Shipwrecks in the Red Sea: Heritage gems deserve to be saved

Farah El-Akkad, Tuesday 8 Nov 2022

October and November are often thought to be the best months to dive in Egypt. The attractions are calmer now that the summer has gone, the temperature is relatively moderate, the wind is calm, and the visibility underwater is at its best.

USS Thistlegorm (photo courtesy of Mohamed Salama, Cmauch team)
USS Thistlegorm (photo courtesy of Mohamed Salama, Cmauch team)

 

As an Alexandria resident for the past three years and a student at the city’s Centre of Maritime Archaeology and Underwater Cultural Heritage (CMAUCH), my interest in diving has been piqued.

It took me by surprise to learn that the best time to dive is right after a storm and even sometimes when it is still windy on the surface of the water.

Underneath, it can be quite different at the same time and even tranquil.

Recreational or Scuba diving has been popular in Egypt at least since the early 2000s, particularly in Hurghada and the Red Sea.

The country is one of the top diving sites in the world today, and people everywhere are familiar with the extraordinary beauty of the underwater life of the Red Sea with its colourful coral reefs.

The Red Sea contains one of the richest coral reef ecosystems in the world. But in addition to the natural wonders of the Red Sea or the Mediterranean and the crystal-clear water off the north coast at Marsa Matrouh, Egypt’s seas are also home to a number of stunning shipwrecks. Many Red Sea visitors, whether divers or not, are familiar with them.

Emad Khalil, a professor of maritime archaeology and founder of the CMAUCH, is a diving pioneer in Egypt. He was one of the first Egyptians to become a certified diver in the early 1990s when diving was restricted to a couple of centres around the Red Sea. Khalil is also one of the first Egyptians to have worked with the US archaeological expeditions that took place in the Red Sea during the 1990s.

In 1994, a US expedition from the University of Texas (A&M) Centre of Maritime Archaeology established a branch in Alexandria. Its first project was an archaeological survey of the Red Sea, and during its work the Centre made contact with the community of fishermen and divers there. Professor Cherly Ward, director of the Centre, received a call from a diver informing her about a shipwreck located 40 km south of Hurghada and called the Sadana Island Shipwreck.

Dating back to the 18th century, this was an Ottoman ship that sank while carrying goods across the Red Sea. Studies have shown that it was one of three ships discovered in the Red Sea dating back to the same era and built to the same design. Another one was discovered near Sharm El-Sheikh in the 1960s by Israel during its occupation of Sinai after the 1967 War. “A paper was published about the ship in a magazine, but this is the only information available about it,” Khalil said.

The Red Sea is one of the oldest trade routes in the world, and it has long hosted ships carrying goods from China and the Far East to the Mediterranean and Europe. The goods were brought by ship to the Red Sea and then taken to Suez and the Mediterranean and all over the then Ottoman Empire.

“The three ships whose wrecks have been found all had the same purpose: their route was from the Red Sea to Suez, and they were built in Suez using wood imported from Europe,” Khalil explained. They often carried luxury goods such as glass, fine Chinese porcelain, spices from India, and perfumes. These were goods that were mainly for the elite.

The first investigation of the Sadana Island Shipwreck took place in 1995, though the discovery date of the ship is unknown. This was followed by more investigations in 1996 and 1998. “Each season lasted for the three months of July, August and September. There were large teams involved, sometimes reaching 40 people. The work involved excavating artefacts from the wreck, studying the wood, the origin of the ship, where it had come from and where it was going,” Khalil said.

It was the first project of its kind in Egypt, and it is still the only one to have been conducted up until the present day, he said.

OTHER PROJECTS

Archaeological projects taking place afterwards were mostly concerned with surveying and/or photographing shipwrecks and excavating small artefacts or statues such as those found in the Eastern Harbour of Alexandria.

Having found more than 3,000 artefacts, some of which are now on show at the Museum of Hurghada, the Sadana team discovered that they had only excavated about 30 or 40 per cent of the wreck. It is the largest of the three found so far and is about 50 metres long and 900 tons. It lies at a depth of some 48 metres.

 “Technology then was not as developed as it is today, and the site of the wreck is quite complicated, particularly because of its location,” Khalil explained. It is, however, “a real treasure” in terms of its location and history.

The third shipwreck to be discovered, that of the Umluj, is of a ship of the same design and route. It is also a cargo ship and was discovered off the coast of Saudi Arabia, with investigations being carried out last September by the Saudi ministry of culture and the Saudi Heritage Commission. A team from the CMAUCH and another from the University of Naples in Italy was also involved. Unlike the Sadana ship, the Umluj is located in shallow water,

The US expedition finished excavations at the Sadana shipwreck at the end of three seasons (1995-98). But 20 years later in 2018, Khalil decided to go back with his team from the CMAUCH to make a new assessment of the ship and the changes that have occurred. The idea was “to check on the boat’s structure and get an overview of its condition,” Khalil explained.

The 2018 investigation was followed by other visits in 2019 and 2021. “Unfortunately, the ship is not in the best condition, as it has not been properly protected,” he said. A full excavation should be carried out, as this “will make an immense difference, particularly if the rest of the artefacts are rescued and put in museums.”  

According to a report written by Khalil and published by the Honor Frost Foundation on the Sadana shipwreck, thousands of artefacts are still underwater “They have been covered by sand bags, hoping to hide them from possible looters. On the other hand, the object that has been the least studied is the wreck itself. The surveying techniques at that time and the depth of the site prevented developing accurate plans of the wreck,” the report says.

