Name that reef!

When we see films or photos of underwater environments we always try to guess the location. We're pretty good at guessing by now, probably because we have dived in so many different areas of the world. We might not be able to guess precisely where a photo was shot, but we certainly can tell the difference between, say, a Caribbean reef and one in the Red Sea, almost at first glance.

Caribbean sponges and sea plumes, Little CaymanFor some reason, our ability to do this amazes many non-divers. There's really no trick involved. It's just that each region of the world has a characteristic array of marine life, and as a result, reefs in each region have a distinct 'look'.

This fact surprises many people, but I've never figured out why it should. I think it's safe to say that most people would not expect to see a tropical rain forest in England, nor would they expect to see moors near the headwaters of the Amazon. They know they would not see a giraffe in the wild in Montana, nor would they see a grizzly bear in Kenya. Similarly, what we see on Caribbean reefs is different from what we see in the Red Sea, and what we see here in Hawaii is different from both of those.

Red Sea reef sceneThe first photo on this page is instantly recognizable as a Caribbean reefscape to any diver who has visited reefs in that region. The giveaway is those purple sea whips, so characteristic of Caribbean reefs.

The second photo on this page was taken on a deep reef in the Red Sea. It, too, depicts scenery that is unmistakably Red Sea. The distinguishing features in this case are the preponderance of richly colorful soft corals (Dendronephthia sp.), and the swarm of those little fish that resemble goldfish. Those tiny fish (Pseudanthias squamipinnis) are ubiquitous on Red Sea reefs. (Click on the photo to view a larger version -- and see if you can spot Jerry swimming in the background.)

There are diverse environments under the sea, just as there are on land. Each of those environments is a habitat for its own assortment of creatures. Perhaps those who are amazed to learn that reef environments vary from one region to another just never stopped to think about it?

Do your part to reduce marine debris

This post is our contribution to the worldwide Bloggers Against Abuse campaign, part of the Blogging for a Great Cause Challenge, sponsored by BlogCatalog. Bloggers all over the world are uniting today to write about how to put an end to some form of abuse. We thought it fitting that our topic should be about abuse of the marine environment.

Our intention today is to raise awareness about one common issue related to abuse of the marine environment -- a problem that everyday people actually can do something about. That issue is marine debris.

According to the Ocean Conservancy:
From urban trash to abandoned fishing gear, marine debris is one of the world's most pervasive marine pollution problems. Every year it injures and kills thousands of marine animals that swallow it or become entangled in it and causes harm to important aquatic habitats, like coral reefs and seagrass beds.
Here are a few things you can do to help keep debris off our beaches and out of our oceans:
  • Dispose of trash properly at the beach, or while boating. Things you discard on the beach get washed out to sea. Things you toss overboard when you are boating stay in the ocean. The ocean is not a trash bin. Just because you can't see things after you toss them into the ocean doesn't mean they are no longer there.
  • Pick up trash and debris that you see -- even if it is not your own. Clean up the area around you when you leave the beach. Take all trash and debris with you and dispose of it properly.
  • Clean up reef debris when you dive. Take along a mesh bag in your pocket. If you see any cans, bottles, plastic items, or discarded fishing tackle underwater, pick them up, put them into your mesh bag, and discard them properly when you come back to shore.
  • Raise awareness and promote community involvement. Organize and participate in beach clean-up and reef clean-up activities. These are good ways to raise public awareness about the issue of marine debris and to engage people in your community to tackle this problem.
We ask everyone who visits our oceans and shorelines -- swimmers, divers, surfers, fishermen, boaters and beach-goers -- to be mindful of their impact on the marine environment. Do whatever you can to reduce the amount of debris on our beaches and in our oceans.

For more information, visit the Ocean Conservancy's web page about marine debris, and the NOAA Marine Debris Program page.

Puako's shoreline: Tidepools and turtles

by B. N. Sullivan

Our favorite shore diving site is at Puako, on the Big Island of Hawaii. We used to live in Puako, and we still live just a few miles away, so over the years we probably have made more dives at this one location than at any other place on the planet. Naturally, we have spent a great deal of time exploring the shallow areas along the shoreline there as well.

Shoreline at Puako, HawaiiPuako's irregular shoreline was created by old lava flows. The most recent of these, from an eruption on the Mauna Loa volcano in 1859, flowed to the coast and well into the ocean where it cooled and hardened. Many fingers of black pahoehoe lava are visible along the Puako shoreline today. The rest of the flow now forms a basalt shelf that runs under the surface of the water for some distance seaward from the beach, then ends abruptly as a cliff-like dropoff.

