Diving Egypt: Safaga
It is usually advisable to avoid getting emotional underwater but there is an atmosphere at Salem Express that you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else and which makes diving here an eerie and touching experience.
On her return to Egypt from a pilgrimage to Mecca with a reported 1,600 people crammed on board, far exceeding the maximum load, this passenger ferry sank in 1991 on a section of the Hyndman Reefs, south of Safaga. Although in relatively shallow water, a mere 180 people survived, such was the speed of the sinking. Having struck the reef the bow doors of this French-built, roll-on roll-off ferry were pushed slightly open sealing the fate of hundreds of people unable to escape in time.
Being such a young wreck you cannot expect the level of marine colonisation to be extensive, however there are sponges and small acropora corals growing on the shallow starboard side. Innumerable banded pipefish call the wreck home and in some sheltered spots you can see them hanging in the water column by the dozen. Many species of parrotfish graze off the starboard side and you can hear them munching on the seaweed and algae that covers the deck.
It is not, however, the marine life here that will leave a lasting impression. The wreckage strewn across the sea floor tells of the human cost of this recent tragedy and it is this which really impacts you when diving here. A hand-bag, a briefcase, a television and a tricycle are among the everyday items that recall the normality that turned into horror.
You will likely start your dive by sinking down to the bow where you can see the impact damage and the open bow doors. Nearby is the captain's bridge, part of which can be penetrated. Since the wreck lies on its port side you can fin along what was the upper deck gazing at the metal roof sheets that now lie scattered on the sea bed. Towards the stern you can see the unused lifeboats and penetrate the vehicle loading area. Rumour has it that since not all the bodies could be extracted part of the vessel was sealed closed forever.
The northern and southern edges offer wall diving with heavy coral and seafan coverage. Here you might see schooling snappers and trevally.
You will spend the later stages of the dive around the starboard side where you can peer down into the cabin windows almost all of which are broken, presumably when removing the bodies. Inside there are seating and bunk beds some with mattresses still there, rising above the rusted springs. It is difficult not to imagine the terror of the sinking and the grim task of those first divers in the aftermath.
Whereas most wrecks seem like such distant events that there is little thought given to the victims, it is impossible to ignore the tragedy of the Red Sea's Salem Express, and you may surface from this dive with more profound thoughts than just what fish you have seen.
Salem Express Reef Basics: Wreck, walls and shelves
Depth: 22 - 30m
Visibility: 20 - 30m
Surface conditions: Usually calm, can be rough
Water temperature: 23 - 30°C
Experience level: Intermediate
Number of dive sites: 2
Diving season: All year round
Distance: 29 km (2 hrs) southeast of Safaga, 82 km (5½ hrs) southeast of Hurghada
Access: Egypt liveaboards
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