Diving the World War II wreck of the SS Thistlegorm in the Gulf of Suez over the weekend was an adventure. When the British supply ship comes into view 30 meters below the surface, you get a whiff of what it must be like to discover a page of history.
The quantity and variety of military artifacts on board the Steam Ship Thistlegorm, which was sunk by a Nazi German bomber, makes it one of the top wreck dives in the world.
The Thistlegorm’s inventory is well known: boxes of rifles, boots, two Bren-gun carriers, spare aeroplane engines and wings. One Bedford truck, live mines, boxes of artillery shells and the motorbikes. And even though this war grave has been raped and pillaged since its discovery by Jacques Coursteau in 1955, this merchant navy ship offers the classic eerie image of the gnarled wreck, in which may lie hidden secrets waiting to be revealed.
No boys’ adventure story could have a better theme than searching for a ship wreck. And with the ringing of a mobile phone alarm at 4:15 am, so my long awaited voyage of discovery began on Friday morning, when the Camel Dive Club boat pushed out from the “old Sharm El Sheik port about 5 am.
Dosing on the dive boats top deck, the faintest orange glow struggled out of the darkness over Saudi Arabia. The sun rise offers a primeval sense I believe, that despite our knowledge of science and astronomy, it is good to see the evidence first hand, that there will be another day.
It is a three-hour chug out to the site where in October 1941, two German long range bombers searching for the troop ship, The Queen Mary, came across the Thistlegorm lying at anchor. The newly commissioned supply ship was a sitting duck, and she took a direct hit in the forward hole. Today, the separated bow, with the two forward guns, sits on the sea bed, kind of forlorn as if sooner or later someone will come by to patch her up.
This is the mystery of the deep. That somehow, beneath the waves, there is another world, where ghost ships surface, Atlantis reigns and dead men dance of Davy Jones’ locker.
Once inside the SS Thistlegorm, it turned out my guide, Peter Davidson, was right. There was no need for a flash light; the bright day above the water provided the perfect light, which streamed through the broken hull, illuminating some compartments and framing doors in silhouette, the ships iron beams defining her almost intact shape and form.
We did two dives on the Thistlegorm that morning. On both dives I was sucking down the gas like it was air. I had to rely on my Swedish dive buddy, Robert Bostrom, for support and when surfacing after misjudging the current after the first dive, I was assisted back to the dive boat by the second dive guide and Metallica fan, John Antoniou.
During the dive briefing, Peter Davidson had said, “Don’t be scared, have respect for the wreck. He was right. The current was flowing from the stern to the bow, and while it was not strong by Thistlegorm standards, it was still a force to be reckoned with.
At 39 meters you can begin to feel anxious as you gulp down larger quantities of air, wondering how the hell you are going to get out of there. Turning, I was buffeted by the current, staring into the blue abyss, clueless about which way to swim to find the line leading back to the boat.
Adventure is stepping into the unknown. Otherwise, it is a theme park. On the flip side, if it wasn’t for the professionalism of guides like those at the Camel Dive Club, then the amateur punter like myself would be confined to the more contrived pursuits like rollercoasters.
On the return trip the crew on the dive boat let out a line to trawl for fish, in the hope of catching the big one. Every so often the boat’s engines would wind down and the deck hand would drag in a Tuna. One of these fish came aboard with ripped flesh, as if a beast from the pelagic depths had slashed away with gnashing teeth.
That bleeding, torn Tuna was another reminder of what lies beneath the waves. “Another world, as divers often say, struggling for an analogy to explain the mystery of the watery world that awaits those ready for a “boys own adventure.