Ever imagined diving the Thistlegorm alone?

This particular blog post will be about the first two dives we did on the wreck earlier this year, followed in a few weeks by the most amazing night dive we did here too. However, first up, the history regarding the world-famous wreck.

A brief history:

The now-famous wreck/vessel was purpose-built in 1940 for World War 2. On it’s fourth and final voyage to Alexandria it had one main objective; to deliver much-needed supplies to the British troops in Egypt. It’s cargo consisted of Bedford trucks, BSA motorbikes, aeroplane wings and ammunition amongst others.

The most direct route was not available as the waters already had so much activity. It then set sail in convoy around South Africa. The plan was to take the long route around Spain and up the gulf of Suez September 1941. This route would still leave enough time for the much-needed supplies to reach their destination. There had been a collision further up so the Thistlegorm and HMS Carlisle had to drop safe anchor. Where it stayed until it sunk in October 1941.

the sinking of the Thistlegom

In the meantime, German intelligence got wind of troops coming over on the Queen Mary ship. Whilst others were due to pass through the same waters within the next day or two. After searching the waters, they could not locate the ship, and the Thistlegorm was also to go unnoticed. That was until a German bomber flying over had two unused bombs on board, which it had no use for back at base, and picked out the larger of the two ships to drop them on. That sealed the fate of the Thistlegorm.

The bombs blew open hold 4 setting off other ammunition on board and causing the ship to sink where she was moored. Four sailors and five members of the Royal Navy gun crew lost their lives. The survivors were picked up by the nearby HMS Carlisle. Most of the cargo remained within the wreck. One exception was the steam locomotives on the deck which were blown off either side of the ship. They can be found beside the wreck to this day.

The Thistlegorm was discovered in the early fifties by Jaques Cousteau where he writes about it in his book The Living Sea. A really interesting read.

Flash forward 77 years since she was first built, and it’s now an incredible wreck to dive. Many of you reading this will have it cemented well within your top 10 dives worldwide.  Many more of you (I’m hoping by the end of this mini-series) will have it on your bucket list going forward.

To the Red Sea, we go…

After a short flight to Hurghada, we arrived in Egypt to discover the North Red Sea. The sun was beaming down and the heat from the road was burning through my flip flops. I’d heard so many stories about the Red Sea Diving and I was so excited to get out there.

I knew that on day three of our trip we would be arriving at the SS Thistlegorm. I had heard that because recently it hadn’t been visited by many divers it was teaming with life. From large colourful coral through to huge Lionfish and even a resident turtle. I was beyond excited.

As part of the wrecks and reefs trip here at Scuba Travel, we had scheduled in four dives on this world-famous wreck. Two-morning dives, an afternoon and a night dive (which has become my favourite dive to date) but we will look at the night dives over the coming weeks – got to give you something to look forward to hey!

We had set sail early in the morning to reach the illustrious wreck, and give our selves as much time on her as possible. When we arrived at the Thistlegorm, there were no other boats around at all. This was a shock to me but even more so to the Red Sea enthusiasts on the trip. As little as two years ago my buddies can tell me stories where there used to be 15-20 other Liveaboards and day boats moored up. Today there were none, this alone is sad, but tourism is beginning to build back up, over there, but won’t go into that here.

How hot!

I remember it being a baking hot day, the sweat was running down our faces. It was the start of the season and was already close to 30C at 6 am which in the desert was a very dry heat. The best cure awaited us at the back of the boat. Before diving in the 23C water, the little handheld showers you clean your masks with, was a welcome jet of cool water to the face. We did our buddy checks and took the giant stride into the Red Sea, directly above the Thistlegorm.

There was no current and we followed the shot line down to the wreck. Now usually, I’ve been used to swimming along and the wreck first appearing as a shadow in the murky waters. It would normally almost appear as a large dark mass sitting there. Then you have to adjust your eyes as you fin towards it, and sure enough, it appears right in front of you.

However, the water was so clear that as we defended down the shot line we could see the huge ship waiting to be explored. The shot line was tied to the middle of the ship, making for an easy route back up top from any position on the wreck.

Reaching the Wreck

The first dive we started by exploring the bomb blast and the outside of the wreck. Whilst on the second dive we penetrated the wreck. Although I will leave the magic of the inside of the ship to the night dive review. Just to let you know it was 10 times more magical at night from the inside. Otherwise, this review would go on forever… And we don’t have that kind of time.

