This is the fourth post in a series about diving on the wreck of the Salem Express, a ferryboat that sank in the Red Sea near Safaga, Egypt in December of 1991. Here's the link to the first post in the series: What a wreck!
In the previous post, we told about our first dive on the Salem Express. That was a survey dive, just to look over the scene and get a general idea of what the wreck looked like, how big it was, and the water depth. Afterward we were able to produce a rough diagram of the vessel and the immediate area from memory, and to fill in details such as the depth at various points from notes we had made on our slates. We used this information to plan our two remaining dives.
After conferring, it was clear that there were two things that interested all 12 of us. We wanted to see the inside of at least part of the wreck, and we wanted to look more closely at some of the debris scattered about, especially the many personal items we had spotted that must have belonged to passengers who were on the ferry at the time it sank.
We decided that the objective of our second dive on the Salem Express would be exploration of some interior areas of the vessel that were readily accessible. This would require coordinated teamwork to accomplish. Then for the final dive, we would fan out in a free-ranging way to look at whatever we wished.
On the survey dive, no one had gone inside any part of the sunken ship. We all had agreed to that rule ahead of time, for safety reasons.
What's the big deal about that?
First, the interior of a wreck is an example of what divers refer to as an 'overhead environment.' When there is something overhead, literally -- some barrier between the diver and the surface -- a diver cannot make a direct ascent to the surface in case of an emergency. Diving in an overhead environment requires that certain precautions be taken to compensate for the fact that the diver can't ascend directly. For example, an alternative source of air will be taken along, so that if the primary source fails for any reason, the diver can switch to the alternative source while exiting the overhead environment.
Natural wrecks pose other dangers as well. There are broken things and loose parts that can ensnare or injure a diver. It's dark inside wrecks, so a good light source is needed -- plus a backup. Divers who penetrate wrecks (and caves) usually lay a guideline as they go, so that they can be sure to find their way out again. Sometimes silt or other matter that has settled inside will be stirred up as a diver swims through. When this happens, visibility can be greatly reduced in no time. Believe me, it's very easy to get completely disoriented in murky water.
Since we hadn't expected to dive on a wreck on this trip, no one had brought along the sort of gear that normally would be used for wreck penetration dives. Still, we were more than a little curious about what we might see inside the two most accessible interior areas of this wreck -- the lounge/snack bar that our team had peeked into on the first dive, and the bridge that the 'bow team' had seen. We decided to improvise.
After some discussion, we came up with a workable plan. We had enough bits of gear among us to equip two teams satisfactorily for penetration. We decided that one pair of divers would penetrate the lounge/snack bar, and another small team would penetrate the bridge. The rest of us would act as support teams to ensure the safety of those who went inside the wreck. (It was, if nothing else, a wonderful example of cooperation among the divers.)
One couple had an underwater video camera, and their video rig included a set of very bright lights. They got elected to enter the lounge/snack bar -- the larger and deeper of the areas that would be penetrated. Their video lights would be a reasonable primary light source, and the added benefit was that they could shoot video of whatever they came across so that the rest of us could see it later.
Three divers, including Jerry, got to penetrate the ship's bridge. I took the photo at right when the divers were still inside the bridge. You can clearly see the bubble streams of the three divers.
What do you suppose they found?
The team that went inside the bridge reported that the ship's wheel was still in place, as were all of the navigation instruments and control panels. They also noticed a set of soggy marine charts, and a star chart.
One of their most interesting finds was a set of signal flags made of colored canvas cloth, stored in a cabinet divided into pigeonholes. Each flag was neatly rolled up inside its own pigeonhole. Jerry brought two flags outside the wreck to show the rest of us, then rolled them back up and went back inside to return them to the pigeonholes where they had been found. (We had all agreed that we would take no 'souvenirs' from this wreck.)
The divers who went into the lounge and snack bar did a great job of shooting video there. There was a soda machine still bolted to the room's forward bulkhead. There were tables bolted to the floor, now sticking out sideways. Since the ship was lying on its starboard side, all of the chairs had ended up against the starboard bulkhead in a heap, along with a range of hand baggage and other personal items. One item they brought out to show the support divers was a 'boom box' cassette player. It still had a cassette inside, and the 'play' button was still depressed. It made us feel very sad.
The most eerie video footage was of a sign in the lounge. It was attached to the forward bulkhead at what must have been eye level when the ship was upright. It was an exit sign, and included a large arrow pointing to a companionway that led to the promenade deck on the port side of the ship. Because the ship was lying on its side now, everything was at a right angle to what it had been before the ship sank. When the ship was underway, the arrow on the sign had pointed left, to the companionway. Now that the ship was lying on its side, that arrow pointed up, toward the surface!
Our time was up, too. The mission of the dive had been accomplished, and -- since we had entered the water just before dusk to reduce the chance of detection -- it was getting quite dark. We ascended according to plan and our charter boat picked us up right on schedule. Early the next morning we would make our final dive on the Salem Express, and we would make our most startling discoveries. We'll tell you about those in the next post.
Here are the links to all five parts of this story:
Part 1: What a wreck!
Part 2: A dream trip, a storm, a mutiny, and a consolation prize
Part 3: Ninja divers: First dive on the Salem Express
Part 4: Inside the wreck of the Salem Express
Part 5: The Salem Express wreck -- A human tragedy