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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.

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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.

Lifeboat
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.

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Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive

Known for his deep air diving exploits back in the day, 86-year-old Hal Watts, aka “Mr. Scuba,” is one of the pioneers of early scuba and credited with coining the motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan.” He founded the Professional Scuba Instructors Association International (PSAI) in 1962, which eventually embraced tech diving, but never relinquished its deep air “Narcosis Management” training. Italian explorer and instructor Andrea Murdock Alpini caught up with Watts and teased out a few stories from the training graybeard.

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Interview by Andrea Murdock Alpini 
English text by Vincenza Croce

Hal Watts, Terrence Tysall, and Bill Stone in March of 1993.  This was the last stop in the U.S. for a test dive of the Cis-Lunar Mk-4 rebreather prior to Stone’s San Agustin expedition (1994) for its first real sump dive.

“Plan your dive, dive your plan,” is a common refrain in diving, but it’s easy to forget the meaning of this phrase has changed over time.

The underwater explorers of the early days learned to plan their dives with watches, depth gauges, and US Navy tables. Back then, decompression tables were the Bible for divers—something miraculous, halfway between alchemy and physiology. Those trail-blazing divers defined what it meant to “plan” a dive.

But, at the time, the term “technical diving” did not exist; divers breathed air on the bottom as well as during decompression. Only after many years was oxygen added, followed by the famous jump into the hyperbaric chamber.  

Later came new innovations after a few decades of experiments: hyperoxygenated binary mixtures, the NOAA tables, Heli-air (i.e. the addition of helium in tanks loaded with air), the change in the speed of ascent, new molecules to be studied, new physiological and narcotic effects, and their consequent impacts on humans and their psyches.

In a very short time, diving traditions underwent a metamorphosis. The spool and the coral tank became a proper reel, the ascent bin and the plastic bag disappeared in favor of the buoyancy control device (BCD), the surface marker buoy appeared—and then, even later on, wrists were adorned with underwater computers instead of decompression slates.

Divers later renewed and revolutionized a niche discipline, transforming it into a sporting phenomenon and a vocation. Faced with imminent change, there is often nothing that can be done when an anomalous wave arrives; you cannot stop its irresistible force with the wave of a hand. And thus was the American revolution of underwater technique, where the means of exploration—read mixed gas and scooters—have become the end.

The self-proclaimed originator of the “plan your dive, dive your plan” motto was 86-year old Hal Watts, the founder of American didactic Professional Scuba Association International (PSAI) and a diving pioneer who once held the Guinness Book of World records for deep diving. Though the use of trimix grew in popularity, Hal continued to believe in deep air, in the ancient technique of coral fishermen. He supported wreck and cave diving—with decompressive mixtures and new configurations through PSAI; but, above all, he believed (and continues to believe) that deep air, if properly practiced, is a discipline with unique logistics, hidden dangers, and irresistible charms that can take you to a parallel world.

Hal Watts speaking at aquaCORPS tek.93 Conference

First of all, Hal, what was the dive that changed your way of seeing scuba diving? I mean, a dive that was like an epiphany, a dive which changed your point of view on a technical matter?

Hal Watts: Wow, you sure are really trying to test my old man memory. Now I’ll have to review some of my old logbook entries. 

The first scuba dive that really got my attention as to just how serious and dangerous scuba diving can be was on December 2, 1962. I was diving with Bob Brown, co-owner of Florida State Skindiving School in Orlando, Florida. I was a member of a dive club in Orlando known as Orlando Sport Diving Club. Bob and I had heard of a sinkhole in Ocala known locally as Zuber Sink as well as Blue Sink. Years later, I later leased the property and renamed it as Hal Watts’s 40 Fathom Grotto, and I eventually purchased the Grotto in mid-1979.

We had never talked to anyone about the sinkhole; therefore, we had no idea about the visibility or the depth. Up to this point, I had constructed my favorite BCD, using a large white Clorox plastic jug, which we tied to our twin tank system. We put air into the BCD from our “Safe Second Stage” mouthpieces. 

Bob and I tied our safety line to a tree on the bank of the sink and reviewed our dive plan. I am reminded of the motto I came up with, many moons ago—Plan your dive, dive your plan. 

We all know that motto. I didn’t realize that it was you who coined it.

