For years, an unidentified cargo ship lying in one of Egypt’s most remote reefs has been the subject of speculation – was it a spy ship? Wreck detective Peter Collings investigates
I remember noting on that first dive, that sophisticated-looking electronic equipment lay all over the wreck – far more than the usual array of masts, coils and cables you would normally expect. We discovered several notice plates, which were covered in Russian text, and noted that the compass had originated from Denmark. As we sailed away, I was deep in thought. Could this have been some sort of spy ship? My fellow divers thought that I had been watching too many Bond movies, but nevertheless, something was nagging at me.
As a wreck guide, I often work in the Red Sea, and so took the opportunity to dive the vessel whenever possible. In 2003 I escorted an electronics specialist inside the wreck, showing him large racks of batteries and the Russian schematics at the end of each row. Later, he told me that such a large amount of batteries indicated that the ship required a ‘clean’ power source – the generators would give off radiated and transmitted noise, but batteries would have been silent. He traced the cables, and found that some ended at an empty space where a sizeable piece of equipment had evidently been removed via an access panel in the hull.
Further investigations revealed that the ship had been at anchor – we found HT (high tension) leads and fuel lines running ashore – and that the diesel engine had been under repair, dismantled and with the lower covers all removed. Holes had been made in the hull, one of which was obviously not caused by a reef collision. There had been some sort of explosion, which opened up a hole and forced the metal outwards. These contrasted with the holes caused by reef impact, in which the metal was bent inwards, following the direction of the impact.
We turned our attention to the Bakelite notices below the banks of switches, subsequently obtaining translations that indicated the use of the various switches: ‘synchronisation’, ‘tension and frequency’ and ‘installation and maintenance for navigation shield’. One of the signs was in English, and read ‘natural vent of solution preparation room’. It may have been a shallow wreck, but the mystery was deepening!
As a dive, the wreck is superb for divers of all abilities. It lies upright on the sea bed at 24m on the western end of Zabargad’s southern bay. The bow and small hold have broken off and lie to port – teeming with glassfish – but the wreck is otherwise intact and has a very picturesque stern section. From there, it is easy to locate the bridge, which is still full of instruments and leads down some steps to the accommodation and galley areas, where you will find beds, toolboxes and everyday items.
On deck, almost all of the original fittings are still in place, including the empty lifeboat davits, stern winch cable drums and ‘toadstool’ ventilator tops. The central communications mast rises to within a few metres of the surface, and compass posts sit at each side of the flying bridge. Access to the engine room and accommodation can be gained from doors situated on the rear deck, and there are also large holes in the hull around this area – you can enter the engine room here, and then exit via one of the rear doorways or a skylight. In front of the wheelhouse is a control room for what appears to be piping and valves for fuel.
The bow section lies to starboard, with the bow itself ground hard into the reef. Close to the winch is some sort up upright structure – possibly a crane. Access to the hold is easy – you can swim through one of two service hatches, or simply swim in through the massive tear in the ship where it hit the reef. The question is whether it sank because it hit the reef, or whether it hit the reef when it sank for an unknown reason – possibly an explosion. It could be that the ship put in for repairs and was sunk by an explosion that took place while it was at anchor.
So, if my theory was correct, I had to ask myself what on earth a Russian spy ship was doing in the Red Sea in the late 1970s, which, judging from the level of coral development, was the period in which this vessel went down. It was time to start answering some of the questions this wreck had thrown up.
It is historical fact that the Russians were operating out of Eritrea’s Dahlak Islands during the Cold War. Russia also had good diplomatic relations with Egypt – there are several Russian-built Egyptian shipwrecks from the Arab conflicts. However, there was nothing on this ship to suggest it was an Egyptian vessel. It could be that this vessel was monitoring shipping for both the Russian and the Egyptian military.
Last year I returned to Zabargad with a group of divers, which included an army communications specialist. We carried out more dives, and found a large room at deck level behind the bridge, with electronic panels running all around the room, and more Bakelite panels, dials, switches and screens, with cables running aft to the battery room. It was obviously a communications control centre. We also noted that all of the watertight doors had been burned off at the hinges. Whatever the reason for doing this, it would make it difficult to raise the vessel by pumping it with air.
The comments made by our army communications specialist were something of a revelation. ‘It was clear to me on the first dive that this was no trawler,’ he said. ‘The first thing that gave it away for me was the amount of antennae mountings fitted to the masts and the narrow-band direction-finding antenna lying next to the ship. It was also clear that somebody had removed a lot of equipment in a hurry.
‘This equipment was almost all electronic, as the telltale power and control cables were either cut or ripped from whatever they had been connected to. Whatever they were dealing with, it needed a lot of power, due to the size of the power distribution panels and battery banks.’
Using all my contacts, I set about researching possible vessels that might fit the description of the mystery wreck, and came up with the MOMA-class coastal survey ships, which were often converted by the Russians for alternative use. Built in Gdansk, Poland between 1968 and 1974, they have a length of 73.3m and a beam of 10.8m, just like the Zabargad wreck. We found a registration plate on an anchor winch, stating clearly in Russian that it had been manufactured in 1973 – we believe the ship was built a year later. Finally, there is the enigma of the umbilical lines running to shore. During one dive, I cut away the top layer of insulation to try to determine what sort of cable it was. It turned out to be armoured and multi-cored. If it were a power cable, you would expect to see between three and five thick cores of cable, but these cores were thin and there were a lot of them. This led me to believe the cable was not used for power, but formed some sort of signal path from the ship to shore.
If a ship were communicating with a base a significant distance away, then it would probably have been using high-frequency transmission. In all likelihood, an antenna would have been mounted on dry land to reduce the dangers of non-ionising radiation, or possibly because the antenna was big and awkward to mount on board the ship. Equally, it is possible that the ship could have remoted its surveillance antennae to attain a greater range and a broader spectrum. There are signs on the shores of Zabargad that there was some sort of metal structure – perhaps it was an array of antennae, for communications or surveillance.
In an ideal story, ‘X’ would mark the spot and I’d be able to find out the name of the ship. I had hoped that a serial number and emblem on the wreck’s funnel might have made her identification easy, but so far there has been no trace of a shipping company using the letters in question – MBM. The details on the auto-compass have also failed to turn up anything, despite some kind assistance from the Danish embassy in London. Lloyds register has similarly failed to shed any light on the matter. In a sense, these remaining mysteries serve to enhance what is one of southern Egypt’s best dives, one that we shall have to be content calling, simply, ‘The Russian Wreck’.