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Scuba Diving in the Red Sea
Dive Site: Carnatic
Location: 27°34'53"N; 33°55'32"E (Sha'ab Abu Nuh‚s)
Description: British cargo ship
Length: 90 metres approx (295 feet)
Depth: 24 metres max (79 feet)
Visibility: 20 - 30 metres (65 - 100 feet)
The Carnatic is a beautiful 19th Century wreck that lies on Sha'ab Abu Nuhas Reef. Its shallow depth means that it is accessible to all levels of diver and all levels will appreciate it as a great wreck dive. Despite the length of time the Carnatic has been on the seabed (it sank in 1869) it is remarkably intact. The majority of your dive can be done along the outside of the wreck past giant moray eels and other Red Sea reef fish that have made this wreck their home. In the holds you can see the remains of broken bottles and there are shoals of glass fish inhabiting them. Penetration into the holds is easy for any level of diver. To finish the dive you can head back along Sha'ab Abu Nuhas reef where you will be able to find many different types of coral and fish before ascending.
The Carnatic is one of the older wrecks in the Red Sea and after her sinking
in September 1869 she lay alone on the reef of Abu Nuhâs for over 100 years
before being joined by several others wrecks in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
She is of iron framed planked construction and was a P&O passenger sail &
steam ship, 90m in length with a beam of 12 metres.
On September 12th 1869 she began what ended up being her last voyage from Suez
with an intended destination of Bombay under the command of Captain P.B Jones
(who had taken command of the Carnatic in 1867). With 176 crew, 34 passengers
she had a cargo of wine, cotton bails and £40,000 of royal mint gold. It
is thought and widely reported that Captain Jones did most of the navigation and
course plotting and with the inevitable lack of sleep certain bearings were not
taken during watch changes. Whatever the reasons, the Carnatic struck the reef
of Abu Nuhâs just after midnight where she did not sink immediately but
became stuck on the shallow reef top. It was a clear night and the decision was
made not to abandon ship, but for crew and passengers alike to remain on board.
Captain Jones knew that another P&O vessel, the Sumatra was due to pass them
in the opposite direction on route to Suez, and intended to seek her assistance.
After a perilous night on the reef top the Sumatra had still not arrived on Sept
13th. The Carnatic appeared to be in fair condition and as nightfall approached
for the second time, Captain Jones made the fateful decision to ride out another
night on the floundering vessel. After some 36 hours on the reef the Carnatic
finally gave up her hopeless battle against the elements and broke in half, late
morning on Tuesday Sept 14th 1869. The passengers and crew abandoned ship, using
the lifeboats which were not damaged and could still be launched. They allegedly
used some of the previously jettisoned, tightly packed cotton bails as flotation
devices, and the remaining 7 lifeboats then made for Shadwan (or Shaker) island,
approx 2 miles to the south. The cotton bails were also used to keep them warm
during the cold night experienced in this area in contrast to the heat of the
day and to make a fire. The lives of 26 crew and 5 passengers were lost.
It is reported that Captain Henry Grant was dispatched by Lloyd’s of
London to recover the valuable cargo of gold, a task which was completed (apparently
in full) by November 8th 1869. This was quite a task and was a landmark in salvage
operations of that time.
Today, some 135 years later, the Carnatic is a fantastic dive site. The outer
reef of Abu Nuhâs should not be underestimated and surface conditions and
the direction of the surface current can make mooring difficult. It is more normal
these days for larger dive vessels to moor on the relatively safe south side of
the reef and for divers to be ferried out to the wreck in small tender boats or
RIBs. The wreck lies in around 22m of water at the base of the reef, tipped
over onto her port side. She lies parallel to the reef wall with her starboard
side facing towards the top of the reef. Now in two sections, amidships she is broken
apart, but she still managed to sink and settle with dignity and lies is such
a way that it is still easy to imagine how she once looked when intact. The current
here can be strong and normally runs from the bow to stern, so it’s a good
idea to start your dive at the stern and head forward into the current, before
drifting back. The wooden decking is long since gone making it possible to swim
between her decking beams which now look like a giant ribcage (take care as soft
corals cover the wreck). The inside of the stern is full of glassfish and sweepers
making her a photographers dream come true. Her boilers are clearly defined amidships
and in the early 1990’s there was a huge table coral which had grown on
top of a twisted piece of metal. This was home to a huge resident moral eel, however
sadly when I last dived here in February 2002 the remains of the broken table coral
where on the seabed. The bow section is littered with the broken bottles which
are left over from her cargo of wine. She is often referred to as the “Wine
Wreck”. Indeed everything about a dive on the Carnatic is picturesque and
has an air of romance – a fine bottle of wine and a candle lit dinner for
2 at 22 metres would be just the ticket!
Rik Vercoe, BSAC Advanced Instructor
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