Diving the Salem Express

I’m standing at the water’s edge, looking into a tomb. Well, not literally, I am in fact standing on the dive deck of a boat, looking into the Red Sea. The reason this feels different is not where I am diving, but what I am diving. I look out over the shimmering surface, glittering under the Egyptian sun.

I step of the platform, and a swirl of bubbles encloses me for a brief second before I pop back to the surface. I give an OK to the deck crew, then face my buddy. We give each other a brief nod before we deflate our BCDs and begin our descent.

The visibility is pristine today, and immediately the wreck appears beneath us as we follow the shotline down. From the bow, just below the deck, the name almost beams up at me, as if whispered by the ghosts of the abyss: Salem Express.

The History

Salem Express - one og the biggest wreck at Red Sea

Kristina Vackova

When it first rolled off the line in the 1960s, no one would have expected this roll-on-roll-off (“RoRo”) ferry to be anything but another workhorse ferry, shipping passengers, cars, and goods from one coast to another.

After a long career, it eventually found service in the Red Sea, sailing between Safaga in Egypt and Jedda in Saudi Arabia, under the Salem shipping company. In December 1991, returning from Jedda with pilgrims returning from Mecca, it struck a reef just off the coast of Safaga. Loaded far beyond its capacity, it rapidly sank, taking an unknown number of passengers with it.

And therein lays its eeriness, and its controversy.

The official death toll is 470. But this is provided that only the allowed number of passengers were on board in the first place, which is very unlikely. Given that this was right after Eid, where vast numbers of pilgrims cross the Red Sea.

If the Salem Express was loaded as other ferries in the area typically are during this time, the death toll would be much, much higher, though how high is impossible to tell. Because of this, some have argued that it is not an appropriate dive site, and should be closed for diving.

Many others want to keep it open, due to the qualities it has as a dive site; accessible, good depth, lots of penetration opportunities, etc.

Lifeboats on the Bottom

The life rafts

Thomas Grønfeldt Senger

We reach the wreck, lying on its port side, and make our way around the stern and towards the bottom, at some 30 meters. The first thing that catches my eye is two massive lifeboats lying on the bottom.

I like wrecks. But I don’t like lifeboats on the bottom of the ocean. That’s not where they belong. Lifeboats are supposed to carry people to safety when ships sink, and they can’t do that when they’re on the bottom of the ocean. I shudder involuntarily.

As we come around the stern I see something on the bottom that almost makes me swallow my mouthpiece. It looks like a divers SCUBA unit!

I descend down to explore it. It’s not a standard SCUBA unit, that’s for sure. At first I think it might be some early rebreather, but finally conclude that it is most likely a firefighters smoke diver’s unit, which can look quite similar. I check the manometer. Zero bars. Whoever the firefighter was, he ran out of oxygen. Or maybe it just leaked from the unit during the twenty-some years it has spent on the ocean’s floor.

Swimming along the first deck of the Salem Express

Thomas Grønfeldt Senger

Over the next hour or so, we make our way around the decks of the ship, into the hold and up through the cafeteria, where the tables, bolted to the floor, still remain in place, in spite of the ship being completely on its side, while the chairs are in broken mess against the port side windows.

We finish our dive hovering over the starboard side before going for our safety stop on the shot line. As we hang there, some small part of me swears I can hear the souls of the dead whispering to me from the deep.

Controversial Wreck

The Salem Express still sees much debate. I can see the point of those who want to close it off. On the other hand, it is one of the most interesting wrecks I’ve dived.

And the question is if we honor the dead more by not diving it than we do by diving it. I don’t necessarily think the dead care. If I get the chance, I’ll the Salem Express again. Along with any ghosts it holds.

Have you ever dived a controversial wreck or dive site? Tell us how it made you feel? Should it be closed or held open to divers?