It’s a beautiful morning. Our liveaboard sits brilliant white against the dreamy blue, and the sun scatters a million diamonds on the surface of the Egyptian Red Sea. Conditions couldn’t be better for the final dive of the week, and yet some of our party are sitting this one out, because down there, just over the rail off the port side, lies the wreck of the Salem Express.
Sunk after striking a reef during a storm on the night of December 15th 1991, on a voyage from Jeddah to Safaga, the roll-on roll- off passenger ferry went down in the space of ten minutes with the loss of 470 lives. In spite of intensive recovery efforts in the aftermath of the tragedy, the wreck was eventually sealed with bodies still inside.
Perhaps I should say that the mood on the dive deck was sombre, that we hardly said a word as we kitted up, each of us lost in our private thoughts. Or that the sun shrank behind dark threatening clouds as the wind picked up, and that the crew started to pray. It would be evocative, atmospheric, and melodramatic, and the sort of thing Clive Cussler might conjure up. But it would be disingenuous.
Truth is, I am up for this. I really want to dive the Salem Express. I’d already made the decision to dive the wreck, if I had the opportunity, and having made my choice I’ve already squared away the morality and the ethics of what I’m doing. So I know why I’m going over the side, and I’m satisfied that I’m diving for the right reasons. I’m not going as a passing ghoul, but because I’m drawn to wrecks, period. I would be diving the Salem if she’d been sent to the seabed as an artificial reef, having served for decades without encountering so much as a squall, or been responsible for a single case of mal de mer.
It would be foolish however, as a recreational diver, not to address the moral aspect whilst adding the Salem to the log book, bearing in mind it’s a tomb, and a relatively recent one at that. And because I’m already finning down towards the once personal possessions that litter the seabed in the shadow of the wreck. A crusty ghetto blaster, a shoe, a suitcase, it’s rotten lid gaping wide. It’s poignant, and even respecting those on our trip who chose not to dive the wreck, I don’t think any of us fanning out along the hull will be beaming from ear to ear and punching the air when we return to the dive deck.
This isn’t the first wreck I’ve explored where lives were lost. It’s not even the first this week. Thirty one went down with the Carnatic. Nine on the Thistlegorm. Two on the Rosalie Moller. Indeed my interest in wrecks stemmed from diving those sunk in the Pacific theatre, during WWII, where there were tremendous casualties, and where remains still lie, although I’ve never seen any personally, and never had the desire to seek them out.
It doesn’t take many war wreck dives before one is compelled to confront what it must have been like, the horror for those aboard as their island home sank beneath them. The drone of the bombers, angry specks in the sky homing in on their kill, the blast lifting men off their feet, the fire, the unbearable heat, choking smoke, confusion, panic, even the burning smell. How could I even begin to relate to that carnage?
They say the wreck of the Yamagiri Maru is a ‘must-dive’ at Chuuk, without ever saying exactly why. Is it because the skull of a sailor’s head is fused into the wreck? When I dive Chuuk will I too photograph the iconic remains of the unfortunate unknown as so many passing visitors have before? Would that be tasteful? When the cortege of Diana, Princess of Wales passed, it was an effort to look at the coffin, let alone use the camera I’d taken to capture the moment. When the opportunity arose suddenly the notion seemed trite.
Wrecks themselves, their metamorphoses as they slip displaced from our world into the next, softened by coral, changing their forms, mysterious and surreal, are captivating to me. There’s a certain frisson, a fascination, with seeing something familiar that through circumstance has slipped from view. There’s a surreal element to seeing a ship or plane in an environment it was never designed for. I spend far too much time trawling YouTube for video clips, reading books, listening to the experts, researching and planning trips, buying the T-shirts. And sporting the anorak of a wreck diver bitten by rust.
So I personally don’t have an objection to diving a wreck that holds the dead, be it sunk in 1941, or 1991, whether I knew there were remains there or not, whether they were soldiers, or as with the Salem Express, pilgrims. It is the wreck itself I dive for, rather than any sentiment or history attached to it. But you can understand that this is very much a decision for the individual, and I’d always respect a diver who says, “No thanks”.
