Red Sea Wrecks: Dunraven and Thistlegorm

Red Sea Wrecks: Dunraven and Thistlegorm

Storms, strong winds, dangerous currents and countless reefs have made the Red Sea difficult to navigate for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians were renowned shipbuilders and the Romans travelled along Red Sea shores. The advent of steam didn't diminish the number of wrecks. Even today it's not uncommon for ships to run aground on coral reefs. And of course there are those sunk in a war.

The Red Sea has been of major importance for thousands of years as a major shipping route. Countless wrecks have been lost on the unforgiving reefs. Even today great care must be taken whilst navigating as small mistakes can cost captains their ships.The beauty of the Red Sea is that you find a complete cross section of wrecks from historic to modern all within the same area.

In the Shadwan Channel, just off the north coast of Shadwan Island (the Egyptian Red Sea's largest island) north of Hurghada, lies Shaab Abu Nuhas Reef. This submerged reef has brought passing ships more than a fair share of bad luck. There are 5 cargo shipwrecks now lying off its northern slopes so if you enjoy wreck diving then this part of the Red Sea is for you. In order from west to east ...

The Northern Red Sea has one of the biggest concentrations of shipwrecks found anywhere in the world. To the East of Sinai the Tiran straits and Nabeq to the north have cost many sh ips their lives as they tried to navigate the very deep,narrow channels between the mainland Sinai and Tiran Island. A number of wrecks can be found here a few deep but luckily most shallow enough to dive.


The Dunraven was a British steamer merchant ship on route from Bombay to Newcastle, England with a cargo of timber and cotton when she struck the reef at Beacon Rock on the 22 April 1876. The ship was holed in three places, fire broke out and she overturned and sank. A conflicting version of events suggests that she lay impaled on the reef for several days before fire engulfed her and she sank. She lies upside down with her stern at 29 meters and bow section at 18 meters. The best of this dive is by penetrating the hull from either the stern, the broken mid ship or bow. The interior of the ship is home to innumerable fish and corals including groupers, lionfish, scorpion fish and swarms of glassfish.

This wreck of a British Steamer is on the Southern edge of Sha’ab Mahmoud which is also known as Beacon Rock as the wreck is directly below the South Cardinal Beacon. It is about another hour boat ride past Ras Mohammed and is prone to the weather conditions. Once at the reef there is some protection from the waves but it can still be a little rough. The Dunraven was built in 1873 in Newcastle and hit the reef in 1876. It has sunk in 30m of water right next to the reef wall and is completely upside down in two sections.

The length is about 80m and it’s about 10m wide. The stern section is in about 29m to the sand and is open in places for those qualified to enter. This leads to a swim through by the side of the ship’s boiler and out where the wreck has broken in half. The exit being usually filled with glass fish in their thousands. The bow section is in shallower water with loads of places to stick your head into, but nowhere to get in. After the bow section the dive is usually done by fining over the hull which is covered in coral and then moving onto the reef wall and the shallows to finish the dive.

The Ship Built by Mitchell & Company of Newcastle, the Dunraven was officially described as an "Iron Screw Steamer - Planked" and launched in December 1873. She was one of those relatively new breed of vessel - capable of being powered by either sail or steam. A relatively large boat for her day, she displaced 1,613 GRT and had a coal fired two cylinder compound inverted engine - also built in Newcastle, by Messrs Humphrys and Tennant. Capable of producing 140 nhp, the Dunraven had a top speed of 8 knots (unladen). She was 79.6m long, 9.8m wide and had a draught of 7.3m. The Dunraven was owned and operated by W. Milburn of London and, after successful sea trials, was used on the Bombay run.

Final Voyage

In March 1876 she was sailing north towards Suez when she struck the southern reaches of the extensive reef system of SHA’AB MAHMUD at a point now known as Beacon rock. There are conflicting reports as to what happened next. When the wreck was discovered her portholes were found to be open and this has lead to the theory that she broke in two and sank quickly.
Red Sea Wrecks: Dunraven
The second report tells how she held fast on the reef for several days, then caught fire, burned for 13 hours and capsized, sliding down the reef to where she lies today. Whatever happened the wreck now lies on a flat seabed of 30 metres, her keel up most and lying along the base of the reef. Discovered in 1979, the Dunraven was to become a 'World about Us' TV special, and as she was salvaged, artifacts such as Hamilton bottles, mugs, plates and even jars of gooseberries and rhubarb were found.

  • Constructed: 1873 (Newcastle, England)
  • Wrecked: 1876
  • Length of ship: 82m (270ft)
  • Wreck location: Beacon Rock a.k.a. Sha'ab Mahmud, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.
  • Depth range of wreck: 18m to 27m

Diving in the Dunraven is almost completely upside down. She lies with her port side resting along an adjacent reef - with a slight "list" towards that reef. At a depth of 17m, the upside down bows are the shallowest part of the dive, with the stern resting on the seabed at 30m. Overall, the Dunraven provides the diver with a thoroughly enjoyable series of dives on what is, after all, one of Egypt's most famous shipwrecks.