In the photo at right, Jerry is wading on top of the lava shelf near the beach. In the background you can see waves breaking over the dropoff.

The water beyond that dropoff gets deep quickly, but the water depth on top of the inshore shelf is quite shallow. There are many tidepools along Puako's shoreline, thanks to the unevenness of the lava's surface.

The tidepools and shallows at Puako are full of life. There is plant life in the form of algae and seaweed (called limu in the Hawaiian language). There are many species of juvenile fish, which somehow find their way to the tidepools just as they pass from their larval stage into creatures recognizable as tiny fish. They remain in the tidepools until they grow big and strong enough to make their way to the reef community beyond the dropoff. There are creatures like crabs and tiny shrimp and various molluscs living in the tidepools and the near-shore shallows as well.

There is one much larger marine species that can be found in the shallows, tidepools, and even on the beaches and shoreline rocks in Puako. That's the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), one of the three sea turtle species native to Hawaii.

Green sea turtles are a very common sight at Puako. They graze on the seaweed that covers the rocks in the shallows, they rest underwater on ledges and in holes in the reef beyond the dropoff, and -- most remarkably -- they haul themselves out of the water along Puako's shoreline to bask in the sun.

Many newcomers and tourists become alarmed when they first spot the turtles on the beach or the rocks at Puako. They assume that the turtles somehow got stuck there as the tide receded, or that they might be injured. Sometimes it takes quite a bit of explaining to convince them that this is the natural behavior of these creatures. The basking turtles are not in distress, and they need no assistance to get back into the ocean. (Honest!)

Actually, no one is quite sure why the turtles bask here. Some scientists believe that the behavior serves as a way to elevate the turtles' body temperature. Others surmise that this is a way to avoid predation, especially by tiger sharks, which are known to favor turtle meals. We always joke that they're just 'working on their tans.'

Green Sea Turtles on the rocks at Puako, Hawaii
When you look at the two snoozing turtles in the photo above, you may wonder why they're called green sea turtles. They don't look green at all! The name comes from the color of their body fat, not the color of their scales and carapace.

In case you are curious, green sea turtles are not known to nest in this area. Most of the turtles that live in the area around Puako are not yet sexually mature. They are at a sub-adult stage of life more or less equivalent to being an adolescent. They spend their time at Puako feeding and lounging around until they mature. Then they migrate some 800 miles to the uninhabited northwest Hawaiian Islands -- especially the area around around French Frigate Shoals -- to mate, nest and lay their eggs. This pattern has been documented through long-term tracking studies of tagged turtles.

If you've ever wanted to see one of these creatures -- or up to fifteen at once! -- Puako is the place to do that. Just don't touch or harass them. Honu, as they are called in Hawaiian language, are a threatened species, legally protected by both Federal and State laws.

UPDATE Oct. 1, 2007: We are proud to tell our readers that this article has been included in the second Carnival of Aloha -- a blog carnival devoted to Hawaii, hosted by Evelyn at Homespun Honolulu. Thank you Evelyn for including The Right Blue, and for your efforts on behalf of Hawaii bloggers. Aloha from the Kohala Coast!

Welcome to Puako, Hawaii

This is the first in a series of posts about shore diving at Puako, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Puako is situated on the western coast of the Big Island, in the South Kohala district, a few miles south of the port of Kawaihae.

Hawaiian Islands mapTo better visualize where Puako is, have a look at the map of Hawaii, at right. The Big Island is the southernmost and easternmost of the Hawaiian islands. If you hadn't guessed from the name, it is the largest of the islands as well. The red dot on the map indicates where Puako is located.

Puako is a tiny oceanfront town. How tiny? The 2000 U.S. Census counted fewer than 500 residents. Actually, calling Puako a town is a bit of an exaggeration. Even the word 'village' doesn't quite describe it.

Physically, Puako consists of one narrow paved road that runs parallel to the ocean for about three miles. One end of the road intersects with a highway that connects Kawaihae to the north, and Kailua-Kona about 30 miles to the south. The other end of the road is, well, the end of the road. No outlet. Puako's little road is lined with houses on either side -- new houses, old houses, splendid houses, simple houses. There are a couple of churches, a general store, and one three-story apartment building. That's it! That's our Puako.

