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Scuba Diving in Safaga, the Red Sea
Dive Site: The Salem Express
Location: Hyndman Reef (26º39'01"N; 34º03'48"E)
Description: Roll-on roll-off ferry
Length: 100 metres (300 feet)
Depth: 12 - 30 metres (39 - 100 feet)
Visibility: 20 metres (65 feet)
The Salem Express is a big wreck that makes for a very eerie dive. You cannot help but be aware of the massive loss of life here as you swim over the lifeboats that lie on the sea bed. Somewhat surprisingly there is little in the way of coral growth considering that it has now been submerged for over a decade. There is a little growing on the top but barely any on the sides of this huge ship. There were quite a few boxfish and pipefish and the occasional lone jack. All in all an impressive dive due to the size of the wreck, but not one for those who are hoping to see marine life. Perhaps the marine life can also sense the feeling of death that lingers over this graveyard.
The Salem Express is arguably one of the most controversial wreck dives in the Red Sea due to the tragic loss of life which occurred when she sank shortly after midnight on December 15th 1991. Originally built in the French shipyards of La Seyne in 1964, the ship was launched under the name Fred Scamaroni in 1966 and was a roll-on, roll-off ferry for vehicles and passengers. During subsequent years the vessels name was changed several times, to the Nuits Saint George, Lord Sinai, Al Tahara and in 1988 to the Salem Express. At 100m long, with an 18m beam and 5m draft she was a sizeable vessel. Her bow encompassed a lifting mechanism designed to pivot the entire forward bow upwards, whilst ramps were then lowered allowing vehicles and passengers alike to embark through her nose, directly forward of the raised bridge section on her upper deck. This lifting mechanism was to become a major contributing factor in her tragic loss some 25 years after her launch.
In the early 1990's the Salem Express was operating as a passenger ferry, based in the port of Safaga and on the evening of December 15th 1991 was returning from the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Reportedly heavily overloaded with several vehicles and hundreds of pilgrims returning from their holy pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, she was nearing the end of her journey and approaching port Safaga from the southeast. A storm had been building for some hours and was now blowing at gale force when the Salem Express struck the southeast part of a reef chain known as Hyndman Reef with catastrophic force. Striking the reef on the starboard side of her bow, slightly below the bow door, she not only ripped a hole in her side, but the entire bow door was forced upward. Her forward motion only served to increase the upward pressure on the door until it was fully open and forced thousands of gallons of water directly into her hull. It is reported that she sank fully to the seabed in 30 metres of water, close to the reef she had struck in as little as 10 minutes, where she rests today on her starboard side with her bow door gaping open. The severity of the storm and the fact that the tragedy occurred a good hour from the port in the dead of the night made rescue operations virtually impossible, although heroic attempts were made by many vessels based in Port Safaga. The demise of the ship happened with such speed that none of the lifeboats had time to launch and most of these now lie with the ship. The massive loss of life alone makes this one of the worst tragedies in the Red Sea. There is no exact manifest of the number of passengers who were aboard the vessel, but it is widely believed that she was extremely overcrowded with passengers packed on her upper decks as well as lining her corridors. The final death toll was placed at 470, with 180 passengers and crew miraculously surviving, many reaching shore under their own steam. Over the years I have heard reports that there were well over 1000 passengers on board - although this has never officially been confirmed and tragedies of this scale have an unfortunate way of being embellished. When considering the scale of this disaster it is easy to see why so much controversy surrounds the Salem Express as a dive site: there is the speed and circumstance of her demise and the inability to launch a single lifeboat; the religious factors (the fact that she was carrying so many pilgrims from Mecca); the impossible rescue circumstances of the storm and the time of impact being during the night and many other factors which make the decision to dive here one filled with consideration.
Diving the Salem Express is however a unique experience and she is like no other wreck I have dived. Her port side is just 12 metres from the surface with her starboard side lying on the seabed at a maximum depth of 30 metres. The speed of her demise is obvious - where ever you go there are personal effects; luggage, rolls of carpet, portable stereos, even bicycles and pushchairs. Several of her lifeboats lie upright and intact where they fell from their davits to the sea floor. In the days following the disaster the Egyptian Navy removed the bodies from the wreck and although I have been diving here for 12 years I have not seen any remains. Even so, the possessions which litter the wreck always make this an emotional dive which should be done with the utmost respect. I believe the decision to dive here is a personal one made for an individuals own reasons and as such I choose not to question people's motives. What I would urge divers to consider though is their own ability and experience. Like many wrecks in the Red Sea there is ample opportunity to explore this large structure and this should be done with care. The restaurant, bridge and upper decks now lie perpendicular to the seabed and are accessible, but can be disorienting. Many parts of the wreck are fragile and easily susceptible to careless buoyancy control. Over the years it has become clear that all who dive here do not leave this wreck as they found it; suitcases that were closed are now open and lots of personal items have been moved, particularly in the 3 main corridors within the ship. Any penetration should be done within a divers experience and I am a firm advocate of looking, but not touching or disturbing - this is the respect all dive sites should be shown.