  • Location: 27° 42' 22" N, 34° 07' 02"E. South of Beacon Rock light on Sha’ab Mahmud
  • Access: Day or Safari boat normally from Sharm El Sheikh, occasionally from Hurghada
  • Minimum Depth to Wreck: 17m (upturned Bows)
  • Maximum Depth to Seabed: 32m (at Stern)
  • Average Visibility: 25-30m
  • Scenery: 1 star
  • Fauna: 2 stars
  • GPS: 27°48.800N - 35°55.250 E


Some say the best wreck site in the world, all would agree certainly in the top 10. The Thistlegorm, a merchant ship requisitioned to assist the allied war effort, was on route from Glasgow to Egypt fully loaded with military supplies. Having had to go round Africa, as the Mediterranean was in the control of Germany, she lay at anchor in Sha’ab Ali waiting for the entrance to the Suez Canal to be cleared of the wreck of the Tynefield that had been attacked earlier.

6 October 1941 a flight of German Heinkel III bombers out of Crete, searching for the Queen Mary (being used as a troop carrier) had failed to find the primary target and were looking for other targets when they came across the Thistlegorm and her escort, HMS Carlisle. Two bombs hit hold number 4 which contained the ordinance. The initial and secondary explosion was immense, hurtling deck cargo of steam trains through the air and almost ripping the ship in two. The explosion was so great that the attacking aircraft was hit by flying debris and it crashed several miles to the north. The ship sank quickly with her bows coming to rest at 17 meters and the twisted stern lies at 32 meters.

Her cargo included BSA Motor Bikes, Morris Cars, Bedford Trucks, armored cars, Petrol Trucks, Gun Carriers, Trailer mounted generators, Lee Enfield Rifles, Steam locomotives and tenders, Wellington boots, aircraft wings, artillery shells, light munitions, land mines. Most of which are still there today.

Journey time to the wreck is usually around 4 hours for a 2 dive day. The first dive circumnavigates the broken stern with her two aft guns and huge single propeller, crossing over the remnants of hold number 4 to the bridge, forward deck cargo and bows. The second dive concentrates on the bows and cargo holds 1 & 2 which afford easy penetration to the racks upon racks of cargo.

A fantastic dive, which has been voted one of the Top Ten Dives in the World. You'll need to do this more than once to explore more than a tiny part of the wreck. Thistlegorm is Gaelic for Blue Thistle. A British vessel, it was attacked from the air and sunk in 1941 whilst carrying a cargo of war supplies: rifles, motor bikes, train carriages, trucks. A big wreck - 131 metres long. Currents can be strong, and in different directions at the surface and at the wreck. Diving the Thistlegorm is a trip back in time. The anticipation is electric, the dives enthralling and the whole trip memorable.

The Ship

The Thistlegorm was built by Joseph Thompson & Sons of Sunderland and launched in June 1940. She was 126.5m in length and displaced 4,898 gross tonnes. Powered by a triple-expansion, 3 cylinder steam engine that generated a very comfortable 365 nominal horsepower. She was one of a number of "Thistle" ships owned and operated by the Albyn Line. With her construction being part funded by the British Government, however, she was destined for "War" duties from the moment she was launched.

She was one of a number of "Thistle" ships owned and operated by the Albyn Line. Each vessel carried the emblem of Scotland, the thistle, which formed the prefix of each vessels name followed by a Gaelic word; Thistledhu, Thistlegorm, Thistleglen and Thistlenuir.
Red Sea Wrecks - Thistlegorm
Soon after completion she was quickly requisitioned by the navy for allied WW2 duties and armed with the guns which she still carries today - world war one vintage guns in fact. By September of 1941 she had completed three successful voyages (America, Argentina and the Dutch Antilles). Her next however, was to be her last.

  • Constructed: 1940 (Sunderland, England)
  • Wrecked: 1941
  • Length of ship: 127m (415ft)
  • Wreck location: Sha'ab Ali, North Red Sea, Egypt.
  • Depth range of wreck: 18m to 33m

The Mighty Thistlegorm is a legend amongst Divers and her place will be forever enshrined in Diving’s own "Great Hall of Fame." In the meantime, however, she has become a victim of her own status and is in serious decline. Sadly, none of us shall ever see this shipwreck as magnificent as she was on the day she was re-discovered - only a few short years ago. How long she will last is anybody’s guess!

  • Location: 27° 49' 03" N, 33° 55' 14"E. Northeast of Shag Rock, Sha’ab Ali
  • Access: Day or Safari boat from Sharm El Sheikh or Hurghada
  • Minimum Depth to Wreck: 10m (at Bridge)
  • Maximum Depth to Seabed: 31m (Railway Engine)
  • Average Visibility: 25-30m
  • Scenery: 1 star
  • Fauna: 2 stars
  • GPS: 27°48.800N - 35°55.250 E

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Last Updated on Friday 17th December 2010