Puako sits along a fairly rugged stretch of coastline created by an old lava flow. The dark sections that jut into the ocean in the photo at left are fingers of that old lava flow. The coastline is very irregular, featuring stretches of black lava punctuated by small pocket beaches. Some of the little beaches are coral sand, but a few are composed of black sand. Because the surface of the lava along the shore is so uneven, there are plenty of tidepools.

The little cove in the photo above is the entry point to our favorite dive site at Puako. We have made hundreds of dives there, entering the water from this very spot. In fact, we have made so many dives at this one area of Puako that we have come to know the underwater terrain there as well as we know the garden around our house.

We used to live right across the street from this little cove. When we lived there, we would dive at this spot three or four days a week, every week, year round. Even after we moved to a new house in another community a few miles away, we still came back to this little cove in Puako to dive on a very regular basis. When we speak of our 'home waters,' this is the place we usually have in mind.

In the next several posts we'll tell you why diving at Puako is so special.

Faces on the reef -- The buck-toothed wrasse

by B. N. Sullivan

Thalassoma duperrey
One thing that happens when you begin to take photos is that you start to pay attention to details you might not have noticed otherwise. For me, this noticing of details about my underwater photo subjects progressed in a systematic way.
When I first began to dive, I just saw "fish" and "crabs" and "starfish," but couldn't distinguish among the species of each. Over time I learned to recognize features common to different families of creatures. I could distinguish the butterflyfish from the angelfish, for example.

Next I learned to identify distinct species within families and, in some cases, whether individuals were male or female. My photos began to reflect that knowledge: I began to 'collect' species -- trying everywhere we went to photograph examples of as many different species as I could find.

Eventually I focused on details that reflected the creatures' individuality. In particular, I began to pay close attention to their faces or -- for creatures that didn't have faces in the usual sense -- their eyes. (This photo of a conch shell's eyes, and this one of a cross-eyed cone shell, are examples.)

Faces, more than any other visible feature, are emblematic of individuality. Our own faces are what instantly set us apart from one another visually. Sometimes we humans tend to overlook the fact that creatures in the wild also have faces -- and individuality.

We have accumulated a collection of photos that we call Faces on the Reef. We think that they illustrate the point that marine creatures, too, have individuality.

The little guy in the photo on this page is a Saddle Wrasse (Thalassoma duperrey). We just love the goofy look on his face, and those wonderful protruding front teeth. The one pictured here is a male, roughly 8 inches (21 cm) long. He was photographed at Honaunau Bay, Hawaii.

This species is very common on reefs in Hawaiian waters, and individuals can be quite friendly toward divers. They'll sometimes swim up and peer right into a diver's mask -- maybe they're looking at our eyes! -- and they'll often follow divers around the reef. If a diver should stop to turn over a rock to see what's under it, the Saddle Wrasse will be right there to look, too. If the wrasse sees something good to eat, he'll grab it and then move along to the next rock and wait, looking back at the diver as if to say, "Well come on, turn this one over next."

The Hawaiian name for the Saddle Wrasse is hinalea lauwili.

The Salem Express wreck -- a human tragedy

During our initial dive on the Salem Express, it became clear to us that we were not the first divers to visit the wreck. One of the earliest clues was the sight of a portable television perched on the side of the hull in a spot where it was unlikely to have landed all by itself. It was obvious that it had been placed there by someone who had found it elsewhere in or near the sunken vessel. Salem Express wreck, Red SeaThat television was the first of the many personal belongings we would see during our three dives on this wreck -- items that must have belonged to the passengers who were on board the night the ferryboat sank in the Red Sea.

As I mentioned previously, we got to dive on the wreck of the Salem Express while it was still quite fresh. We knew that the remains of many of the several hundred passengers and crew who had lost their lives in the accident had never been recovered, and were presumed to be entombed inside the wreck. With that in mind, we took care to treat the scene with respect, and we agreed amongst ourselves that we would not take anything from it. We took no souvenirs except photos, and there were some things we saw that we did not even photograph.

The personal effects scattered about the site of this wreck were so many! When we all talked afterward about what we had seen, we discovered that each of us had had similar thoughts while looking around: wondering who these things had belonged to, and imagining how terrifying that night must have been for them.

At the time it sank, the Salem Express had been nearing the end of a regular run from Jeddah, a port on the Saudi Arabian side of the Red Sea, to Safaga, on the Egyptian side. News reports about the disaster had mentioned that many of the passengers were returning home from a religious pilgrimage to Mecca. Others were Egyptian workers employed in Saudi Arabia, coming home to visit their families. Some passengers were citizens of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries: there were businessmen, as well as couples and families en route to Egypt for a sight-seeing holiday. They almost made it. The ship went down in sight of the lights of the port.

