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Saving SS Thistlegorm

John Kean is author of 'SS Thistlegorm, The True Story of the Red Sea's Greatest Ship Wreck'. He is also a board member of Sharm El Sheikh's SSDM organization. In October 2007 he will be co-speaking at the NEC Dive Show's wreck seminars about HEPCA's “Saving The Red Sea Wrecks” Campaign.
Sunk by Hitler, discovered by Cousteau, survived the Six-Day War, seen by thousands and destroyed by … rent-a-guide?

'They should do something about it.' How often have we heard (or said) that? First of all let's take a look at the mysterious 'THEY'. The use of this word is the most abused, misunderstood and yet the most accepted form of abstaining from responsible action in the English language.The omnipresent, yet invisible 'THEY', invariably translates into, 'NOT ME'.

'THEY', in the perception of many, are a haze of bodies, government organizations, NGO's and anything encompassing a collection of people with powers, influences and beliefs - some of which often overlap with each others mandates or responsibilities, however they achieve much in their own right. It's not always clear to outsiders exactly which subjects or issues fall into any particular organization's remit leaving a situation where nobody wants to tread on each others toes or appear to do nothing at all. Hence to avoid either, the result has been to TALK about it.

Well, ten years of talking about Thistlegorm has resulted in ten years of rusting, corrosion, vandalism, theft and the negligent destruction of fixtures, much of which is inflicted by those very 'professionals' who seek a living from it. Their actions are short-term and the result of convenience, fear and greed on the day. The true professional will make the right decisions because he has taken a longer term view and recognizes the results of his actions.
Perhaps 'THEY' consist of anything up to twenty-five organizations but how do 'WE' deal with 'THEY'? Amr Ali thinks he has the answer and through the HEPCA organization appears to be the first person to co-ordinate a tangible, multi-agency solution in turning the tide of destruction against our Red Sea icon wrecks.
To bridge the communication gap (the ONLY reason that nothing has really been done in ten years) Ali, has consulted with the various bodies and Governorates to ensure that he has a clear path to achieve the objective - to save our wrecks which helps save our livelihoods and our environment. Based on study, Ali believes that two immediate courses of action will rapidly make a difference to the well-being of SS Thistlegorm and the Rosalie Moeller.

1- Moorings. A forty-tonne dive boat in a one-metre swell with a tight mooring line will, for several hours, cause much stress and metal fatigue on a wreck. There are few places on Thistlegorm that can withstand these forces. A wreck underwater 'behaves' much differently to a sea-going vessel on the surface simply because of the laws of physics, which dictate the rate of stress or decay. Externally based moorings relieve much stress from ships thus removing the rate of destruction caused by up to twenty dive boats per day with at least two lines each all tied to the wreck.

 2- Trapped air and in particular, trapped nitrox will accelerate the corrosion of metal on a shipwreck because of the oxidation effect. Vast air pockets are dotted all around the Thistlegorm which will shortly be released through a program of specifically targeted holes drilled into key areas to remove the threat and allow future divers bubbles to float harmlessly to the surface.
To this end, he has purchased the necessary mooring and drilling equipment, put together a team of trained divers and engineers, consulted the relevant authorities and made a timetable and date for the implementation of the work. The issue of how to safely get divers from the new moorings to the wreck is now under discussion with the aim of allowing safe descents and ascents at these busy sites.

What we must all remember particularly about the Thistlegorm is that it's more than just a dive site.
It may be true that only divers can reach this wreck but it represents something greater than a feature in the scuba industry's hall of fame. I once interviewed, Iorwerth T. Ellis, the son of William Ellis OBE who was the Captain of the Thistlegorm. In 2002 he said this: “It is very important that we remember and try to understand what happened in the past. Recently it has become fashionable to denigrate the past, but there is a danger that in doing so we denigrate ourselves. Of course everything in the past was not better, but there are important issues to be learned from history. The story of the Thistlegorm does an invaluable service in recording part of it before it is forgotten.”

I hope in another ten years time we won't be denigrating Thistlegorm today, in 2007. For me, the serious damage began around 2000 when new breeds of guides appeared without experience and took the easy option of tying to areas around the bridge because it was shallower and closer to their boats. The problem here is that daily boat guides suddenly become 'one-day safari guides' at the stroke of a pen. It takes many trips and an apprentice-style approach to master the fine art of tying to SS Thistlegorm without causing damage.

About the same time, began the proliferation of metal shackles, which are like 'saws without teeth'. Now, many of the mooring methods are merely one up from 'smash and grab'. Typically a good guide may receive well over $100 pay for a day on Thistlegorm. The new 'rent-a-guides' may get only a third of this and will be hard-pressed to devote the same consideration and respect that their more experienced counterparts would. Well you get what you pay for and dive centres should remember this the next time they hear the complaint that 'Thistlegorm is not what it used to be'.

The new conservation / preservation project will begin in November and may result in the temporary, short closure of the Rosalie Moeller and the SS Thistlegorm while the light-commercial work is undertaken. Apologies are given for any inconvenience that this will cause to dive operations during this time.

Likewise, the message is clear to those who seek short-term gain and continue to indulge in practices that are physically damaging to our icon wrecks… 'Get out of the way!'

Shimshon Machia, who discovered the Thistlegorm in 1974. John interviewed him for the book in 2002 and the pictures are his first viewing of his story 5 years on. He swapped his famous 'Sunboat' for the new, 'Sea Bell' as shown. When he found Thistlegorm he didn't know what it was and named it 'the motorbike wreck'.

Although several people have claimed to have found Thistlegorm first, it is Shimshon who is widely recognised as the most significant and publicised. 'It was covered in beautiful, soft coral', he says of his first visit there in the seventies.



Read More in H2O

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During our northern “classic wreck tour” we visited approximately 18 different wrecks in one week. The Ulysses, one of the most popular wrecks
Text & Photos: Mike WardThe northern Red Sea was a dangerous place for shipping in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1869, the Carnatic

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