It was back in the 1960s when I was writing course manuals for NASDS [National Association of Scuba Diving Schools] and opened up my Mr. Scuba dive shop.

Mr. Scuba’s Magic Bus!

But back to the dive at Zuber. I’ve failed to mention the fact that neither of us had been doing any dives below 30 m/100 ft. We followed the cave line down slowly, not paying enough attention to our depth. Before we realized it, we had hit the bottom, stirred it up, and had no clear water.

Lucky for us, I kept the cave diving reel in my hand, and Bob kept his hand on the line. I couldn’t see; however, I could feel Bob’s hand, squeeze his fingers tight on the line, grab his thumb, and give it the “thumbs up” signal. I don’t know how we managed it, but we were both able to use our NASDS safe second stages and add air into the Clorox “BCDs.” We were actually fated to begin an uncontrolled, too-rapid ascent. All of a sudden, we hit an overhead wall, which stopped our ascent at a depth of 9 m/30 ft. 

We looked at each other, and gave the OK hand signal. While decompressing, following the old Scubapro SOS mechanical computer, I started to pull up the loose line until the dive reel appeared. Wow, we sure had an awful lot of loose line floating around us. Were we extremely lucky? Of course, we were. Our problem was that we never planned our dive, and consequently, were unable to dive a plan.

After that dive, I worked with Scuba Pro and Sportsways to create the “Octopus,” or “safe second.” A while later, the octopus appeared for the first time in Scuba Pro catalogs. I was also the first to add a pressure gauge along with the Octopus.

Hal Watts set the world deep air record to 120m/390 ft in 1967

Ah yes, the “Safe Second.” That’s what NASDS called backup second stages, right? Sheck Exley (1949-1994), the legendary cave explorer with whom you were friends, was also credited with fitting a redundant second stage reg with a necklace. I want to ask you more about Exley, but first, I want to know: What are the best wrecks you ever dived?

This is really very hard to answer. I’ll have to list four, in the order that I dived them: the USS Monitor, Andrea Doria, Japanese wrecks located in Truk Lagoon, and the Lusitania in Ireland.

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The most important would have to be the USS Monitor, a submarine used during the Civil War. A group of well-known USA divers applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a permit to dive the Monitor, as she was located in protected waters. In addition to myself, the group consisted of: Gary Gentile, attorney Peter Hess, and several other well-known expert divers. At first, NOAA refused. Then, Peter Hess filed proper papers asking that we get the NOAA permit. To that end, we presented my Deep Air training material to the concerned NOAA group. I appeared as an expert witness and provided NOAA staff and their legal representatives with my internationally accepted training material and my record of training several world record deep air divers. Our deep air training has been accepted worldwide with zero diving deaths. After that, we received the permit. 

Other than the Monitor, my favorite deep wreck dive would be the Lusitania, which is a very personal and proud story for me. The main reason is because venture capitalist Gregg Bemis owned the diving rights to the Lucey at the time. Gregg had contacted me requesting that I train him on PSAI Narcosis Management Level V, on air—which is 73 m/240 ft—and then train him on trimix so he and I could dive to 91 m/300 ft on the Lusitania lying off the coast of Ireland. 

When word got out that I had enrolled Gregg in my Narcosis Management Course, a well-known international course director (a personal friend of mine) called and told me, “Hal, do not teach Gregg deep diving.” 

PSAI’s ad in aquaCORPS Journal circa 1994 offering deep air training.

He told me that he had been training Gregg at his facility, and that he was a “train wreck.” “He is from a very well-off family in Texas, and if you cause him any injuries, you will be sued and put out of business,” my friend said. Well, guess what? Gregg completed the 240 Level V Deep Air course, then our PSAI Trimix course. My wife, Jan Watts, Gregg, and I went to Ireland to dive the Lusitania. He and I made an awesome 91 m/300 ft trimix dive to the deck.

Diving on the Andrea Doria with Tom Mount, Peter Hess, and several great wreck divers was also an awesome dive. Last but not least was a great trip to Truk to dive on some of the Japanese wrecks.

Please tell us about Sheck.  What was your relationship with him like?

