This reef lies 48km from Port Sudan and surrounds a gorgeous lagoon which can be accessed through a narrow strait having been blasted by Cousteau himself. Outside of the lagoon, just 100m from its entrance is where in 1963, Cousteau built Precontinent II – his futuristic world. Here he conducted his underwater experiments and today the Precontinent provides an insight into the lives of those who had lived under the water in futuristic looking buildings and conducted research on marine life. The cages used for shark feedings still lie where they used to in Cousteau’s time. Sharks still come here as they did decades ago.
THE STORY OF THE SINKING:
The site chosen for the underwater village was at Shaab Rumi in the Sudanese Red Sea, about 35km from Port Sudan. The reef was the perfect choice for several reasons. Its marine life is one of the richest in the world.
The reef is long and narrow and there is a beautiful lagoon where the supply ships were able to remain anchored. Cousteau’s Calypso and the Italian Rosaldo were the floating base for the experiment. They had huge compressors, generators and many other equipment necessary for the project.
The location for the Precontinent II village was chosen to be close to the entrance to the lagoon, beside the external wall of the reef. The flat plateau provided the ideal place for the various structures which were built and assembled in Europe then transported to Sudan. The structures were fixed to the bottom by steel cables and 200 tons of lead.
DIVING AT THE WRECK:
The Starfish House was where the 8-member team lived. It was equipped with crew quarters with bunk beds and general areas with a bathroom, tables, chairs, technical equipment and instruments.
The Sea Urchin (shaped as its namesake) was the hangar for the small submersible used to descend to 300m deep. The large dome was full of air and the submersible was able to slide in and out through the bottom opening.
The Shed was a long and narrow structure where tools, underwater scooters and all equipment were housed necessary for the divers on a daily basis.
The Submersible Cabin was where 2 divers at a time spent an entire week. On the lower level the divers got out of the water and their scuba gear and showered. On the upper level were their accommodations but with a lot less frills than in their home base, the Starfish. Even deeper, at around 50m shark cages were placed.
The Fish Coral housed an additional 25 other divers who performed various duties necessary for the upkeep of the structures and for the lives of the other 8 divers. They cooked, cleaned the outside of the structures from the fast-growing algae and seaweed and so on.
After the experiment the two ”houses” (the Starfish House and the Submersible Cabin) were dismantled along with the expensive equipment however the other structures still remain. The hangar, the Sea Urchin, dotted with round portholes, is overgrown by amazing coral formations. It stands on its legs and underneath is an access into the inside. Colonies of glassfish make their home here, attracted by the dark and shady insides. Once inside the air bubble, you can breathe on your own. The sounds echo inside the lunar-looking structure.
The tool shed is also covered with thick coral growth and around the structures are still visible the coral-encrusted steel cables that held them in place.
The shark cages are a bit deeper, at 30 and 50m. They are also coated with corals and crustacean. Although fish life is not as rich as in the 1960s, there is still plenty to see and even sharks can be spotted near the cages.
THE STORY OF THE SINKING:
Whatever the reason, the force of the impact against the reef must have been awesome as one vehicle found its way on top of the reef itself.
Attempts were made to try to salvage the wreck and some of her cargo had been unloaded which are now scattered on the seabed, some standing with their wheels firmly on the ground, some upside down.
DIVING AT THE WRECK:
The huge, 103m long wreck lies overturned on the reef wall at a 30° angle, her keel facing upwards and her bow pointing toward the reef. Due to the strong currents, a couple of years ago the wreck slid further down past 60m. Due to her depth now and her unstable state, unfortunately the wreck is no longer permitted to be dived. She is now lost to the sea forever.
The wreck may be entered through a large opening in the hull at 36m and divers can work their way up through the inside to come out near the bow. There are not too many things to see as the decks had been crushed but it does make for a nice swim-through.
