Imagine the difficulty in properly communicating the reasons of such a strong and impactful resolution, apparently counter-productive because of the lack of economic revenue and the malcontent of the visitors, but none the less extremely justified by the fragility of the paint and the desire to ensure it a long term sustainable future.
The work of art in question is, in the diving world, absolutely comparable with the popularity and the affection surrounding the Da Vinci’s painting. And HEPCA actually dared to close it down for a month.
The S.S. Thistlegorm is a British cargo ship that was launched in 1940 and sunk in Red Sea in 1941, after an air raid of German bombers. A single bomb was enough to take out this 128m long cargo ship now laying forever off Shaab Ali. The bomb hit the hold number 4 where munitions, explosives and rifles were stored; fire and further explosions led to breaking of the ship and its rapid sinking. Around a decade later, early in the 1950’s, Jean Jacques Cousteau discovered the position of the wreck, presenting the diving community with one of the most intriguing and fascinating dive sites in this region of the world.
The S.S. Thistlegorm lies at a maximum depth of 33m, a characteristic that makes it accessible to advanced recreational divers. Diving the wreck should only be privilege to experienced divers due to strong currents and winds that usually exist at the site. The fame and the enormous popularity of the wreck are mainly due to its cargo: wagons, minesweepers, tanks, cars, motorcycles, camp beds, rifles and wellington boots - all these in near-perfect condition and still stored in holds which can be accessed and are maximum 25 m deep. A dream come true.
First publicised in 1992, the popularity of the site grew steadily with figures from recent years of tens of thousand divers annually. Considered more as an underwater museum than a simple wreck, the well being and conservation of the S.S. Thistlegorm should be the top priority not only for the diving industry operating in the Egyptian Red Sea which rely on it, but also for the community and the country. Over the years, the diving industry has evolved to accommodate the increased number of visitors and the pressures in terms of frequency of diving activities and consequently, the shear number and size of the boats mooring at the wreck, reaching values barely imaginable.
In 2007, HEPCA and its members began denouncing the unsustainable traffic and use of the wreck by officially launching the “Save our Wrecks” campaign. It was time for a change, for a new vision which would have allowed for the enjoyment of divers but whilst preventing the continuous and excessive abuse of her treasures. The aim of the campaign was to manage an exaggerated and unregulated traffic which would have led, inexorably, to her destruction.
To avoid this catastrophic scenario, HEPCA and supporters decided to start with the S.S. Thistlegorm, one of the top dive sites, closing the wreck for a month, in November 2007, to allow the realisation of conservation interventions decided by common accord with the operators.
Phase One (Nov-Dec 2007) Strong intervention, shrouded by hype.
It has not been easy to realise the preservation plan, nor to make it universally understood: “Many diving operators consider the closure unpractical. However, the fact remains we are losing this wreck.” said Amr Ali in response to the critics from part of the diving industry.
Popular diving magazines, websites, chats and blogs amplified the echo of the news, intensively stressing the pressing need for an intervention and a change in attitudes, and provided the users with a presentation of the new scheme, listing its specifications and instruction of use. The HEPCA Mooring team, supported by Red Sea liveaboard operators, Red Sea Explorers and blue o two, was in charge of the installation of a brand new buoy mooring system, composed of a total of 32 lines, with separate ascent and descent lines, and the drilling of air-escape outlets.
Phase Two (Feb-Mar 2008) Time to refine the strategy…
Over a period of test weeks, most diving operators expressed their satisfaction with the new system. However, over the three months that passed since Phase One, around half of the lines were found to be damaged: a normal consumption rate for a site with this level of exploitation and exposed to these particular adverse environmental conditions.
The vessel operators highlighted the possibility to further enhance the system to increase safety and ease of use. To this end, a consultative meeting was held on 24th February in Sharm El Sheik: managers of several dive centers and representatives of the CDWS and SSDM gathered with Amr Ali from HEPCA to review the system and discuss possible improvements. That day the so called ‘Miky System’ was proposed, named after its designer Miky Clark, from Camel dive centre. Interventions were realised on the wreck to enhance the mooring system, aiming at making it more resistant and further reducing possible mechanical tension on the wreck. In addition, it was decided that boats, on order to be permitted to use the mooring system, should also throw an anchor from the stern. This extra stability should help to ensure that the lines do not become shredded by rubbing against the structure of the wreck in wind and strong currents.
Phase Three What is next?
In June 2008 attention was turned to the wreck of the Rosalie Moller. Sadly, this beautiful and iconic Red Sea wreck has suffered considerable damage over the last few years.
HEPCA undertook further assessment and an installation of a mooring system to protect the fragile wreck from further damage. Due to the depth of the wreck, technical divers were involved to carry out the work and the HEPCA mooring team was supported once again by divers from Red Sea Explorers and blue o two, as well as Diving Attitude amongst others. Conventional moorings are not possible due to the depth and conditions of the wreck, so a system of wires and ropes attached to the structure of the wreck was planned.
All these interventions where promoted by HEPCA within the ‘Save our Wrecks’ campaign, and need a constant monitoring: dive guides, operators or guests noticing improper use of the mooring systems or damages on the wrecks, are kindly invited to be reported to HEPCA.