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Wreck Diving in Egypt: 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 shoreline 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.

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This article About Diving The Salem Express, are part of a series including Diving in Egypt, Diving In Brothers Islands, Diving the Strait of Tiran, Diving Abu Nuhass & Diving Sharm el-Sheikh

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?

  1. Helena Lars

    We where there 3 years ago. It was a grea wreck and a great dive but I’m never going back, it’s like a tomb. It gave a feeling of diving in a graveyeard.

  2. Carlotta

    It sounds to me a great dive site to explore, I’d love to do it one day. I absolutely love wreck diving, unfortunately I have not dived that many yet. Among the ones I dived is the Liberty Wreck in Bali and the Sophie Rickmer in Pulau Weh.
    I think the most fascinating fact about diving wrecks it’s the history behind it. It is like diving an archeological site, you try picture in your mind what it used to be like when it was “alive” and functioning. It overwhelms me.It is comparable to walking through the Roman Forum and Coliseum in Rome and wonder what life was like back then.
    Some wrecks hold a sadder history than others but there are also places on land with a horrible history behind that are now “tourist attractions” such as Auschwitz concentration camp or Alcatraz. People visit them, it is just up to oneself to decide if they wish to visit or not. The same goes for the wrecks.

  3. Malee

    This video is fantastic. Having scuba dived on haodily for the first time last year in Fiji i would love to experience caribbean waters. Scuba diving with turtles is something that my wife and i have always wanted to do. I also hear that small scuba diving haodily companies offer a much better overall experience than larger ones. I think this years haodilys will definately involve scuba diving in the caribbean and by the look of this website your company offers a professional service. My wife and i will definately investigate the possibility of a scuba diving haodily in the very near future. Good luck an happy sailing. Juk & Sue

  4. Paul Simons

    When I dived it a few years back, during the pre-dive briefing, the local dive guide said that although the official number of soul’s on board was that 400 number, locals believe the true number was closer to 1000 people!
    It clearly went down in a hurry and I doubt the crew had time to launch the lifeboats hence them being on the sea bed. I imagine that any vehicles were not chained to the deck so when the ferry started to roll, all cargo would of quickly shifted to the side of the ship making it topple over even faster and ultimately sinking the ship.
    Personal artifacts can still be seen in the cargo hold but no remains exist.
    An amazing dive but your heart has to go out to all those innocent souls.
    If you’re in the Red Sea and get the chance to dive it, I’d highly recommend diving it. My advice is to take a 15L, take your time and enjoy the dive and watch your remaining air regularly.

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