The outside of the wreck is also fairly featureless as it is just an upturned hull, although the scale of it is impressive as are some crushed and deformed vehicles that are dangling from the ship. Lying on the reef scattered outside the wreck are the highlight of the dive: coral-encrusted remains of cars, trucks, pick-ups and 4-wheel drives complete with lights, tires, and steering wheels that are great to swim around.
Huge shoals of big-eye trevallies and snappers, as well as lunartail groupers live beside the wreck and frequently white-tip reef sharks can be seen.
THE STORY OF THE SINKING:
In May, 1940 the Umbria was loaded with various war-like commodities and ammunition such as 360,000 bombs, 60 boxes of detonators and other stores totalling 8,600 tons in preparation for the forthcoming Italian war effort and destined for troops already stationed in Italy’s East African colonies.
On her way to Eritrea, and eventually onward to Calcutta, on June 3, 1940 she arrived at Port Said and on June 6 she continued on. She was closely followed by the HMS Grimsby of the Royal Navy. When she got close to Port Sudan on June 9, the Grimsby forced the Umbria to anchor close inshore by Wingate Reef. After having anchored the ship, the New Zealand battle-cruiser HMS Leander arrived and 22 men (including the captain) boarded the Umbria searching for contraband and stayed onboard until the next morning. The Umbria’s captain was listening to his radio that morning and heard the news that Italy had formally declared war. He wanted desperately not to allow his precious cargo to get in the hands of the British and decided on the best solution – on sinking the boat. They had to do it without the British getting wind of any of their activities. And they succeeded. The British noticed water filling the ship and the 2 captains ordered to abandon ship. Although salvageable, it was decided the ship would be left alone as her cargo posed an awesome danger.
DIVING AT THE WRECK:
The Umbria lies almost exactly as she had reached her final resting place on the sea bottom – on her port side at Wingate Reef. The bows at 38m are the deepest part of the wreck. The stern and the rudder rest on the sand at 30m. The tops of the remains of its masts emerge from the water where birds are often perched.
The massive superstructure with only its wooden decking missing, provides a variety of opportunities for divers to explore. The wreck is overgrown by colourful soft and hard corals abundantly and its fish life is bountiful. It is one of the world’s most beautiful wrecks to dive. It is rare to find ship wrecks that are almost completely intact and free of any signs of crash or collision.
The ship was anchored when she was sunk and both her anchors can be found about 200m from the wreck. The main mast was near the forward deck which is now broken and lies on the seafloor.
Due to the entire body of the ship being so intact and missing hatch covers, it is easy to enter the hull and the cargo holds to get a glimpse at the sunken treasure. In one compartment lie undisturbed the aerial bombs, detonators, rolls of electric cable, wooden boxes and storage jars still sealed. There are also bags of cement with have now solidified and stand as cement blocks. And there are the amazing Fiat 1100 Lunga motorcars, still very much recognisable.
The area of the bridge is probably the one with the most damage due to the ship sinking and the natural erosion of the wooden decking and the effects of some powerful storms. Yet, it is also covered in gorgeous corals, making this truly a beautiful wreck to dive. This is the way to the staterooms with several cabins going along the sides of the hallway. The engine room can be entered from here however it is almost completely void of any light. Beyond the two huge engines are the two propeller shafts and nearby is a fully equipped workshop.
Once outside of the wreck, farther back is the easy access into the holds where the majority of the bombs lie, carefully stacked in long lines. It is a surreal experience to be witness to all this destructive power dormant for some many years. Farther in the back, one of the propellers is above the seabed and the other one is partly buried in the sand.
Lots of snapper fish and sea lilies found home under the giant rudder by the stern. Lots of tiny comical cleaning crabs live near the collapsed funnel on one of the gangways which start to clean our hands if we put them on the bridge. Around the wreck we can run into barracudas, butterflyfish, spiny fish and schools of tiny red fish. On the right side of the boat corals bloom like bunches of rosehip bushes. It is a truly rich wreck as in marine life as in history.