It was easy to imagine passengers out on the promenade deck, leaning on the rails and watching those lights on the coastline as the ferryboat approached Safaga. Others would have been belowdecks in their cabins, packing up their belongings, anxious to drive their cars off the ferryboat as soon as it reached the dock. The passengers might have been excited, or just relieved to be near the end of their journey. In any case, they had been real people with real lives and families.

Now all that remained were some of their possessions, scattered in and around the wreck -- clothing, shoes, handbags, toys, electronic gadgets -- all covered with a film of greenish algae. Some things, like books and notebooks, already were beginning to decay. Other things -- the TV, a child's plastic toy airplane, a set of prayer beads -- probably would remain intact for quite awhile.

Propeller on the Salem Express wreckJerry and I had decided that we wanted to have a look at the ship's two propellers, so at the outset of this final dive we swam straightaway to the stern area of the ship. Jerry posed for a photo between the big blades of one propeller, and then we descended the rest of the way to the sandy bottom to join some other divers poking around in the debris trail astern of the ship.

One of the divers discovered a small suitcase there. It was an old-fashioned, inexpensive looking one made of heavy cardboard with a little bit of leather trim on the edges and two metal clasps to fasten it shut. While we hovered a little above to watch, the diver knelt in the sand by the suitcase and tried the clasps. Amazingly, they popped right open, so he lifted the lid.

Inside the suitcase were clothing items, still nicely folded in two stacks, with a shoe tucked along each side. The diver took an item from the top of the one stack and held it out in front of him. It unfolded. It was a child's striped tee shirt. The diver refolded the tee shirt, laid it back in the suitcase and closed the lid -- and the clasps. He knelt there for at least another minute, just staring at the closed suitcase. We quietly swam away, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

Jerry signaled to me to swim with him along the side of the ship, heading toward the bow. Every few feet we saw another object. That's where we saw the toy airplane, and then the prayer beads, among other things.

When we were almost to the lifeboat that I had photographed the day before, Jerry spotted something that at first looked like a small book. He picked it up from the sand to examine it. It was a passport. Jerry opened the cover, turned a page or two, and then turned to me looking very agitated. He was jabbing his finger at a page as he held the passport out to me. Through the faceplate on his dive mask I could see his expression -- one we call 'fried egg eyes.'

I took the passport from him -- I'm sure I was frowning -- and looked at the page he'd been pointing to. I saw then what had made him so agitated. The passport, though soggy, was reasonably intact -- a testament to the sturdy paper those are made of, I guess -- and the indelible ink of the visa stamps also had endured these seven months under water. The photo -- or rather what had been the photo -- was still attached. The paper part of the photo was there, but I was astonished to see that there was no face! The emulsion had washed away over time. The photo was blank. Gone! For a moment I almost forgot to breathe. Now it was my turn to have fried egg eyes. (And just writing this still gives me 'chicken skin.')

Jerry took the passport out of my hand and swam over to the sunken lifeboat. He laid the passport down inside the lifeboat, and signaled to me to ascend. I nodded. This dive was finished for us. We had lost all motivation to look around at any more of the wreck or its debris.

Samatour Shipping Company logoWe went to our assembly point on the port side of the hull and waited for the other divers. They arrived in a few minutes, and we all began our final ascent together. As we had done on the previous two dives, we all hovered at a depth of five meters while one diver surfaced to signal our boat.

While we were hovering one of the divers reached into the pocket of her dive vest and brought out a small white teapot. It was the size that would have held two cups of tea, and it had the shipping company's logo on it -- the same "S" between laurel leaves displayed on the ship's funnels. She held it out for a moment for all of us to see, then she purposely let it fall. The last thing we saw before we surfaced was that little teapot tumbling and twirling its way back down to the wreck.

We've never been back to that wreck, but we know that many other divers have visited the Salem Express over the past 15 years. Recently Jerry came across a YouTube video that had been shot there earlier this year. We like the video. It was nice to see so many soft and hard corals growing on the superstructure of the ship, the bannerfish near the winches, and tube sponges on a propeller blade. Best of all is the anemone on the promenade deck, complete with a resident clownfish. Go and have a look: Salem Express - Mar Rojo 2007. (And thanks to YouTube user Angel Manso from Madrid for posting the video.)


