If you have just landed at this blog for the first time, you should know that this post is the third in a series about diving on the Salem Express, a shipwreck in the Red Sea. You might want to have a look at the first installment for some background, and the previous post where we told how we got the opportunity to dive on the Salem Express in the summer of 1992.
Picking up the story where we left off last time, our charter boat skipper offered to take us to the place where the wreck of the Salem Express lay near the Egyptian port of Safaga. This offer was made as a sort of consolation prize after our trip to The Brothers islands was cut short by an unfortunate confluence of events and circumstances.
Although divers are authorized to visit the Salem Express nowadays, at that time, barely seven months after the ferryboat sank, divers were not allowed there. Many hundreds of lives had been lost in the disaster, and since the remains of only a fraction of those had been recovered, the rest were presumed to have been trapped inside the vessel as it sank. The wreck of the Salem Express was considered to be a sort of cemetery or, more precisely, a mass tomb. Our skipper knew this, and so did the divers.
On the evening after our tortuous crossing from Big Brother to Safaga (described in the previous post), the crew and divers had a meeting in the boat's dining room to plan a strategy for visiting the site of the wreck. Egyptian naval and coast guard vessels were known to patrol the area on a frequent but irregular basis, so we had to plan what's called a "ninja dive" operation -- in other words, stealthy!
There was no buoy or any other visible marker at the site of the wreck, but our skipper promised that he knew exactly how to find it by dead reckoning, based on triangulation between landmarks known to him. To reduce the chance that we would be detected diving on the wreck, we planned to go to the wreck site just after sunrise.
According to our plan, we would all be completely outfitted in our gear ahead of time, and then as we approached the spot where the skipper believed the wreck to be, he'd put our boat's engines into neutral, but the boat would not stop. By inertia it would continue to glide, while two divers slipped into the water and descended far enough under the surface to verify that the wreck was in sight. One would come back to the surface and signal to the rest of us, and then -- boat still gliding over the spot in neutral -- we'd all enter the water. The trick then was to enter one by one so as not to make a big splash, but to do so quickly before our boat glided out of range of the wreck site.
We agreed that our boat would immediately leave the area, then return exactly 40 minutes after the last diver had entered the water. By that time we all would be waiting in the water column above the wreck, about five meters beneath the surface. One diver would surface and signal to the boat by holding up a yellow dive fin. The boat would then approach, cut the engines, and glide by again while each of us in turn surfaced and quickly swam to the boarding ladder.
We all had to agree that no matter what happened, or what we saw below, we would stick to this plan. We also agreed that this would be 'just' a survey dive to get a feel for what was down there. We planned ahead of time to split into three teams of four divers, each assigned to a different mission: one team would check out the stern area, the second would head toward the bow, and the third team would see what was amidships. If all went well, we would return later to explore further.
This seemed like a sound plan, but given the history of this trip so far, we had to wonder if we could pull it off. Before first light the next morning, we suited up and were underway toward the site of the wreck. We reviewed the details of our plan one more time, and synchronized our watches. In no time we arrived at the spot. The skipper put the engines into neutral and signaled for us to begin. In went the first two divers. Less than a minute later one of the two surfaced and gave an 'okay' signal. You could feel the adrenalin squirt!
We began executing the next part of the plan, slipping into the water in quick succession and descending immediately. The skipper had told us the wreck was lying in "about 30 meters of water." He was right. My logbook entry for the dive pegs the depth of the bottom more precisely as 32 meters/105 feet. But we had to descend only about 12 meters (40 feet) before arriving at the ship's metal hull.
The Salem Express was a good-sized vessel -- about 100 meters (300+ feet) in length, with a beam of maybe 20 meters (around 65 feet). The ship was lying on its starboard side, so its port side faced toward the surface. The port side made a nice flat landing deck for the divers, as you can see in the photo at the top of this post. We all waited there together until the final diver had descended. We checked our watches one more time, signaled one another, and off we went to survey our assigned areas.