Polarised views within the diving community about exploring such wrecks raises yet more questions: Is there a sliding scale of comfiness when visiting wrecks lost through different circumstances?
Are we pragmatic about the loss of life through natural causes, or force majeure, as with the SS Yongala, lost in a cyclone off Bowling Green Cape, Queensland Australia, in 1911 with all 121 on board.
Or through a tragic accident, as was the case with the Liban, which collided with the steamship Insulaire off the coast of Marseilles in 1903 taking nearly 200.
And what of acts of war? Was there a perceived difference between the loss of men on a fighting ship, that had not only the means to defend itself, but was purpose built and under orders to send others to the bottom, in contrast to the press-ganged merchant and support vessels of Chuuk, or Coron, that were essentially sitting ducks?
Or the loss of a Hell Ship? For example, the Oryoku Maru, bound for Japanese labour camps with Allied PoW’s, who died of suffocation and starvation in the holds, until sunk by American aircraft in an attack that killed 300 more? Those that survived the ordeal of the Hell Ships are determined to tell their story, and to preserve the memory of their comrades for future generations. Yet life goes on, so consequently the wreck of the Oryoku Maru in Subic Bay, the Philippines, arguably a monument to those victims, was later flattened and demolished, as it impeded a shipping lane.
published in Diver
published in Sportdiving Magazine
If these distinctions seem contrived, consider the wreck diver who pulls a face at the prospect of diving a ship sunk to form an artificial reef, as opposed to a vessel sunk during the course of its natural life? Or the dive operator who promotes the weaponry of his premier wreck dive.
When Bikini Atoll presented their wrecks, prospective divers were left in no doubt that these ships had formidable war records, and that although they might be laying in state on the seabed, they were doing so with their guns pointing to the surface, “as if ready for action”. Unlike the auxiliary fleet at Chuuk.
And I’m aware that the guns, bombs, and munitions that I slavishly photograph are for my memory, no one else’s.
Rightly or wrongly, we rate loss on a daily basis every time we hear the news. Who? Where? When? How, and how many? What is our proximity to the event? What is an appropriate reaction?
Divers will always visit the watery memorials as long as there’s something to see. But most of the names who went down with the ship we’ll never know, and frankly won’t care, whether they’re ‘our brave lads’, or not.
All the artefacts that can be pilfered probably will be, and yet we can still experience a unique window to the past that a shipwreck offers. The metal remembers and shows us, so we can see the evidence of how the catastrophe unfolded with our own eyes. The deck of the Thistlegorm, peeled back like the lid of a can of sardines after a bomb hit the magazine testifies this. As recreational divers we have the eyes of the accident investigator.
This doesn’t happen with disasters in the real world, where the site is cordoned off, investigated, sanitised, and put back into service. Sites such as the Hillsborough stadium, where 96 Liverpool football fans were killed as the result of a crowd surge in 1989, or more recently the terrorist attacks on the London Transport system of 7th July 2005.
Memorials to the victims are put in place, life goes on, and in time it will all but be forgotten. The disaster of the Salem Express will fade with the passing years, as it has with it’s more established Red Sea neighbours. Survivors of the trauma will pass away, and the wreck itself will deteriorate. In it’s place will be a virtual past, with reworked stories and embellished memories, until a myth is built. It’s inevitable, of course, but at least those who were lost won’t be totally ignored and forgotten. After all, who will be visiting your plot under the mud in a hundred years time?
Which brings us to the subject of wreck recovery, and very murky waters indeed.
Bringing a wreck to the surface is a tricky business, as Lew Grade, and anyone who has sat through the God - awful film-of-the-book ‘Raise the Titanic’, will appreciate. In real life it has been done, most notably in 1982, with the Mary Rose, the pride of Henry VIII, that went down with massive loss of life in 1545. They even showed it’s salvage live on TV, and I have to say, it was gripping stuff. There was a moment when the massive steel cradle supporting the timbers ‘slipped’, threatening to send the wreck back to the depths. I jumped in my chair. You couldn’t have made it up.