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

Inside the wreck of the Salem Express

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.

bridge of the Salem ExpressThree 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

Ninja divers: First dive on the Salem Express

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.

lifeboat, Salem Express wreckWe 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.

Salem Express wreck, Red SeaBack 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

A dream trip, a storm, a mutiny, and a consolation prize

This is Part 2 of the story of our dives on the wreck of the Egyptian ferryboat, the Salem Express. In the previous post, we mentioned that the Salem Express sank outside the port of Safaga in December of 1991. We got to dive on it in July of 1992, not quite seven months after it sank. It was the 'freshest' wreck we'd ever seen underwater.

Big Brother island, Red SeaWe didn't plan to dive on that wreck, but by a peculiar turn of events, that's where we ended up. We had set out on what should have been a week-long expedition to The Brothers Islands, 67 km off the coast of Egypt. On the third day of the trip we encountered some very rough weather, and that triggered a cascade of events that cut short our time at The Brothers, but ended up affording us the chance to dive on the Salem Express.

At that time, very few safari boats (as they are called in Egypt) made the long trip to the remote Brothers Islands, and those that did go there tended to be booked more than a year in advance. We had been trying to find space on one for several years, with no luck.

When we finally did get to go it was on quite short notice. A friend in Egypt told us that a dive club there had chartered a boat for a trip to The Brothers, and that he heard they had two empty spaces. The departure date was barely two weeks away, but we contacted the group that had chartered the boat, and asked if we could join them. They agreed. It was a scramble to arrange time off from work, and get ourselves and all of our gear to Egypt in time to join the expedition, but fueled by excitement, we made it.

Our delight at the chance to go to The Brothers was tempered when we first boarded the vessel that would take us there. In polite terms, it was a tub! Its steel hull and decks were covered with peeling white paint and quite a lot of rust. The cabins were minuscule and musty, with soggy mattresses on the bunks, and no bedsheets or pillows. There was just one lavatory on the vessel, but I won't describe what it looked like -- or how it smelled.

Given the state of the accommodations belowdecks, everyone on board -- crew and passengers alike -- ended up sleeping on the open upper decks each night. Had we known ahead of time, we all could have brought sleeping bags. Instead we used beach towels as blankets, and dive vests as pillows, and slept lined up in a row on the floor of the sun deck.

The one good feature of this operation was the boat's cook, who was superb. He produced wonderful, hearty food, and plenty of it. He even cooked homemade soup for us each day. The good food helped to make up for the lack of other amenities.

The other 10 divers on this trip were all members of a club, so they knew one another. They were a friendly bunch -- an assortment of British, Swedish, Swiss and American ex-pats living in Egypt. Four were dive instructors, and two more were dive guides who worked in Sharm el Sheikh (on a sort of busman's holiday). In sum, all were very experienced divers, and all 'old hands' at Red Sea diving, although save for one, none had ever been to The Brothers.

Off we went, heading south along the Egyptian Red Sea coast for the first day, stopping at three reefs along the way for dives. Some time after dinner we got underway for the overnight cruise to The Brothers. Our boat had no navigation equipment save for a compass and the experience of the skipper. From a certain point along the coast, he set his heading due east, and steered on a straight course through the night. Just before dawn we spotted the beam from the lighthouse on Big Brother island. We had made it! (The first photo, above, shows our skipper at the helm as we approached Big Brother.)

dock at Big Brother island, Red SeaOn the evening of our second day at the tiny remote islands, we were tied up at the rickety wooden dock near the lighthouse on Big Brother -- that's it in the photo at right. Out of nowhere, it seemed, the wind came up and the sea frothed around us. We all took shelter in the vessel's dining room, hoping the squall would soon pass. It didn't.

We were pounded by the fierce weather all night long, and the boat alternated between clanging against the dock and then straining at its mooring lines as it was tossed in the opposing direction by rolling seas. Eventually a mooring line snapped, and a moment later the second one broke as well. The crew started the engines in a panic, and in an instant we shoved off and the skipper edged the boat offshore, away from the dock. We spent what was left of the night bobbing in heavy seas, well enough offshore to avoid being swept onto the shallow reefs that surrounded the islands.

When morning came the skipper told us the worst news: He had no spare mooring lines. We would have to leave and head back to the coast of Egypt. Once there he could send a deck hand ashore in a dinghy to fetch new lines, but by then it would be too late to come all the way back to The Brothers. We would be making no more dives there this trip.

