Diving the Thistlegorm



Lucky are those who, late in life, experience a revelation. I don’t mean the religious kind (though those might be fun, too) but the in-your-face real-world kind.

Though few of us see angels or madonnas on our toast, we can still discover and feel transported by a new art, culture, landscape, country or adventure. Maybe hearing opera for the first time, or standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, or stepping out into Venice/ Machu Pichu/ Karnak/location of your choice. It counts as a revelation, when the experience stuns you and leaves you both humbler and richer.

For me, that happened last year when I leapt with full scuba gear into the warm, clear, astonishingly beautiful waters of the Red Sea. Afterward, I waxed lyrical to all who would listen, about the pure physical joy, the expansion of the horizontal land-perspective to the spherical diver’s experience. Underwater, I had no place to stand, and hovered between an ‘above’ and a ‘below,’ bombarded by stimuli from 360 degrees-squared. My brain, like my lungs, had evolved away from that, and learning it all again was dizzying.

Movement itself was a thrill. After a lifetime of setting one foot down in front of the other, I discovered the wonderful fluid mobility of a marine mammal, changing direction, rolling, and somersaulting, with a flick of the fin or the hip. Brightly colored fish swarmed around me, as if to say, “what took you so long?” It was an epiphany.

And what does a compulsively wordy-nerdy person do after an experience like that?

She turns it into a novel, of course.

Thus, in the months following, I wrote Beloved GomorrahBeloved Gomorrah 300 DPI, taking its setting and its cast of characters from that first trip to Egypt. Of course it had a plot too, one involving the biblical Gomorrah of its title. You wouldn’t think you could smush a diving-adventure-romance-thriller together with a biblical myth, but in fact, they go together rather well. And it was certainly a pleasure to deconstruct the myth of Sodom and Gomorrah as the objects of God’s wrath, and turn them into a paradise.

In any case, after the novel had gone to print, I made a second trip to the Red Sea, this time near Sharm el Sheikh. The second dive brought no revelation, but it did offer the next best ‘cool new’ thing: a dive down to a major shipwreck.

The SS Thistlegorm was an enormous WWII British Merchant ship that set sail from Glasgow destined for Alexandria, Egypt carrying war material. (The route through the Mediterranean was blocked by the Germans at Gibraltar.) German aircraft sank her on 6 October 1941 near the tip of the Sinai peninsula. Discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the 1950s, the wreck has become one of the most spectacular dives of the Red Sea.

I admit, I was nervous. The wreck lies at the limit of my diving credentials (and experience), and the currents are strong, so I wasn’t sure how one even got down there without being swept away. When the dive captain told us the descent was by guide rope tied to the superstructure, it seemed a bit less threatening, so I suited up and leapt in.

Bang! The explosion, within inches of my ear, was deafening, and the sudden froth of white water all around me was frightening. “Don’t go down!” someone shouted at me, and invisible hands pushed me back toward the dive platform where I clutched at the boat ladder. Though I could see nothing, I could feel someone unscrew and detach my air cylinder from my back. The dive master shouted that the O ring on my air tank had burst causing the air to erupt from the valve behind my head (!) rather than stream through my mouthpiece. Fortunately, it had happened at the surface, so I could continue to breathe air from…the air.

While I hung on, slightly shaken, he attached a second tank and assured me that everything would be okay now. I didn’t believe a word of it, but I was already in the water, and unwilling to wimp out, so I followed him meekly, grappling my way down the line to the wreck.


When we reached the deck, the dive master led us slowly around the exterior. Since my air supply seemed fine, I began to enjoy the dive. The wreck site was vast, and we were like tiny sea birds swooping along the hull. To my surprise, I spotted a locomotive that had apparently slid from the deck onto the sea bed as the ship sank. A locomotive on the floor of the Red Sea! Just like in the novel I had recently finished. How cool was that! But I saw no other parallels. No clay tablets, no golden artifacts, no city of sculpture, no Gomorrah to love.

The wreck had its own story to tell, of course, and it was a powerful one, as all catastrophes are. I circled the broken vessel awestruck, imagining the thunder of bombardment, the shrieking of torn steel, the cries of the lost seamen.

We explored until our air tanks reached reserve and it was time to ascend. When I surfaced, I was frankly rather pleased with myself. Now I could join the elite who had ‘dived the Thistlegorm.’

But no.

Back on board, the veterans explained it didn’t count if you just paddled around the outside hull. To qualify for the I dived the Thistlegorm teeshirt, you had to explore the cargo holds. The plan was to go inside, they said. It would be fun, they said.

Inside. A frightening claustrophobic word for the new diver. It means you are in a confined space and in the event of an emergency (read NO AIR), you cannot simply rise to the surface. You have to first escape. Another terrible word.

