My eyes were as wide as saucers, but it was only partly due to the dim light inside the hold. The Thistlegorm was every bit as good as her reputation, and then some. To boot, my buddy and I were the only ones in her, despite hosting over 60,000 dives a year. We swam a circuit round the hold, going over British WW2 Enfield motorcycles, past a truck and a jeep, aircraft engine cowlings, and round the chassis of a car, its radiator remarkably whole. Something stirred in the gloom and my torch beam I picked out a large green turtle. As we came out of the hold, by the locomotive water tanker sitting on the port side of the deck, the rest of my shipmates were descending the anchor line amidships.
Text and images by Christopher Bartlett
Discovered during one of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s first expeditions aboard the Calypso during the early months of 1956, the 375-foot SS Thistlegorm had been bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe on the night of October 5th 1941. The ill-fated vessel’s amidships were blown open when bombs struck the ammunition hold exposing Bren gun carriers, rifles, and artillery shells. She sank with her cargo full of war supplies, taking the lives of nine sailors with her. Laying to the north west of Ras Mohamed, at a depth of 17 – 35metres, the SS Thistlegorm has become one of the most sought after wreck dives in the entire world.
After leaving the holds, we finned with the gentle current to take in the stern and the coral encrusted artillery and anti-aircraft guns mounted to the rear. She is a real beauty with many treasures to discover. I managed to dive her three more times in the following 16 hours. After a very eerie night dive into the hold punctuated by watching another group of divers put on a light show Jean-Michel Jarre would have been proud of, I hit my cabin early so as to hit the water at sunrise, a cunning plan to get her alone with my buddy again.
The light was incredible and the current slack, allowing us to move 25 yards off to port to check out one of the two locomotives blown off the deck in the explosion. With a locomotive laying on each side, when the current is pumping it’s hard to get to either of them. At sunrise the port side loco looks particularly cool, and must be one of a very few underwater train wrecks. When the current picks up with the tide, as it did on my last dive, the bows around the anchor winch buzz with schooling fish swarming back and forth.
Operated by the Red Sea Diving College, VIP One is a 16-berth, purpose built, luxury motor yacht which has been crafted and built by lovers of the Red Sea. Drawing on twenty years’ of Red Sea expertise, VIP One has been designed to offer the best in both comfort and safety for both open circuit and rebreather divers. On my trip there were four rebreather divers who were assigned their own CCR guide (all the guides are at least instructors).
Air conditioned and spacious throughout, the interior boasts large double cabins with private bathrooms, a generous saloon and dining room and a fully stocked bar area. Externally you will find sizeable sundecks on a number of levels perfect for sunbathing, reading or even an on-deck barbecue. And a top deck bar offers a perfect location for enjoying the Sinai’s spectacular sunsets.
Before embarking on the VIP One three days previously, I wasn’t much of a wreck-head. I did have a penchant for WW2 plane wrecks from Papua New Guinea, but I’d always rated corals and fish over metal hulks. Three days on and my horizons had been widened. We’d warmed up to the Thistlegorm by visiting a series of wrecks on the other side of the Straits of Gubal at Abu Nuhas reef, which has claimed at least four vessels. The first two days diving were spent diving the splendid wrecks of the Giannis D, the Carnatic, the Chrisoula K, the Kimon M, and the Kingston. Then we crossed back over the straits to arrive on the Thistlegorm just as everyone else had left their moorings to get in two afternoon dives and a night dive on one of the most interesting wrecks in the world.
But let’s go back to the start. The Giannis D, a 300-foot Greek cargo ship that sank in 1983, was a spectacular start. He stern is arguably one of the most photogenic anywhere. The viz wasn’t as good as ideally necessary for a noise-free image, but she was still a stunner with great soft corals and a bridge full of glassfish. The Chrisoula K is another Greek freighter from the early ‘80s with easy access to the bridge, another sexy stern and resident batfish.
The P&O steam sailer SS Carnatic sank in 1879 and has almost become a reef in itself, starting at just 12 feet depth at the bows. Access to the holds is easy and open, with more soft corals, glassfish, lionfish and anemones. After a great dive on this iconic site, my buddy and I were the last ones to surface with Hooch, our guide, and were zipping back to the boat in the RIB when its helmsman Mohammed simultaneously swung hard over to port and yelled “dolphins”. “Snorkel gear on fellas” was the order from Hooch, and in we went. It was hard to resist freediving down to play with them, but luckily a few clumsy rolls and spins at two metres was enough to get them to play. There were close to a dozen, with two youngsters sticking close to their mums, and a playful adult who dived down to the reef and came up to Hooch balancing a stick of dead coral on its nose. Splendid.
The Kimon M is also nearby. Lying on her starboard side, she has an excellent swim-through down most of her length, and pink, white and orange soft corals decorate her superstructure, making her a treat for wide angle and fisheye lens. Small schools of batfish hang around her too.
Ras Mohamed and Tiran Straits
After such a wreck-fest, we cruised from the Thistlegorm back to Ras Mohammed, home to some world-renowned dives sites, such as Jackfish alley, Shark Reef, and the wreck of the Yolanda.
We arrived mid-afternoon, just as the last of the day boats from Sharm-el-Sheikh moved off, leaving us and one other liveaboard alone. Day boat operators from Naama Bay tend to depart from and return to the Naama Bay jetty at the same time, meaning that there can be a high number of day boats on the most popular sites in Ras Mohamed (Shark Reef, Yolanda, Anemone City, Shark Observatory, etc.) and Tiran (Jackson reef especially). Liveaboards are allowed to overnight in Ras Mohamed Marine Park, meaning that you can dive the best sites before the daily boats arrive around 09:30 and after they leave at 16:00. It is not uncommon to be the only group on the best sites, even in July.
Between June and August large schools of snapper and barracuda hang around in the blue just off Shark Reef and have given it a reputation as being one of the best dive sites in the world. It did not disappoint, delivering a large school of both and a friendly Napoleon wrasse, two turtles, and a giant moray. There are fans and some swim-throughs, hard and soft corals. At sites like Temple and Fiesta, it is wise to keep an eye on the blue for mantas and whale sharks.
After another early morning extravaganza, we’d just finished breakfast and cast off when the flotilla from Sharm started to arrive. In an hour it would be diver soup. Not for us though, as we cruised to the straits of Tiran and Gordon reef for a post-lunch, late afternoon, and night dive. The Tiran Strait reefs of Gordon. Thomas, Woodhouse and Jackson have good hard and soft coral coverage, plenty of fish, and more fans. Jackson reef can be like swimming in fish soup on occasions, but its popularity also makes it a day boat magnet. An early morning blue dive off the back of Jackson yielded a distant glimpse of eight scalloped hammerheads, and a diver-free exploration of its gorgonian and fish-covered tip to end a fantastic week.
Need to Know:
When to Go: VIP One operates year-round. The schooling snapper and barracuda come to breed in June and July, but the big stuff like mantas, whale sharks, and scalloped hammerheads can be found, with a bit of luck, anytime.
Dive Conditions: Water temp: ranging from 21C in January to 29C in August
Viz: Often 90 feet +
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