Report and photos by Georgina Cole
For a few years the daily dive boats from El Gouna and Hurghada have not been allowed to visit the 130m long British armed Merchant Navy ship SS Thistlegorm so the only way to dive this wreck from this side of the Red Sea is to book a liveaboard trip.
Occasionally we hear of day trips using safari licenses and on Saturday, whilst disappointed that a planned day trip had been cancelled, I was told by Mat Cotton at Emperor Divers in El Gouna of an overnight trip departing on Sunday. It sounded perfect so I took my kit over to Emperor at the Moevenpick Hotel and booked myself on. My fellow club members interested in the Thistlegorm had already rebooked a dive to the Rosalie Moller, which is a regular trip for us, so it was just going to be me departing on Sunday from our club.
On Sunday morning I was picked up and driven over to Abydos Marina, where most of the dive boats depart in El Gouna, and boarded the boat 'Sea Dream'. Whilst I was not expecting the usual luxurious Emperor safari boats just for an overnighter I was pleased to find out that myself and the other divers had ensuite cabins. Once the formalities of passport copies was sorted we were on our way around 9.30am. So just six divers in total, the crew and two guides.
It took around three hours to cross the bumpy Straits of Gobal to reach the mooring for the Thistlegorm off the Sinai Coast. When we arrived there was just one other boat moored there with another approaching from the distance. My buddies were Joel aged 15, a PADI AOW with 22 logged dives and his father Ned, both divers at home in Northern Ireland. They were on holiday in Makadi Bay and the non-diving wife had remained at the hotel to relax. Our guide was Mohamed and there were also three Russians diving with the other guide Tarek.
The first dive I was escorted down by two large bat fish probably hoping to find something good to eat in my mass of floating hair. We landed over the bomb damaged section where the ship was hit from the air by the squadron of Heinkels searching for a large troop ship. The two 450kg bombs struck her mid section detonating much ammunition and killing four crew members and nine sailors. With the Egyptian night sky lit up by the blazing ship she sank immediately on 6th October 1940. Hold 4 had been full of armoured vehicles, aerial bombs, cases of anti tank mines, ammunition, hand grenades. I remember when I last dived the wreck a few years ago seeing all the long black rubber Wellington boots which the troops would have used to cross the muddy terrain. All I saw now were the thick soles with the rubber eroded away. We dropped down to the seabed and the steeply listing stern to view the armed freighter's heavy fixed position machine gun and a 120mm anti-aircraft gun silhouetted against the surface. Rounding the stern to the massive propeller and then following the steep sides of the ship along to the bow we were joined by an enormous Napoleon Wrasse. We finished the 41 minute dive on the deck by the crumpled railway wagons with a large turtle resting nearby that we often spotted on the surface later as it came up regularly for air.
After lunch we began the second dive dropping down into hold no.2. This was also my 600th dive! The hold is full of rusting Bedford trucks and rows of BSA and Norton motor bikes. We swam through a hole into hold no. 1 full which was loaded with Lee Enfield Rifles, spare parts, camp beds, tires, more rubber boots, Morris cars and BSA bikes. We only saw our six divers and two guides on both dives unlike before when the holds have been full of divers torch beams and camera flashes. Sorry no underwater photos as no-one on our trip took a camera.
Our surface interval back on deck was spent watching the sunset and preparing for the night dive. Six dive boats were now moored up for the night around us.
This was my first night dive on the Thistlegorm and the plan was to explore the holds again. I was a little apprehensive thinking we wouldn't be able to see the light of the exits out of the holds in the dark but the bright lights of the dive boats on the surface shed a dull glow over the decks. We saw a huge scorpion fish and giant moray and lots of lion fish hunting in the torch light. Really enjoyed the night dive in the eery darkness. 20 meters max depth and 45 minutes dive time and back onboard for dinner.
Moored next to us overnight was a very nice liveaboard full of Italians called Desmondo. After dinner most of us retired to bed around 11pm as we would be briefed at 6am for the next dive. I went down to my cabin and discovered the windows had leaked during the rough crossing and my bed was rather damp at one end! Never mind and very nearly drifting off to sleep but the horrendous roar of the generator from Desmondo kept interrupting my approaching dreams. The boats bright lights were also filtering through my porthole windows and together with the heat of the still, windless night and with our generator switched off and therefore air conditioning and lights not working I decided around 1.30am that I would have to move and find somewhere cooler, quieter and less bright.
I went up to the sun deck but all the benches on the side away from Desmondo were occupied by the other five divers. The upper sun deck was completely soaking wet with condensation due to the high temperature and no wind. I went into the dark lounge and lay on the first seat not wishing to disturb the gentle snoring I could hear further in. Thought I would be fine here until Desmondo drifted round a little closer so now their strong deck lights were bobbing up and down like search lights right onto my face.
It was now around 2.30am and I was tempted to dive down to get some ammunition to sink Desmondo but decided instead to grab a small plastic mattress from a bench and took it down to the also soaking wet dive platform next to the rhib. Perfect as long as I stayed on my small plastic island and didn't let the blanket slip. I lay back and searched for shooting stars just a few feet from the water and then realised just how noisy the sea is at night. The fish were constantly jumping out of the water and splash landing. At least it was more pleasant than the relentless roar of the generator which was inescapable. It was beautifully cool outside and very humid so it wasn't long before my blanket and pillow were damp. Still wide awake at 4.20am it was worth a restless night to see the sky slowly turning pink and the red sun rising from behind the mountains just after 5am. The divers on Des had probably slept very well as they were all kitted up and jumping in the water at 5.40am.
Just two of our group kitted up at 6am for our fourth dive on the Thistlegorm and dropped down to the sea bed at 30 meters and swam about 20m away to one of the locomotives that was blown off the wreck during the forceful explosion. It was nice to have the time to explore the sea bed a little before moving round the outside of the ship and then up to visit the Captain's bathroom. I always think of my father when diving this wreck as the supplies were heading for the British 8th army in North Africa where he was an Officer.
After breakfast we crossed back over to Abu Nuhas to dive the wreck of the Ghiannis D and explored inside the engine room. The Ghiannis D is such a pretty and photographic wreck covered in colourful corals and beautifully lit in the morning sunshine and a regular excursion for our club from El Gouna. The sixth and final dive was at El Gilwa around 11am where we were joined by Emperor's day boat from El Gouna keen to hear the news of our expedition.
We were back early afternoon to a stifling 40 degrees on land but everyone had thoroughly enjoyed themselves. I have to say a big thank you to Emperor Divers and especially to Mat for letting me know about the trip and for the excellent service received from their staff, boat crew and guides.
I really enjoyed just doing a one night trip and will definitely organise another trip after Ramadan for our other dive club members and, of course, me to enjoy again.
If you would like to know more about this overnight trip, please email firstname.lastname@example.org