Jerry and I were part of the team tasked with checking out the middle part of the vessel. Following standard dive procedures, we went to the bottom first, and then slowly worked our way back upward. In the dawn light the scene was eerie. Even though the water was quite clear, it was still somewhat dark, especially near the bottom in the vessel's shadow.
The Salem Express rested on a sandy bottom among a series of patch reefs. We shined our lights around at the reefs and could see that some had been gouged badly by the vessel as it sank. We expected that. What we did not expect to see were so many personal items that must have belonged to the passengers. What a shock! There was clothing draped on coral heads. Shoes, luggage, handbags and even a few children's toys were scattered about on the sand nearby. We touched nothing.
We spotted a lifeboat on the bottom. We had heard that the Salem Express sank so quickly that there had not been time to launch lifeboats. Here was one that had apparently sunk with the ship, still attached to a davit at one end.
As we ascended a bit, we trained our lights on the big ferryboat. We could identify what had been a lounge or snack bar. We peeked in, but did not attempt to swim inside. Not only was the time passing quickly, we were not equipped for penetrating the wreck. We had to stay on the outside.
Back on the port side of the ship, near where we had landed after our initial descent, we swam along, peering through the windows in the side of the hull. The glass was still intact, though covered with a film of algae.
These appeared to be passenger cabins, and many objects inside had floated upward over time and were visible through the glass: upholstered chairs, clothing, pillows. We went along from one window to the next, shining our lights through the glass, utterly fascinated with what we were seeing, but hoping that we would not see anything we wished we hadn't.
The teams that had been exploring the bow and stern areas approached our assembly point on schedule. All accounted for, we began our final ascent, stopping at a depth of five meters to hover while one diver went to the surface to signal our boat according to plan. We heard the boat's engines as it approached, and as soon as the skipper killed the engines we surfaced into bright early morning sunlight and dashed for the boarding ladder. The entire crew had assembled on the stern to help us scramble aboard as quickly as possible.
We got out of our gear and peeled off our wetsuits, glancing at one another but almost unable to speak. We were all stunned by what we had just seen. Our cook called out that he had our breakfast ready, so we toweled ourselves, filed into the dining room and sat at the long table. The smell of the coffee finally broke the spell and we began to talk -- all of us, all at once.
We talked for hours. We had all seen some of the same things on the wreck, yet each of us had seen something different as well. Someone produced a pad of paper and we began to draw a diagram of the Salem Express and the area around it from memory. The pad was passed from one diver to the next, and each of us sketched in a few more details.
The team that went to the forward area had discovered the wheelhouse, and some large winches on the foredeck near the bow. The team that went to the stern saw the ferryboat's twin propellers. Everyone had seen lots of personal articles, as we had, and we all agreed that was one of the most affecting experiences of the dive -- and probably what had left us all feeling so stunned.
The stern team (as we now called them) told us they had seen a long, deep gouge in the sand behind the Salem Express suggesting that the vessel had still been moving forward as it sank, and that the gouge also was strewn with deck chairs, luggage, and other personal effects of the unfortunate people who had been on board the night of the accident. The diver who described the debris trail off the stern said it was like "the tail of a comet."
Thankfully, no one had seen any sign of human bodily remains.
We did two more dives that day at a beautiful reef called Abu Kifan, a lush setting with lots of lovely coral and plenty of marine life. My dive log notes mention encountering a large hammerhead shark on one of the dives, and two whitetip reef sharks on the other, but in truth we were all preoccupied with thoughts of the Salem Express. During the surface intervals between these reef dives we plotted our next dives on the sunken ferryboat.
Now that we had a reasonable fix on the layout of the wreck, and an idea of the depths and distances, we could make detailed plans for purposeful follow-up dives. We only had time for two more dives on the wreck before the end of our charter -- two more ninja dives -- one at dusk, and one the following dawn. You won't believe what we found. (To be continued...)
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