Anyway, back to the dive. The opening in the Thistlegorm was huge as it was literally opened up like Popeye squeezing a tin! It was peeled back and spread the width of the ship. It was pitch black and full of glassfish glistening in the light. From there we followed the wreck to the deepest part at the back. From the top, you can see all of the ammunition crates that still sit at the depth of around 20meters. However, the deepest part of the wreck rests at around 30m. From there you can examine the prop and rudder which are still intact.

There are still un-used shells down at the back end of the ship. You can even see the date they were made, inscribed on the bottom. Not small bullets, anti-aircraft shells. Ironic I guess that they got dropped by passing by aircraft. I think as it was such a random attack, no one saw it coming, including the pilot. Therefore no defence was made and the ship went down without a fight.

fishinfocus, Scuba Travel, Mario Vitalini, Thistlegorm
A diver swims towards the bikes

Moving on up

We then took the starboard side of the ship shallowing up a little to see the crocodile fish resting in the sediment on the top of the walkway. They are similar to scorpionfish, in that they can be tough to spot, and a little aggressive so again best to keep an eye out for them and mind where you swim.

The overhead structure of the walkway on deck was still there and offered a non-claustrophobic alternative to penetrating the ship. It was nice to swim through, as completely open. however, it had a roof and bars connecting to the side of the ship every 7-8 meters. There was soft coral growing from the underside of the walkway roof, which was populated with tiny fish.

Looking in from the outside

As we came further up the ship on the right-hand side, there was a room built on the deck which we went around the left hand side towards the centre of the vessel. We followed the wall inwards where there was a huge open space. It must have been 15x15m square. There were a few beams crisscrossing over and below the opening. It was a gigantic square opening to the lower cargo decks.

From here we dropped down inside and followed the edge of the decks whilst keeping in the opening the whole time. It was like going back in time. In one compartment I could see full aeroplane wings, huge metal triangles, stacked neatly down the sides, with other aeroplane parts. There must have been fortunes worth just in this hold.

Then I could see parked trucks, the kind of army trucks you associate with the war. Big heavy-duty tires, open backs and all parked close to one another looked like a meter or less apart. I could imagine they would be ready for the heavy sand in Egypt but could equally handle the roads of the world at the time, carrying many troops or supplies. We heard from the divers who had been here 5-6 times, that a resident turtle lived in the cargo holds so would look out for him next time when we went inside.

Another hold had tens of motorbikes, again all lined up and packed in really tight. You could shine your torch in there and see schools of batfish looming in the dark. Their dark bodies and yellow stripe really stood out amongst the vehicles.

fishinfocus, Mario Vitalini, Napoleon Wrasse
The Thistlegorm’s bow shot from the port side with a touch of strobe lighting on the front

Off to the Thistlegorm bow, we went

After we had spent around 15 minutes slowly perusing the cargo decks from the outside, peering in, we headed back up top and to the front of the ship. There sat the captain’s cabin. There was no door and it had a hole in the floor, where we would explore on the night dive. What I noticed was the 100’s of tiny glassfish, glistening under our torchlight. I shallowed up and turned back after seeing the wheelhouse. Then headed back towards the centre of the boat. Making the exact same route back but on the port side. This time on the complete outside of the gangway. Looking at all of the life that had called this wreck it’s home.

At the centre of the boat, I could almost see the front and back of the ship if it wasn’t for the structure of the wreck. This outer wreck dive had shown to me the vastness of the vessel and had really given me a taste for what was to come. Bring on the incredible night dive.

I can imagine it’d be a little tricky to find the right shot line if there were 20+ boats moored up. However, being the only one there we located ours and headed up to the five-meter safety stop for 3 minutes. At this point, we could see some big Jacks swimming by in the blue, who was looking to see what we were doing. Even after this dive, we got out and high fives each other for such an awesome Wreck.

Looking Forward

If you’re usually put off by wrecks because of claustrophobia, or a fear of getting lost inside, then there is so much to see, that I would have been happy enough on the outside of the ship for all four of my dives here. You could look in the doorways, and peer through the gaping holes and not once feel trapped or like there wasn’t a way out. It’s that big!

In fact, for me, I’d done the wrecks in Malta before. By the time I reached the Thistlegorm, I’d done two or three here too. I was under no illusion, I was still a newbie to wreck diving. Initially, I had been a bit creeped out going into the wrecks. I had even planned to stay outside this one when we did the night dive… However, it’s magic drew me in at night as it was a completely different story. It was so light, so open, perfect. More about that next time.

By this point, it had lived up to and totally surpassed my expectations. Mainly for the sheer size of it, the amount to see. The variety of terrain on the ship surprised me, as did the amount of cargo it still had onboard. Amazing!

What an outstanding dive!