Sheck and I became friends and made several dives together, and one of my favorites happened when Sheck, his Mary Ellen, my wife Jan, and I were diving at 40 Fathoms. Sheck wanted to practice gas switches during descents. Sheck was practicing, getting ready for a planned very deep dive (I think in Mexico with Jim Bowden). The four of us swam to the east side of The Grotto, slowly following the wall during our controlled descent, watching Sheck practice gas switching. 

Sheck Exley and Hal Watts at a NSS-CDS conference

After reaching our planned depth of 73 m/240 ft, we began our controlled ascent up to our first planned deco stop. During our last deco stop on our 4.5 m/15 ft platforms, I noticed that Sheck had a funny look on his face and was messing with his drysuit between his legs. I remembered then that he had told me that he had an attachment installed in the drysuit that would allow him to pee underwater. He was clearly in a bit of discomfort and Mary Ellen, Jan and I just floated nearby and watched.

I’ve heard that Sheck later used diapers, or just cut it loose in one of his old neoprene drysuits on his big dives, so evidently he didn’t get that early p-valve to work. What about your friendship and job collaboration with Gary Taylor, your brother-in-arms and a co-owner of PSAI?

Andrea, get comfortable, since this question will take some time to properly answer.

I first met Gary in Miami, which is where we became friends when I was staying in his home and taking Tom Mount’s nitrox course.  I have a photo of Tom, Gary, and me gas blending on the floor of Tom’s garage. During the course, Tom was still using his worn-out hand written paper flip charts as his notes.

Gary was impressed with my deep air program and offered to put together an updated slideshow presentation for me to teach with. PSAI still uses an updated version of this system to date. Gary stayed with Tom until Tom thought he had sold IANTD [International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers] to another individual. After that sale came about, Gary contacted me wanting to get more involved with PSAI. Being smarter than folks thought I was, I jumped at the chance to have Gary on the PSAI Team. Tom’s deal fell through, but Gary was totally involved with PSAI, and now is a partner and president of our agency. Thanks to Gary and Tom. 

Many, many years ago I was still taking some type of classes—I think regarding mixed gasses, maybe with Rebreathers—at Tom’s house. In fact, I was one of Tom’s instructors who did the final proofreading of one of Kevin Gurr’s manuals. Too far back to recall much about this mixed gas stuff—remember my reputation for being a deep air diver.

Tom Mount and Gary Taylor mixing up some trimix in the garage.

Speaking of the people with whom you’ve dived, was the aim of The Forty Fathom Scubapros Club?

Before I invested in a sinkhole in the Ocala, Florida, area—which was locally referred to as Blue Sink or Zuber Sink, and is now referred to as 40 Fathom Grotto—several diving buddies whom I had dived with and trained for extreme deep air diving—as well as cave exploring—got together and planned to dive The Grotto at least one Friday night per month. Within a short period of time, several other buddies joined our group, which eventually became known as The 40 Fathom Scubapro’s dive club. Each diver had to meet my requirements of training. 

Forty Fathom Grotto aka Zuber Sink
An early Sheck Exley mix course at Forty Fathom Grotto
An Eric Hutcheson drawing of Forty Fathom Grotto

Eventually, our group set specific personal requirements—being a good person, supporting our club safety rules, and making at least one 40 Fathom Grotto dive per month. We set a limit of 14 or 15 members. Three 40 Fathom members eventually set World Records for deep air: I was one, A. J. Muns, and Herb Johnson set ocean records, and later I set the air depth record for cave diving. Naturally, as time passed and we got older, our membership got smaller. It is notable that none of our club members have died during any scuba dive.

Finally, what led you to create the iconic motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan?” 

I used to be a private pilot, and we used to say, “Plan your flight, fly your plan.” This was back in probably 1961 when I had just started diving and there were so many instances where all the other divers would get in the water without saying anything. I’ve seen so many incidents and fatalities that could have been avoided through proper planning.

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Dive Deeper

ScubaGuru: LXD 029 : Hal Watts – Record Deep Diver & Technical Diving Pioneer

Netdoc: Netdoc chats with Mr Scuba, Hal Watts

InDEPTH: The First Helium-based Mix Dives Conducted by Pre-Tech Explorers (1967-1988) by Chris Werner

Alert Diver.Eu: Rapture of the Tech: Depth, Narcosis and Training Agencies

Professional Scuba Association International: PSAI History


Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, the new one is on the way, out on fall 2022. 

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