Founded in 2011, the Honor Frost Foundation is named after Honor Frost, a pioneer in the field of maritime and underwater archaeology. The foundation was established after she passed away in 2010, leaving the bulk of her estate to support and promote research and projects in the field, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean off the coasts of countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Syria.

“The current project carried out an evaluation of the site and the condition of the wreck. It also developed a general plan of the site using photogrammetry techniques. Based on that, it was realised that the site is subject to looting by sports divers. Therefore, an in-situ preservation plan has to be developed to be able to protect the site from further damage. The hull has to be fully excavated, recorded thoroughly, and then reburied again,” the reports says.

“The hull is mostly preserved beneath the sediment. The fact that the site is relatively deep limits the time that sports divers using single 12-litre tanks can spend underwater. However, the artefacts which were covered by sandbags in the 1990s are now totally exposed and lying on the seabed, which makes them vulnerable to looting. Having carried out a dive on the site to the depth of 50 m, it was realised that the seabed at that depth still contains archaeological remains beneath the soft sediments. It became evident that the site required further and more thorough investigation by a larger team, using a bigger boat and excavation equipment.”

A BRITISH WRECK

Sunk in 1941, the SS Thistlegorm is without doubt the most popular shipwreck in the Red Sea and one of the top sites in the world.

The Thistlegorm was a British cargo supply ship bombed by the German airforce during World War II near Ras Mohamed off Sharm El-Sheikh. Today the ship lies in an area called Shaab Ali north of Ras Mohamed at a depth of 30 m. The 128 m ship carried tons of war supplies such as trucks, rifles, motor carriages and motorbikes.

In 2017 the CMAUCH visited the site on a mission in collaboration with the University of Nottingham in England to make a 3D survey of the wreck using photogrammetry and carry out detailed documentation of both the interior and exterior body of the ship in order to monitor and keep track of changes taking place from year to year with the help of the Chamber of Diving and Water Sports (CDWS).

This was followed by another visit this year, this time with a team from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to complete the 3D modelling of the ship, adding different parts that were scattered away from it during its explosion and sinking in 1941. The photogrammetry technique allows the breakdown and recording of each section/part of the wreck to produce a realistic model of it.

Mohamed Salama, a maritime archaeologist specialising in digital archaeology, was a member of the team working on Thistlegorm in 2017 and 2022 after working on underwater heritage sites in Alexandria and off the Mediterranean coast.

The “Alexandria underwater sites are located in quite shallow water compared to the depth of shipwrecks in the Red Sea,” Salama said. “As a maritime archaeologist, you have a whole set of priorities on your mind. Unlike fun diving, you are on a mission, and your time is limited, be it doing a 3D survey and/or using different techniques to document the ship. The deeper you dive, the less time you have down there, unlike in the Mediterranean where we have more time,” he said.

“In the Red Sea you need to be extremely focused and above all a skilled and advanced diver in order to be able to dive to shipwrecks such as the Thistlegorm.” Most recreational diving centres in the Red Sea recommend a minimum of 20 dives before diving to the site.

Other shipwrecks in the Red Sea include the Rosalie Moeller, also bombed by the Germans two days after the Thistlegorm was destroyed in 1941. The Dunraven, a British ship sunk in 1870 on its journey from Bombay to England, is one of the oldest wrecks in the Red Sea. Ghiannis D, a Greek ship, was on its route from Croatia to Saudi Arabia in 1983 when it hit a wreck and sank. Carnatic, also one of the oldest shipwrecks in the Red Sea, put to sea in 1862 and sank in 1869.

Today, the shipwrecks of the Red Sea are home to an amazing marine life of soft corals, sea turtles, goatfish, morays and countless kinds of fish. But unfortunately, though often stunning tourist attractions, their popularity comes at a price.

Most of these sites have no place for anchorage, and so diving boats and yachts anchor on the shipwrecks themselves causing damage to the remains of the ships and breaking parts of them. There are many YouTube videos capturing the damage caused by boats to the Thistlegorm, for example.

According to the project website, “dive charter vessels weighing over 40 tons attach their mooring lines directly to the wreck, wrapping them around upstanding features such as railings and guns. As rope mooring lines can be cut by sharp parts of the wreck, dive operators have recently taken to using wire lines, which can cause much more damage as they can cut into the metal structure of the wreck itself.”

The CMAUCH plans to draw up a management plan for the Thistlegorm site to eliminate the damage caused by diving boats. It will put tags on different parts of the wreck, so people can learn about what they are seeing.

In 2015, Ahmed Gabr, the Guinness world record holder for the deepest dive in the world (332 metres), started an initiative to gather together divers to do an underwater clean up in the Red Sea, the first of its kind in Egypt. Since then, he has taken the lead in both underwater and beach clean ups, organising a number of annual events to help protect the environment.

Last September, Gabr announced a new project in collaboration with the ministry of the environment (Environmental Affairs Agency), his company Gabrtek, and the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology. The project involves the restoration of damaged coral reefs in the Red Sea through coral nurseries in a process known as Coral Reefs Propagation that creates coral nurseries made of organic substances to prompt its quick growth and then replant it in damaged reefs.

The project is also in preparation for the UN COP27 Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh in November. There are hopes that similar projects can extend to the marvelous diving sites of the Red Sea, which are not only home to incredible marine life, but are also heritage gems that deserve to be saved, protected, and preserved for the generations to come.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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