IT STARTED OUT WITH A DRIFT DIVE ROUND GORDON REEF, so typical of the dives in the Straits of Tiran. I had bumped into a rather friendly turtle at the start of the dive, and spent most of the time watching it munch at the soft corals.
The second dive was a bit of a dilemma. The wind was picking up from the south, and many of the usual sites for a second dive would have presented a problem for the boat. I should mention that during winter the wind is fairly reliably from the north or north-east, so a wind from the south was a bit unusual.
Then one of the dive guides suggested that it might be possible to dive the wreck of the Kormoran on Laguna Reef. That caught my attention - a wreck of which I had never even heard. Laguna Reef is relatively shallow, closer to Tiran Island than the deepwater reefs that line up the middle of the strait where the popular Tiran dive sites are.
The wreck of the Kormoran is on the side of the reef exposed to the more seasonal northerly winds. At this time of year it is not usually safe for dive-boats to approach, as there is too much risk of ending up on the reef. With a southerly wind, the wreck site is now sheltered.
The boat stays loose; there are no moorings above the wreck. Our captain manoeuvres as close to the reef as he dares and we all jump in.
Descending as soon as we're clear of the boat, I can see some scraps of wreckage on the reef at 15m. Other than damage from the wreck, the reef is in fantastic condition, terrace on terrace of pristine table corals following the gentle slope into the distance. If it weren't for the attraction of the wreck, I would be happy just admiring the reef.
As it is, we follow the wreckage uphill and the stern of the wreck soon comes into view, twisted towards us on its starboard side. Looking up, the port railing almost breaks the surface.
My buddy and I duck round the back of the stern. The propeller and rudder are still in place, rudder amidships.
Only a little further forward, the wreck breaks up, leaving a canted diesel engine exposed above a field of flattened plates and girders, sparsely peppered with winches, masts and bollards. Sprigs of table coral have become established on the wreckage, some now a respectable size.
The port side of the wreck is closest to the reef. As we work our way forwards, I can see how the Kormoran cut an angled blow into the reef. The damage to the reef is only a metre or so deep at the stern, but at the bows it's a good 3m deep, leaving the top of the reef level with the tip of the bows.
On the outside of the bow, the name “Kormoran” is easily visible, a label that has caused some confusion, as the ship was renamed Zingara in 1976.
I have even seen a report that confuses this small freighter with a multi-thousand-tonne bulk carrier of the same name that also went down in the Red Sea. Nevertheless, the wreck was introduced to me as the Kormoran, local divers refer to it as the Kormoran, and that is how I will continue to think of it.
The Kormoran was built in the then East Germany in 1963. It's a small, 1580 ton freighter with two holds forward of an engine and bridge at the stern. Designed to operate in the Baltic winter, it had ice-breaking bows.
The strength and angle of the bows doubtless explains why they are still intact and have cut so far into the reef. Meanwhile, damage from the wrecking has been exploited by the waves to flatten everything between the bows and the stern.
The wrecking of the Kormoran remains unexplained. The Straits of Tiran are a busy shipping channel, and there are charted shipping lanes with a separation zone about the Tiran reefs. The south-going lane is to the west of the reefs and the north-going lane to the east.
In August 1984, the Kormoran drove into the reef at full speed, heading southward from Aqaba with a cargo of phosphate. To hit Laguna Reef, it must have crossed the opposing lane.
The ship wasn't that old, and it's hard to imagine an insurance job being this far off-course, as there are many opportunities to drive into a reef much closer to the correct shipping lane.
I guess that it was just a navigational error. Perhaps the helmsman was asleep, or maybe the navigator got his conversions from grid to magnetic mixed up.
Coral reefs are not solid structures. As the living coral grows out from the reef, it leaves behind a honeycomb structure that slowly fills with sand and debris, compacting over time to form solid rock.
The Kormoran cut into the reef at a slight angle, crushing a trench into the loosely packed table corals. The helmsman may have seen the reef at the last minute and been turning hard to starboard. Although the rudder is amidships, it could simply have fallen to that line as the wreck settled to its starboard side.
The damage to the reef is surprisingly localised, a nice clean cut into the reef.
Perhaps we're lucky that the Kormoran was an immediate total loss. Had it been salvageable, I suspect that there would have been considerable additional damage to the reef from attempts to drag it clear.
The Kormoran's cargo winch, just aft of the forecastle
a porthole is still fitted to a plate just forward of the engine
the anchor chain is almost buried by fresh coral growth
- Water temperature in the northern Red Sea ranges from 20°C in winter to 28°C at the end of the summer. Further south, the temperature doesn't drop below 26°C.
- Air temperatures can rise above 40°C during daytime in summer and can fall as low as 10°C at night in the winter. Rainfall is only a few millimetres per year.
- Surface currents in the Red Sea generally flow northwards in winter and southwards in summer.
- No rivers flow into the Red Sea, and so much water evaporates into the hot dry desert air that salinity is 4.1%. More typical sea water has 2% salinity.
- Dive guides may advise divers to add as much as 1.5-2kg to weightbelts because of the Red Sea's salinity, but do your own buoyancy check.