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Trip Report: The Wreck of the Salem Express

Belgium service member, cave explorer and tech instructor Kurt Storms takes us for a dive on the Red Sea’s Salem Express, which is considered one of the most controversial wreck dives in Egypt. Tragically more than 460 people lost their lives when the ship capsized. Storms has the details.



Text and images by Kurt Storms

Salem Express
One of the Salem’s two propellers

The story of the Salem Express — which now sits about 30 meters below the surface of the Red Sea — started in France in June 1965 when she was launched as a roll-on, roll-off ferry for vehicles and passengers in the Mediterranean. Initially named for Fred Scamaroni, a member of the French resistance of WWII, the 115-meter-wide long and 18-meter-wide ship endured a fire in the engine room before sailing her first route in June 1966 between Marseille-Ajaccio. It was the first trip of many she would make over the next nearly 25 years before her final voyage resulted in the tragic loss of many lives. Today, the Salem Express is considered the most controversial wreck dive in Egypt.

The ship’s owner, Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, sold her to the Samatour shipping company in 1988 under the new name, the “Salem Express.” In 1991, she began sailing her usual 450-mile route from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Safaga, Egypt. It was a standard trip, expected to take 36 hours and ferry about 350 passengers to Safaga before heading to Suez. This time, though, the ship’s departure was delayed for two days in Saudi Arabia because of a mechanical fault. Those two days put the Salem Express in the middle of a storm with gale force winds.

In front of the captain’s bridge

On Dec. 14, 1991, the ship was returning from Jeddah with hundreds of pilgrims who had just been to Mecca. The storm was raging, drenching passengers on the outer decks, so Captain Hassan Moro – who had commanded the ship since 1988 — decided to attempt to cut time off the journey by staying closer to shore rather than sailing the standard route along the outer reefs. Unfortunately, the captain misjudged their position, and at 11:31 p.m., the Salem Express ran out an outer pinnacle of Hyndman Reef. The result was disastrous.

Not only was water coming in from a hole in the starboard side, but the hard impact caused the bow-loading door to open, letting in thousands of liters of water. Almost immediately, the ferry started to list over to the starboard side, making it impossible for the crew to deploy any of the lifeboats.

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The Salem Express sank within 20 minutes of hitting the reef, trapping many people inside. Others had to swim to shore as the storm and location of the tragedy occurred, more than an hour from the port, delayed rescue boats. 

The first survivor, Ismail Abdul Hassan, was an amateur long-distance swimmer who worked as an agricultural engineer. Hassan stood on the ship’s deck as it went down and followed the lights of the port to shore, surviving eight hours in the water. He intended to lead two other men to safety, who held onto his clothes, but they had trouble keeping their heads above the water and after two hours struggling they drowned. 

The red Toyota

Loss of life was considerable. The official figure provided by the Egyptian government is 464, but rumors suggest the ship was overloaded and the death toll may have been closer to 1,200. Many bodies were recovered after the sinking, but eventually a halt was called due to the danger involved and the wreck was sealed with plates welded across openings. 

Though it’s allowed to penetrate the wreck, the guides will not go far inside, because a large area where people were trapped inside and died is welded shut, and they consider it to be a seaman’s grave. In addition, because the wreck is unstable, penetration through the narrow passages is difficult for recreational divers. As a result, the guides will only penetrate in the back cargo rooms.

Salem Express
Diver on one of the side-doors of the ship

Diving the Wreck

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We reached the wreck of the Salem Express, lying on its port side in 30 meters/100 ft of seawater, and made our way around the stern. Visibility was good, and we first saw the two giant propellers and the rudder. We took some pictures and headed to the decks, where we saw a lifeboat. In the past there were two; it’s unclear what happened to the second.

I like wrecks, but I don’t like lifeboats on the bottom of the ocean. Lifeboats are supposed to carry people when the ship sinks, and bring them to safety. They can’t do that when they’re on the bottom.

At the back of the ship, I saw a radio and television set laying in the sand. This must have been put here by divers before me, because this was not a natural movement. We went further toward the bow and saw the big exhausts, full of life. On the side of the ship, you can see the name, Salem Express. Lots of coral has grown in the years since the ship sunk.

Salem Express
Sideway passsage from front to the back of the ship
Salem Express
Wheel barrow 

Further to the front is the captain’s deck. I penetrated the wreck, and swam into the room of the captain and saw his bed. There were not many instruments left. I found the exit by a door and continued on my way, via port side, and entered the cargo zone via an open hatch. I descended into the hatch and swam into the corridors of the ship, where you can still find remnants of cars.