Of course you learn the hand signal for ‘no air’, and your dive partner (or anyone) knows to rush to your side and share her air. That’s Diving 101. But when you’re swimming single file by torch light in a dark ship’s corridor, a hand signal is not easy to see and takes even longer to respond to. You have to twist backwards trying to catch the attention of the diver behind you and then wait until she wiggles up alongside of you and offers her auxiliary mouthpiece. Can you hold your breath for say, a minute, without panicking?

I told the dive master I wouldn’t go. The rest of the diving team looked at me aghast and with a touch of pity.

“Don’t worry,” the dive master said. “You can dive right behind me. I’ll keep an eye on you. It’ll be fine.” He slapped me on the back.

Frankly, I did not see how being behind him gave me any survival advantage, but the other divers (whose O rings had not exploded, mind you) shamed me into agreeing. Someone photographed us both, just before he pried my reluctant fingers from the rope and led me back down.


Since I am writing this blog, I obviously did not die a terrifying death trapped under water, but we did have a lighting problem. One of the divers had a dead torch, and the dive master lent her his, so that meant my torch, in second position, would be the guiding light of the dive. Oh, joy. But for that, I got another photo just before we entered the hold. Obviously, someone was keeping a record. Be good for the post mortem inquest, I thought. The photo conceals my anxious expression.


But for all my cringing and whining, the ‘inside’ dive went beautifully. We first wormed our way through the upper hold, past thousands of Wellington boots, Bren guns, motorcycles, rifle crates, and unexploded munitions. I took pains not to touch anything, not even with a fin-tip. Ya never know, right?

Then, like it or not, the dive master signaled we were to enter the lower hold. Even darker. Even deeper. Even harder to escape. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. While I stayed within fin-grabbing distance of the dive master, I relaxed enough to focus on the amazing cargo of aircraft wings and engines, of armored vehicles, trucks, radio equipment and the coal tender to the locomotive. All was encrusted with sea life, and slowly rusting away.

The experience was thrilling, but not a revelation. Perhaps it was merely the joy of overcoming personal fears. I surfaced with a quiet sense of pride for I had been in the belly of the Thistlegorm. Now I qualified for the tee shirt.

And best of all, I had a fabulous idea for the next novel.




10 Responses to “Diving the Thistlegorm”

  1. 1 szegerton November 19, 2013 at 10:32 AM

    Brilliant Justine. I’ve never had the urge to go diving, but your blog has actually managed to make it seem an attractive activity. I probably haven’t your lung capacity (years of asthma, now gone, happily, but it must have had some effect on the bellows) so I don’t think hold spaces are for me, but suspension twixt surface and bed must be wonderful – one for the bucket list now…
    Thank you for your vivid scene-setting.


  2. 2 jeffreyricker November 19, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    You’re a braver soul than I am! Great story.


  3. 3 Yvonne Heidt November 19, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    How awesomely exciting! Thank you for sharing.


  4. 4 S.A. November 19, 2013 at 1:55 PM

    Thanks for sharing! I’ve enjoyed all of your novels so far; it’s fun to learn about some of the inspirations behind them. Looking forward to the next one! (And congrats on the tee shirt. 😉 )


  5. 5 Sheri Campbell November 19, 2013 at 2:13 PM

    Visiting the local aquarium is as good as it gets for me. Never having to depend on a rubber thingy in my mouth. I know you are an experienced diver but still you described your experience so thoroughly I was hanging on every word and feeling the fear. Brave woman. Thanks for sharing your adventure. Wear that T-shirt with head high and chest stuck out proudly.


  6. 6 Erin Saluta November 19, 2013 at 4:36 PM

    You are an amazing story teller! Just from this short blog I found myself gripping my computer, reading as fast as I could to see how the dive went. I was panicking alongside of you and trying not to hyperventilate as I sat in my recliner. Jeepers! Congrats on the t-shirt!!


  7. 7 Devlyn November 20, 2013 at 7:08 AM

    Bravo and congratulations on getting your tshirt. What an amazing experience for you and thanks for sharing it with us.I have never dived myself but living the experience through your eyes was amazing.


  8. 8 Kim November 21, 2013 at 8:59 AM

    Thanks for sharing your diving story and photos. Love your books and look forward to reading this new one.


  9. 9 Justine November 28, 2013 at 2:36 AM

    To Sue, Jeffrey, Yvonne, SA, Sheri, Erin, Devlyn and Kim. Thank you for your responses which I have only just now read. The blog appeared while I was in Egypt (third diving trip) and I only got back a couple of days ago. I’m pleased you like my writing, but would also encourage you to engage with the sea. Snorkeling is a good start, and once you are comfortable under ten feet of water, you can try it at twenty feet with an oxygen cylinder. It’s a wonderful new (old, actually) world that will make you care more about the earth.


  10. 10 Martyn Bryce June 26, 2014 at 1:08 PM

    Where did u buy the t shirt? I’ve dived it but can’t find a grey t shirt


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