The divers were incredulous and angry. We all felt like we had been duped, and there was much arguing and loud talk of mutiny. But the skipper was adamant: We had to head back to the coast for safety, and since it was an eight hour trip even in good weather, we had to get underway immediately so we could reach a harbor on the coast before nightfall.

The voyage back to the coast was brutal. We began the trip in the dining room, but the smell of diesel fumes there made everyone feel ill. So, despite the weather, we all moved to the open sun deck, clinging to anything stationary so we wouldn't be tossed overboard by the violent motion of the boat as it plowed through heavy seas. It was a miserable scene.

At one point our dear cook appeared and told us it was far too rough to cook, but that he had fixed us a cold lunch! His offering was a colorful array of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers nicely arranged on a plastic cafeteria-style tray. In the center of the tray was a heap of canned tuna. He set down the tray on the floor of the sun deck, and those of us who were not already too seasick to eat skittered over to it. The boat was pitching so much that we had to move toward it on our hands and knees, like a bunch of scavenger crabs converging on a carcass.

It was a turning point, that lunch. With our bellies full, the mood lifted, and then so did the weather. The sun came out, the size of the swells diminished, and our skipper came to the sullen divers on the sun deck with a new proposal. He said he understood how disappointed we were, but that he had an idea for something that might be a good alternative adventure for us. He told us he knew exactly where the wreck of the Salem Express was, and he offered to take us there to dive on it, even though it was technically illegal to do so at that time.

We could hardly believe it. We all knew of the wreck, but in 1992 it was still a forbidden dive: the wreck was still too fresh. We conferred quickly amongst ourselves and decided that, legal or not, it was too enticing an opportunity to pass up. We told the skipper to take us to our consolation prize.

Next -- our first dive on the Salem Express.


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

What a wreck!

Divers on the wreck of the Salem ExpressOne of the questions we are asked most often about diving -- right after "Have you seen any sharks?" -- is "Have you ever dived on a shipwreck?"

We have dived on many wrecks, in many locations. Some were so old, decomposed, and covered with coral and marine plants that, except for the fact that there were bits shaped in an angular way not commonly found in nature, you'd hardly know you were looking at a piece of a wreck. Others were vessels that had been cleaned up and sunk intentionally to serve as artificial reefs -- and diver playgrounds.

By far, the most interesting wrecks to dive on are ships that sank due to some catastrophe. There is something very exciting -- and at the same time sobering -- about visiting the remains of vessels that had been underway until some sort of accident, act of war, or natural disaster caused them to sink. Many still bear the remains of their cargo, as well as items that had belonged to, or been used by, their crew or passengers.

I have to admit, though, that diving on 'real' wrecks can also be a bit creepy -- especially if you know that people died in whatever catastrophe did the ship in. In the next few posts, we'll tell you the story of one such wreck -- the Salem Express, a ferryboat that sank in the Red Sea in December of 1991, just outside the port of Safaga, Egypt. Several hundred lives were lost in that accident.

By chance, we were in Egypt when the Salem Express sank. We happened to be in Cairo, so we saw the dramatic TV news footage of the victims' relatives crying at the pier in Safaga, and read the newspaper stories full of speculation about what could have caused the vessel to run up on a reef so close to the port. The whole country was shocked by the Salem Express disaster.

Not long after, we heard from a diver friend who had been in Safaga at the time. He was staying near the port at a hotel that was popular with divers. He told us that the Egyptian authorities came around to that hotel on the night of the accident, asking for volunteers to help with search and rescue efforts. Our friend volunteered, along with most of the other divers who were staying at the hotel. They went immediately to the site of the accident in small boats, but they found no one alive to rescue. Our friend helped to recover some bodies, an experience that he said he would not wish to repeat, ever.

The following July, not quite seven months after the Salem Express sank, we got to visit the wreck. In fact, we made several dives there. How we got to do that is as much a story as what we saw at the site of the wreck.

Be patient. It will take several posts to tell the tale.

Here are the links to the rest of this story:

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

Muck diving - The tale of the cross-eyed cone shell snail

by B. N. Sullivan

As I explained in my previous post, I was oblivious to the fact that snails (of all things!) had eyes until I began to photograph these creatures. Once I made the discovery, though, I always looked for eyes. In fact, eyes and faces became a recurrent theme in my underwater photos of marine animals.

Of all the critters I have photographed, the little creature on this page is the only cross-eyed one I've ever recorded. It's a Mediterranean Cone Shell (Conus mediterraneus), and the photo demonstrates the fact that the eyes, which are on flexible stalks, can move independently. I managed to shoot six frames of this very cooperative individual before it retracted completely into its shell. The eyes are 'crossed' in each of the six photos.

