It was the night of Oct. 6, 1941, in the Straits of Gubal in the southern Red Sea. Like most of the crew of the hybrid steam-sail ship SS Thistlegorm, moored in the safe haven in Egyptian waters off the shallow reef, merchant seaman John McKai was sleeping on the deck. There was no air conditioning, of course, and the Red Sea is the world’s northernmost tropical sea.

The ship was bound for Alexandria, loaded with supplies for the British 8th Army — Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s “Desert Rats” fighting in North Africa — but had been forced to wait for two weeks because of a collision in the Suez Canal that blocked the entrance. Its escort, the light cruiser HMS Carlisle, was flanking it in deeper waters.

The supplies — trucks, motorbikes, rifles, ammunition — would never reach the 8th Army. In fact they are still in pretty much the same place, only now they are 30 meters below the surface, and the marine ecosystem has, over the intervening 65 years, colonized the wreckage.

The story of the SS Thistlegorm, a compelling one in its own right, serves as a fable and a warning for what is happening to our oceans.

Back in 1941, there was a whine in the air as two German Heinkel He IIIs, the mainstay of the Luftwaffe’s bombing force, passed high over the British ships as they headed back to base from Crete with a full payload after failing to locate their target, a troop carrier.

A few sailors on watch on HMS Carlisle noticed the bombers without undue concern, and a couple on the SS Thistlegorm were woken briefly by the distant engine noise.

Whining engines

But after they spotted the SS Thistlegorm, the bombers didn’t fly straight on back to base. Reluctant to return with the shame of a full payload of bombs, the German pilots flew far over the desert, turned around, dived and headed back over the sea, keeping very low. This time, the sailors reacted with alarm when they heard the whining engines, much closer.

Some rushed to the anti-aircraft gun, mounted on the stern, as six bombs fell toward them. There was no time. Two 450-kg bombs scored direct hits on the SS Thistlegorm, and ripped it apart. It started sinking immediately. Ammunition stored in the holds started exploding. The captain saw the game was up, and ordered all hands to abandon ship.

The ship was burning as it sank. Trapped behind the flames by the anti-aircraft gun a sailor lay stricken, wounded by shrapnel. John McKai ran through the fire and exploding shells, picked up his shipmate, and bore him overboard. HMS Carlisle plucked the men from the sea. For McKai’s act of bravery, he received the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian award for bravery.

Nine sailors were not so lucky, and went down with the ship. Their bodies have gone to nourish the marine world that moved in. The site is an unofficial war grave.

As well as being a remarkable story, the SS Thistlegorm is a sea wreck easily accessible to divers which, according to some reports, brings more tourist money into Egypt than the Giza pyramids.

It’s an amazing, ghostly experience to dive the wreck. The trucks, rifles, motorbikes and unexploded shells are still neatly stacked, but lionfish patrol around them, shoals of fish swimming through the holes between the decks. Worms, barnacles and mollusks are encrusted over the metal of the trucks. Blacktip sharks, jack fish and tuna circle outside, waiting to attack the smaller fish. Mussels grow on cables still dangling from ceilings.

And here’s where the fate of the SS Thistlegorm is analogous to that of the oceans. Its war grave status hasn’t prevented divers from plundering the wreck for souvenirs, and the huge amount of air released into the wreck from the thousands of divers passing through has accelerated the rusting of the structure. The ship is slowly disintegrating.

Exotic species

Human action has had a similar effect on the natural structures in the sea. No coral reef in the world can be considered as being in pristine condition. Overfishing, bleaching as a result of global warming, and disease caused by pollution have all taken their toll. As biologist Masashi Murakami of Hokkaido University has shown, in fish systems, when exotic species invade a new ecosystem they degrade it, and spread to adjacent ecosystems.

Many species are likely to have become extinct before scientists have even discovered them. In a paper published last week (see “Genetic mapping” story below), biologists at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Wood’s Hole in Massachusetts announced that, using a new DNA-based identification technique, they had discovered thousands of new species of bacteria in the deep ocean — far more than they had expected to find.

Team leader Mitchell Sogin said that life in the ocean is a huge source of genetic diversity. Some commentators even speculated that the cure for cancer and the solution to carbon recycling could be found in the deep ocean.

What the rusting, majestic SS Thistlegorm tells us is that human activity can have negative consequences that we might not have intended. Without care, reefs around the world will become ghostly, teeming oceans will empty and become their own war graves.

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