Captian’s bridge from inside

It was still grim, knowing that many lives were lost in this tragic accident. On the way, I came across a few wheelbarrows with mattresses in them, and suitcases. From afar I suddenly saw the light penetrating back into the wreckage. After emerging from the wreckage, I looked for a way to the restaurant.  I went through an opening in the restaurant and adopted a stable position, so that I could take some photos. The tables were still standing, but the upholstery had deteriorated bit by bit over the years.

It was time to say goodbye to this beautiful wreck and discharge my decompression duties. Once back on the boat, everyone was quiet for a moment. They all think it was a beautiful wreck, but it will always remain a cemetery, and we must show the necessary respect.

Old radio beside the ship

Salem Express – Wreck Data:

Location:Near Safaga, Egypt
Coordinates:N 26 38.375, E 34 3.695
Length:115 meters
Width:17.83 meters
Draft:4.92 meters
Power:14,880 hp
Top speed:20 knots
Vehicle capacity:140/230
Cargo capacity:192 LIM (Lanes in metres)
Passenger capacity:1 256 (day)/1 120 (night)
Crew:11 officers and 63 seamen

Additional resources:

InDepth: Trip Report: The Wreck of the MT Haven by Kurt Storms

InDepth: Diving Into The Famous Ressel Cave by Kurt Storms

Kurt Storms

Kurt Storms is a member of the Belgian military, an underwater cave explorer, and an active technical /cave/rebreather diving instructor for IANTD. He is also an ambassador for Divesoft and Ursuits. He started his dive career in Egypt on vacation, and the passion for diving never ended. Kurt is also founder and CEO of Descent Technical Diving. He dives several CCRs such as AP Diving, SF2,  and Divesoft Liberty SM. Kurt is also one of the push-divers documenting a new slate mine in Belgium (Laplet). This project was news on Belgium Nationale TV. Most of his dives are mine and cave dives.  In his own personal diving, Kurt’s interests are deep extended-range cave dives. His wife (Caroline) is also an enthusiastic cave diver. In his free time, he explores Belgium’s slate mines, and often takes his camera with him to document the dives.


Technically Speaking – Talks on Technical Diving Volume 1: Genesis and Exodus




By Simon Pridmore


“Simon Pridmore’s new book Technically Speaking is an outstanding tour de force from one of modern diving’s most accomplished practitioners and best-selling authors.”  
David Strike: Oztek & Tekdive Convenor

“Simon has completed a complex task with consummate skill and has accurately unraveled the whens, the whos, and some of the whys, many of which would have been unjustifiably lost in the mists of time if not for this work.”
Kevin Gurr: Technical Diving @Inventor & Innovator

“It will take some doing to better this account of tech’s first steps… No matter how much you know or think you know, you will still find many obscure historical gems…”
Kevin Denlay: Early Adopter & Wreck Finder

  • Hardback 300 pages: Paperback 350 pages: Kindle Edition
  • Published by Sandsmedia
  • Sold by: Amazon Worldwide, Apple, Kobo, Tolino
  • Language: English

ASIN: B0BTWZYFN5 – ISBN-13: 979-8375190792

Technically Speaking is the latest book from best-selling scuba series author Simon Pridmore. It is a selection of themed lectures detailing the early history of technical diving—where it came from, how it developed, how it expanded across the world, who the important movers were, and how, in the decade from 1989 to 1999, the efforts of a few determined people changed scuba diving forever.
These ten years saw the greatest shake-up the sport has ever seen, but technical diving’s road to universal acceptance was anything but smooth; many obstacles had to be overcome, and there were times when, even viewed in retrospect, it seemed that its advocates might fail in their mission. Ultimately, success came down to perseverance, people power, good timing, and more than a little luck.

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Simon Pridmore has been at the sharp end of the scuba diving scene for 30 years. In the 1990s, he pioneered mixed-gas deep diving in Asia, first with Mandarin Divers in Hong Kong, and later through his own shop in Guam, Professional Sports Divers—the first dedicated technical diving center in the Western Pacific. He also held the regional franchise for IANTD. He later moved to the United Kingdom and became the IANTD licensee there, as well as working for cutting-edge mixed-gas computer and rebreather manufacturers VR Technology. Today, he is one of scuba diving’s most prolific writers, with a five-volume scuba series, several guides for traveling divers, a biography, a novel, and even a couple of divers’ cookbooks to his name. He and his wife Sofie currently live in Taiwan. Find out more on his website and via his Substack newsletter Scuba Conversational.

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