Arriving on SS Thistlegorm

Dive sites (Red Sea): SS Thistlegorm

SS Thistlegorm was a British merchant navy ship. She was torpedoed and sank by a German bomber while at anchor in the Red Sea in October 1941, quite close to Ras Mohammed National Park. She was carrying an extremely varied cargo including boots, rifles, motorcycles, trucks and two steam locomotives, and much of it can be seen by divers who are qualified to penetrate the wreck.

Arriving on SS Thistlegorm
Arriving on SS Thistlegorm

The Thistlegorm has much mystique attached to her – much like SS Lusitania lying on Bellows Rock off Cape Point, I suppose – and it seems that no liveaboard trip to the northern Red Sea is complete without at least one dive on the wreck. Philistine that I am, I did not feel as compelled to dive the Thistlegorm as much as many of the other (British) divers on board our boat did. Perhaps it is the British connection that I am missing. As a war grave and a significant part of the British war effort, the Thistlegorm is well beloved there. She also stopped in Cape Town during her short time at sea!

Crocodilefish on deck
Crocodilefish on deck

The wreck is known for very strong currents that can arise without warning, change direction in minutes, and can make complete exploration of the outside of the wreck something of a challenge. We did two dives on the Thistlegorm, one after the other. On our first dive the current was strong but manageable, running from the bow (our entry point) to the stern – we just had to watch our gas carefully to ensure that we had enough to swim back to the bow against the current. By the time we did our second dive the current was absolutely insane, and as a result we spent most of that dive exploring the bow and the area close to it.

Winch on board the Thistlegorm
Winch on board the Thistlegorm

The bow area is very striking, with huge winches and chains that house many interesting creatures in their bends and folds. The strong current was making the fish very happy, and the wreck was swarming with glassfish and other piscine life, all feeding in the current. The dive briefing for a wreck like this is extremely thorough, and as a result we were able to identify each of  the features as we swam over them. Close to the bow are two huge water tanks, both crushed by the water pressure. Lying next to the wreck on the sand is one of the locomotives that was on board as deck cargo. The blast area where the torpedo hit (the ammunition hold, number four) is very obvious, as is the fact that there was additional explosive power provided by the ammunition in that hold.

Tony over the wreck
Tony over the wreck

I’m not particularly keen on going inside shipwrecks, particularly with a group of twenty people I don’t know from Adam, so I didn’t take up the opportunity to explore the cargo holds of the Thistlegorm. I know that for many on board our boat, however, this was the highlight of their trip. An advantage of going inside the wreck was that they escaped the force of the current, but it did necessitate careful planning to emerge far enough forward on the wreck to be able to exit at the right place.

On the day we dived the Thistlegorm I counted twelve liveaboards tied up to her. Efforts to preserve the wreck from the damage that can be done by a carelessly placed anchor or a mooring line tied to a sensitive location have met with mixed success. There was a brief ban on liveaboards tying up to the wreck a few years ago, but that isn’t in place any more. In any case, it requires care and smarts to note and remember which anchor line is yours for the ascent. All divers look pretty much the same – I reckon you’d be on the dive deck of the wrong boat before anyone realised you didn’t belong!

Dive date: 21 October 2013

Air temperature: 27 degrees

Water temperature:  26 degrees

Maximum depth: 21.2 metres

Visibility: 40 metres

Dive duration: 38 minutes

Kate next to a toppled mast
Kate next to a toppled mast

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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