Mediterranean Cone Shell (Conus mediterraneus)

While the photo has a certain giggle factor, to me it also says something else: you never know what you're going to find or where you're going to find it. I photographed the cross-eyed cone shell in a shallow area near Cape Greco, on the eastern end of Cyprus. The area is known to divers for its rather interesting rocky terrain and some small caves -- but not for remarkable marine life.

I almost didn't take the camera with me on this particular dive, in part because a friend who had been there before us had mentioned that "there was nothing there worth photographing." At the last moment, I decided to set up the camera for macro photography, just in case. As it turned out, that was the right thing to do.

We spent most of the dive in the shallows, on our bellies, rummaging around in the the sand and pebbles looking for little critters. This is called 'muck diving' -- a genre of underwater exploration pursued by photographers and nature lovers who have learned that while lush coral reefs may be the most obvious place to find photogenic marine life, there are many small and interesting creatures living in less glamorous habitats, too. Muck divers look for and find great photo subjects -- like our cross-eyed cone shell -- on sandy bottoms and mud flats, in sea grass beds and mangrove swamps.

The lesson here is that there is always something to see, and something to photograph in just about any marine environment. You just have to know what to look for and how to find it.

Note:  The above image is a macro photo of a rather small creature.  In life, the shell is less than two inches long, but the wonderful crossed eyes are displayed well in this larger-than-life image, don't you think?

Meeting critters, eyeball to eyeball

by B. N. Sullivan

You've heard of 'snake eyes' -- but have you ever seen snail eyes? I mean, who knew?! I certainly didn't realize that snails had eyes -- nor had I even thought about it -- until I got serious about underwater photography.

Milk Conch (Strombus costatus), Cayman IslandsI made the discovery one day when we found a large conch shell on a sandy patch and I decided to photograph it. As we approached the shell, it was clear that it had a living animal inside, because it had left a slightly indented trail in the sand as it had moved along.

First I took some shots of the shell where it lay on the sand, without disturbing it. Then I decided to turn it over to photograph 'the shiny side' -- the part kept smooth and pearly by the animal's secretions.

Conch shells, like other spirally constructed sea shells, are inhabited by gastropod marine snails. In fact, the shell itself is secreted by the snail over its lifetime. In the case of this particular species of conch, the snail inside often is quite large, and the shell can be up to about 6 inches in length.

When I turned over the one I was going to photograph, the snail retracted to hide itself in the depths of its shell. I set the shell back down on the sand, shiny side up, and only the tiniest bit of its mantle was visible in the aperture of the shell as I proceeded to photograph it.

I paused for a moment, kneeling on the sand while I twiddled with a few camera settings. When I turned back toward the shell to shoot again, I was amazed to see that the snail was peeking out of its shell at me. I managed to get this one shot of those wonderful eyes on their flexible stalks before the critter, reacting to the flash, disappeared into its shell once more.

I turned the shell over again, placing it back on the sand the way we had found it, and we continued the dive. I wondered anxiously if I actually had managed to capture those eyes on film, and could hardly wait to see the slides. As you can see, the shot was successful.

For the record, the species in the image on this page is a 'Milk Conch' (Strombus costatus). I photographed it in the Caribbean Sea on a sand flat just west of Jackson Bay, Little Cayman island.

Meet some of our fans

Subergorgia hicksoni, Red Sea

by B. N. Sullivan

Gorgonian sea fans are a common sight on most tropical reefs, and some semi-tropical reefs. Sea fans actually are colonies of coral polyps attached to flexible tissue called gorgonin, which grows over time into intricately intertwined branches. The result is the characteristic fan-shaped colony.

The polyps feed by extending their tiny tentacles to entrap microscopic plankton that pass by. For this reason, sea fans are found most often in areas of the reef where there are mild to moderate currents, including tidal currents. The fan shape of the colony is adaptive for catching food.

Many species of sea fan are quite colorful. They get their color from microscopic organisms called zooxanthellae, a type of algae that lives in the tissues of corals. The zooxanthellae produce nutrients through photosynthesis, and these nutrients are used by the host corals.

The sea fans in the photo on this page are 'Hickson's Giant Fans' (Subergorgia hicksoni), one of the most common Red Sea fan species. The photo was taken at The Brothers Islands, a pristine marine preserve in an isolated area of the Red Sea. The image was captured during a deep dive on the southeast side of Little Brother, the smaller of the two 'brothers.'

