A Rare Opportunity to Dive the SS Thistlegorm Undisturbed

thistlegorm interior trucks tyres alex dawson

Some of the trailers containing motorbikes in the lower level of Hold Two

As I breathe in, my head brushes the rusting steel above me. I calmly adjust my buoyancy to stay in position in the small passage between two of the larger cargo holds on the SS Thistlegorm. We are alone.

For a short period, Alex and I have the world’s most famous wreck to ourselves – a rare privilege. We have been given a 15-minute lead time on the other divers from our liveaboard to complete our photoshoot. Everything has been meticulously planned. It is just after dawn, before the hordes of day boats arrive from both Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada. Alex’s lights are carefully positioned and I know the exact spots to stop and let him take his shots.

The yellow wetsuit I’m wearing for the shoot will look great in the final images, but each brush against rusty steel is all too visible. It’s like eating blueberries while wearing a white shirt. This knowledge helps me concentrate, to stay focused, to keep my breathing slow and steady as I attempt to hover. I look down to check my legs; they are bright yellow, except for a rusty patch on my upper thigh. I rub it a bit and then focus on getting my buoyancy perfectly still.

thistlegorm coal chamber alex dawson

One of the coal rooms on the lower level 

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On the starboard side of the wreck on the upper level

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Two of the trucks in Hold Two

Penetrating the Thistlegorm is relatively easy, due to the massive explosion that sank her in 1941, which blew most of her midships superstructure away. We have been able to meander through the passageways and swim-throughs into holds brimming with Second World War supplies including motorcycles, cars, aeroplane parts, guns, ammunition, winches, and much more. However many times you have dived this glorious wreck, you can’t help but be impressed. It is a fascinating museum. But for how much longer?

The sea is slowly claiming the Thistlegorm; inevitable, natural degeneration clearly accelerated by human impact. Ill-advised moorings, trapped exhaled gases, the accumulative impact of the more than one million divers estimated to have visited the wreck. Attempts have been made to keep the wreck intact, including establishing permanent moorings and drilling holes to let the expelled air out, but that does not stop the fact that SS Thistlegorm is a beauty slowly fading. It was magical to appreciate the wreck alone for those precious minutes.

I checked my bottom time. Almost 25 minutes had passed since we arrived in the first engine room. I could now see slow-swimming shadows moving on the outside. Air bubbles were visible through the portholes. Some dive lamps glittered from different entrances, as divers from our boat were closing in on us. The tranquillity was over. I signalled to Alex that we should leave, and he agreed. We took the first possible exit. After a quick circuit of the deck, taking in details such as the canons,  inches and the bridge, we swam in the light current, back to the mooring.

thistlegorm bridge from stern alex dawson

Arriving at the wreck just before sunrise

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The impressive stern with Karin and a burst of fish

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Looking back along the wreck from above the anchor winches as divers’ bubbles rise from Hold One

We saw divers on every side and heard the roaring sound of engines as more boats moored up. The beam of my torch picked out the reds and yellows visible among the corals that dot the wreck’s rugged structure. Schools of fish swam somewhat nonchalantly between the divers’ fins, in the growing commotion a moray gracefully exited one of the portholes. We reached the mooring and hung in the light current with one hand on the line, catching our breath. Then we ascended slowly, looking down at glittering air bubbles and the slow shadows of divers. From above, I could see parts of the ship scattered around, broken by bad moorings, the tide and time.

The wreck is still beautiful. Maybe next time I will see more damage, more corals and fish, more a reef than a wreck. But for now, SS Thistlegorm is still the most beautiful wreck in the Red Sea, sitting upright in the deep, waiting to be dived, admired and photographed.


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