Protecting the shipwreck
Damage to the World War II wreck of the SS Thistlegorm, surveyed during the Thistlegorm Project season in July 2017, illustrates the threats from intensified tourism that the Red Sea wrecks currently face.
This popularity of the wreck as a top wreck dive site has come at a cost – the increase in divers and boats to the wreck has resulted in damage to the remains which, as the numbers visiting the wreck continue to increase, is accelerating at an alarming pace. Dive charter vessels weighing over 40 tonnes attach their mooring lines directly to the wrecks, wrapping them around upstanding features such as railings, guns, turrets and). Strong currents and rough sea conditions create a lot of strain on these moorings and they can cause significant damage, ripping superstructure from the wreck and causing decks to collapse. As rope mooring lines can be cut by sharp parts of the wreck, dive operators have recently taken to using wire lines which can cause much more damage as they cut into the metal structure of the wreck itself.
As well as mooring the wreck is under threat from looting as it is afforded no protection by law. Every year parts of the wreck are looted – including everything from the removal of steering wheels from the many vehicles, crew personal effects and clothing to the salvage of entire motorcycles, the captain’s safe, and the ship’s bell. With no baseline survey of the remains it has been impossible to chart this destructive activity.
On average eight boats leave from Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada every day over the summer season to dive on the SS Thistlegorm. Each boat carries around 25 divers making 3 dives on the site meaning that on any one day there are around 200 divers on the wreck carrying out 600 separate dives. The sheer number of divers on the wreck each day is taking its toll. Inexperienced divers who have poor buoyancy control and are not properly supervised can bump into the fragile metal parts of the wrecks itself causing damage. Every time a diver enters the enclosed parts of the wreck the oxygen content of their expired gas mix is trapped inside and will help to accelerate corrosion of the wreck.
The urgency to deal with these threats to the wrecks of the Red Sea is intensified as result of Egypt’s ratification this month (September 2017) of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage which is intended to encourage States to better protect their submerged cultural heritage.