At the stern of the ship the two large propellers are intact and it is possible to swim under the stern from the keel to the rear deck. As you swim forward / deck side the tables in the restaurant are still fixed to the deck and much of the ceiling has collapsed towards the seabed. Doing the deepest part of your dive at the seabed on the deck side you'll swim over the lifeboats before and under the two funnels. These have the ships emblem on their outer sides (large wreaths with an 'S' in their Center). The ships bridge is a semicircular structure raised from the main deck. Many of the glass windows are gone and the ships controls are easily visible. As you reach the bow you'll see the bow door is wide open and at the seabed on the starboard side the extent of the damage is clearly visible, although the ramp inside the bow is still upright making an entry or exit to the ship here impossible. As you ascend and move to what is now the top of the wreck the immense port side stretches out before you, the upper portholes and side railing stretching away like a landing strip. Through these portholes cabins are visible with beds and fitted wardrobes. Two thirds of the way back towards the stern there is a large side entry hatch which was placed back over this entrance by the Egyptian Navy. It is possible to enter the interior of the ship at this point, but I would stress again that this should only be considered by experienced wreck penetration divers, who use perfect buoyancy and take care not to cause damage. This corridor which would have run across the width of the ship is now a vertical shaft and from this point there is absolutely no natural light (except for a tiny hole to the outside world in the stern compartment). There are three main corridors within the vessel which, side by side, run from one end of the ship to the other (stern to bow or vice versa). When upright these would have been side by side, but due to the perpendicular position of the wreck the portside corridor is at 15 metres, above the Center corridor at 21 metres and the starboard side corridor is at the bottom of this "triple stack" at 27 metres. None have any natural light, all are littered with hazards to get poorly laid penetration lines tangled on or snag a diver's equipment and the only exit is the one you enter by. All three corridors lead to a large stern compartment where an Isuzu truck, wheel barrows, bails of cloth and dozens of other personal effects lie heaped by gravity on the starboard side.
The corridors themselves are strewn with luggage and there are fire extinguishers, several bicycles, a plastic pram and all manner of items here. Even with perfect buoyancy (unless diving with a closed circuit rebreather) your air bubbles will disturb red sediment which hangs in the water. Also what look like air pockets are sometimes oil pockets. Moving down the corridors towards the bow there is a Toyota estate car which has shunted forward and nosed under the rear of a Nissan, likely a result from the impact with the Hyndman reef. In the bow there is another large compartment which the top two corridors join (the deepest starboard corridor is blocked by debris which has fallen to the bottom of this bow section). In the very front of the bow compartment there is JCB-type digger and even though the bow door was pushed wide open by the impact with the reef there is no exit from here, due to the inner ramp which is firmly in place. All three corridors have various doors and small passages which lead to other areas of the ship. Many of these are jammed shut, but from the Center corridor there are a few stairwells (which when the wreck was upright would have been to the left or right). These stairwells are now above or below and more debris and some luggage make access to the lower decks and her 4 engines in the engine room only possible with smaller cylinders. The stairwells run down each level in a direction opposite to that of the level above, as if orientation was not already a serious issue.
The controversy over whether the wreck of the Salem Express should or shouldn't be dived is one which will probably never reach a final and satisfactory conclusion. The debate has been going on since she first sank and continues in varying forums (more recently in some dive magazine publications). One thing which is for certain is that she will always be met with mixed views. In every venture I have led or been involved in to this wreck there have been divers who do not wish to dive her, those who dive her with revere and respect and those who quite frankly would happily collect souvenirs if given the chance. She is a place where human beings lost their lives, but then so are many of the other shipwrecks in the Red Sea. Whilst dive operators are able to dive her, there will always be those who do and should the Egyptian authorities ban diving here there will be those who are outraged at the loss of this as a dive site. Whatever your views on this wreck it is impossible to ignore the shroud which hangs over her - but perhaps tragedy, controversy and disagreement are actually protecting this wreck from those who for one reason or another show less respect elsewhere.
Rik Vercoe, BSAC Advanced Instructor
the Salem Express Resources
My father was an officer here, he was the best father ever. I wish I had more time with him, I was only 10 years old then but still can smill his perfume. I wish he stayed much longer to see me and my sister growing up and to see our babies.
Omyma Hossam Eldin Arbed
This was my first wreck dive in the Red Sea and it was, I think, the best ever dive site I will ever dive on. Just amazing. When I first got to the wreck, the first thing I saw was a suitcase! Well that made the dive, not just a dive. I'll never forget it.
Good report. The question of whether such sites should be dived will probably never be resolved, however, I have dived the Salem Express. In the past I have visited graves, battlefields and places where people have died. I go there to honour and remember those who have died although I did not know them, the Salem Express is no different. When you look at the ship lying on its side, the debris on the sand and look at the damage to the bow you cannot help but be moved and sorrowed at the loss of life.
When you hear and see these events on the news they often end up having little meaning but the SE has meaning for me.
Pete Burgess | 23/02/2009
Rik's report is very good. I dived the SE last week with some reservations. Many of the divers on the liveaboard had never even heard of her! Penetration is actually limited to the bridge and the cafeteria, which I chose not to do out of respect.
The ship is now starting to attract life - the port side has "baby" sponges and corals starting to grow & there are many tiny pipefish, some lionfish & other reef fish &, more interestingly, two frogfish. Nevertheless this was a very eerie dive & made me feel quite emotional.
Cara | 08/08/09
R I dived the Salem Express last week (15/08/2009) and having had the dive briefing about the enormous loss of life I found it quite an eerie dive. The wreck is quite impressive and has left a lasting impression.
Tony New, PADI rescue Diver | 22/08/09
view more Salem Express photos (N.B. The photos on this page are from inside the wreck and may be upsetting to some readers)