We entered the water from a boat moored near the southern tip of the island, and headed counterclockwise along the island's edge as we began our descent. We rounded a bend and were astonished to see an entire deep slope, beginning at a depth of about 35 meters (115 feet), covered with rows and rows of these large sea fans.

As we descended toward them, I remember thinking that they looked almost like the backs of theater seats, all lined up and facing the same direction, into the current. The scene was almost too much to take in, and impossible to capture well with the camera. It's dark at that depth, and even the most powerful strobes only light an area a few feet wide. So, I had to settle for what you see here.

No backbone - Marine invertebrates

by B. N. Sullivan
Nope, that's not a discarded plastic shopping bag that Jerry is looking at in the photo. It's a comb jelly (Phylum: Ctenophora), one of the many kinds of marine invertebrates we've come to know. ['invertebrate' = no backbone]

Most comb jellies are transparent, or at least translucent like the one in the photo, and appear to have an iridescent sheen. Some have fine tentacles, which they use to grab prey. Others capture prey by enveloping them. This one probably fits the latter category. We're not certain of the species name for this specimen, but our best guess is that it belongs to the genus Beroe.

Comb jellies tend to be pelagic -- that is, they live in the open ocean rather than in reef areas. Once in awhile they drift in closer to shore.

This comb jelly was photographed off the coast of Puako, Hawaii at a depth of about 85 feet (26 meters) near a rocky outcropping known as Snapper Point. Snapper Point is one of our very favorite local dive sites. As this photo demonstrates, it's one of the places in our home waters where we're most likely to encounter The Right Blue.

The Silent World

by B. N. Sullivan

I doubt there's a serious diver or ocean lover who has not read, or at least heard of, Jacques Cousteau's landmark book, The Silent World. For many of us, it was our first introduction to the notion that people could put on a mask and fins and underwater breathing apparatus and explore the wonders beneath the surface of the sea.

'The Silent World' by J Y CousteauI still have the paperback copy of the book that I acquired as a kid. That's it on the right. It's been read and re-read more times than I can count, and lent to more people than I can remember. Somehow it always managed to find its way back to my bookshelf.

The pages are brown and brittle now, and the binding barely holds those pages together, but I still like to look at it. The photos are as amazing as the text.

The book was first published in English in 1953. The paperback edition I have, from Cardinal Books, was published in 1955. I probably acquired it a year or two after that, although I'm not certain. I only know that it's been on a shelf in my personal library as far back as I can remember. It's still a good read.

The Not-So-Silent World

The Silent World figured as a great lure to visit the underwater world, but as it turns out, that world often is far from silent. Some sounds are annoying -- loud engines on boats passing overhead, for example. Other sounds, like whales singing or dolphins chattering, are sheer delight.  Many kinds of marine life make clicking sounds, always amusing. A strangely soothing sound is pouring rain splashing on the water's surface, or a strong wind whipping across, creating a visible froth and an audible shhh, shhh, shhh for divers below.

Then there are the startling sounds. One instance that stands out in memory was the sound of sonar pings from submarines. We heard those while diving in the Straits of Tiran, in the Red Sea, during the first Gulf War.

In another instance, we were in the Caribbean, diving at the top of a wall near the southwest tip of Grand Cayman. We were by ourselves and just poking along, taking pictures and watching a hungry hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) lay waste to what had been a large sponge. We heard what at first sounded like a low thrum, and then sounded like an intermittent whir. We could tell that whatever was making the sound was getting nearer. We craned our necks, looking this way and that, but we couldn't see any boats passing overhead. Then one of us looked down.

There was a strange light well beneath us, and it appeared to be ascending the wall toward us. We were transfixed. We had no idea what it was. After a few minutes we could see that the light actually was several lights, and they were attached to a bright yellow mini sub. It was a deep-diving mini sub -- the kind that operates as a tourist attraction -- and its pilot was shining spotlights on the wall to illuminate the scenery for the sightseeing passengers. Since we were positioned literally right above the sub, they couldn't see us.

For a moment we looked at each other, considering whether we should stay put and surprise the tourists -- maybe even give them the scare of their lives. But we quickly came to our senses and swam away, well to the side of the sub's path, fearing the whirling propellers. We stayed clear as it reached the top of the wall and then motored away across a sand flat. The people in the mini sub never did see us.

In case you are wondering, I didn't get a photo. As luck would have it, I was set up for macro photography that dive -- and you can't change lenses underwater. My luck!