A section of the VOC ship Batavia, lost in 1629, was also recovered in the 1970’s, along with human remains, and is now impressively exhibited in the Western Australian Maritime Museum at Fremantle. As recently as December 2007, the Chinese raised an 800 year old cargo wreck, loaded with porcelain, dubbed the Nanhai 1 from the South China Seas.
The reclamation of these time capsules after centuries underwater have attracted wonderment and fascination world-wide, rather than the controversy that you might expect from disturbing a final resting place, reinforcing the idea that the passage of time determines our response.
And after centuries at the bottom, there’s no one living who might have lost relatives or loved ones in the initial tragedy.
So what about a fatal wreck raised in living memory?
Like most English schoolboys of the Sixties, I’d grown up with the ‘Bluebird’. Her pilot, Donald Campbell CBE, was the stuff of legend and cigarette cards. He’d broken world speed records in both the 1950’s and 1960’s, then went on to set both land and water speed records in 1964. He is to this day the only person to set both records in the same year.
In 1967 he took his jet propelled hydroplane, ‘Bluebird K7’ onto Coniston Water in an attempt to smash his own water speed record, but on the second run, disaster struck. Travelling at over 300 mph, the nose lifted, the boat somersaulted, hung for an instant, then disintegrated on impact. The nation saw the black and white footage and heard his last words. It was a time for stiff upper lips.
The wreck lay undisturbed until ‘Project Bluebird’, a team of divers led by Bill Smith, discovered and raised the wreckage from the lake in October 2000. The following June they found and recovered Campbell’s body, which had been thrown clear in the accident.
What intrigued me was the fact that the craft had been raised initially against the wishes of some of the Campbell family. I duly contacted Bill Smith, leader of Project Bluebird.
I wanted to know how he’d managed to resolve the moral issues inevitably attached to the project. Bill Smith’s reply? “If I had a pound for every time an attempt has been made to drag me into this argument...”
He wouldn’t be drawn further, suffice to say that, “It can be done.”
His comments reiterate just how many people find the prospect of recovery distasteful. The fact is that now not only has diving become more affordable and accessible, but so has the equipment for underwater exploration and detection, therefore allowing more divers to hunt with technology, and therefore with a much greater chance of success. Indeed one Coniston local commented on the sheer number of divers who were in the lake, searching like mad. “It has become like looking for the Holy Grail, trying to find Donald Campbell’s boat.”
The truth is if it hadn’t been Bill Smith and his team that discovered and salvaged Bluebird, it would’ve been someone else. Worse still, it might have been someone without the commitment and care and sensitivity that ‘Project Bluebird’ have shown.
It’s easy to imagine the wreck discovered, subsequently stripped and picked clean, trophy items ending up on a variety of mantelpieces, only of importance to the individuals who recovered them. And when they themselves have shuffled off to a nursing home? Chances are, with these scrap trophies out of context, the kids will discard them as junk.
So the wreck could never be left in situ. The very nature of the souvenir hunters themselves provide the perfect justification for bringing the wreck to the surface, for it’s own protection, while conveniently eroding any moral objections in the process. Very much a choice between having it recovered properly and preserved, or risk it being stripped to the bone by persons unknown and scattered to the four winds.
I wouldn’t want to end on such a cynical note, that we ‘wreckies’ are all self-centred ‘glory hunters’, morally bankrupt, only diving wrecks for that souvenir Coke bottle, trophy photograph, commemorative T-shirt, or hard-core penetration bragging rights.
So I’ll leave the final reflection to Rod Pearce, who’s been searching for, and discovering, war wrecks in the waters of Papua New Guinea for the past forty years.
“The hardest part is the letters. I still get letters from people looking for their relatives, missing in action. They want to know if I’ve found their father .. .. their grandfather.”
It’s a poignant reminder that there are people searching for wrecks for very different reasons.
And for some, the passage of time has changed nothing.