Red Sea neighbours. Survivors of the trauma will pass away, and the wreck will deteriorate.
In its place will be a virtual past, with reworked stories and embellished memories, until a myth is built. Its inevitable, of course, but at least those who were lost wont be ignored. After all, who will be visiting your plot under the mud in 100 years time
Which brings us finally to wreck recovery, and very murky waters.
Bringing a wreck to the surface is a tricky business, as Lew Grade, and anyone who has sat through the God-awful film Raise The Titanic, will appreciate. In real life it has been done, most notably in 1982 with the Mary Rose, the pride of Henry VIII, which sank with massive loss of life in 1545. They even showed its salvage live on TV.
A section of the VOC ship Batavia, lost in 1629, was also recovered in the 1970s, along with human remains, and is now exhibited in the Western Australian Maritime Museum at Fremantle.
As recently as December 2007, the Chinese raised an 800-year-old cargo wreck, loaded with porcelain and dubbed the Nanhai 1, from the South China Seas.
The reclamation of these time capsules after centuries under water has attracted wonderment and fascination, rather than controversy, reinforcing the idea that the passage of time determines our response to a marine grave.
I CONTACTED BILL SMITH, leader of Project Bluebird, who raised the wreckage of the famous powerboat from Coniston Water in 2001. Initially this was done against the wishes of some of the family of Donald Campbell CBE, who perished during his 1967 attempt to break his own water speed record.
I wanted to know how Smith had managed to resolve the moral issues inevitably attached to the project. His reply If I had a pound for every time an attempt has been made to drag me into this argument...
He wouldnt be drawn further, suffice to say that: It can be done. His comments reiterate how many people find the prospect of recovery distasteful. The fact is that underwater exploration and detection has become more affordable, so allowing more divers to hunt with a far greater chance of success.
One Coniston local commented on the number of divers who had been in the lake, searching like mad. It became like looking for the Holy Grail, trying to find Donald Campbells boat.
If it hadnt been Bill Smith and his team who discovered and recovered Bluebird, it would have been someone else. The fear of souvenir-hunters means that the wreck could never be left in situ, and gives perfect justification for bringing it to the surface for its own protection, while conveniently eroding any moral objections in the process.
I wouldnt want to end on such a cynical note, that we are all self-centred glory-hunters, diving wrecks only for that souvenir Coke bottle, trophy photograph, commemorative T-shirt or hardcore penetration bragging rights.
So Ill leave the final reflection to Rod Pearce, who has been searching the waters of PNG for the past 40 years.
The hardest part is the letters. I still get letters from people looking for their relatives, missing in action. They want to know if Ive found their father... their grandfather. People search for wrecks for very different reasons. For some, the passage of time has changed nothing.