The stories told of the Dunraven wreck are vast and colourful, including one theory it was Lawrence of Arabia’s treasure ship. John Kean digs into the BBC documentary archives to find out the real story behind this popular wreck lying at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
The short movie began to play. Surviving three generations of media display, this old copy of a documentary from the BBC 2 World About Us TV series had made it from the television to the VCR and now onto my tiny USB flash stick. Perhaps the secrets of the SS Dunraven shipwreck would finally be revealed to us? I knew the program was old as it began with an interview on a commercial airliner showing a man with a lighted cigarette in his hand. He was also wearing a shirt that looked like it had been borrowed from one of the Bee Gees. It was 1979.
The SS Dunraven has been the subject of more rumours than any other Red Sea wreck, and given the estimated 70 briefings a week by guides visiting the ship today it’s no wonder that the various stories have spread like wildfire and now made it onto the internet. Gold, poison gas, human bones, spy-ships, promiscuity, drunken skippers and secret treasure hauls – the Dunraven has been associated with many elaborate sea tales.
So what was the real story of the wreck lying near Ras Mohammed National Marine Park?
Ayre Keller was a geologist: I watch him on the video being interviewed in a zodiac that appears to be bouncing along in Naama Bay in 1979. Behind him is the Whitehouse building, now a casino. He tells the BBC reporter, Jack Pizzey, that he was working for an oil company lowering underwater microphones into the sea and heard some unusual soundings that may have indicated that a wreck was present. He told his friend Howard Rosenstein, who owned Red Sea Divers in Sharm el Sheikh, about the find, but blames him for later claiming that the find was his own. Howard was part of the Israeli 36 community who occupied the Sinai between 1967 and 1982. Later, Howard says that Keller’s description of the wreck’s location was so vague that he was only able to find the Dunraven through his own efforts.
To attract people to this region of the world and use his dive centre, Howard completely falsified the story that the newly discovered shipwreck was one used by Lawrence of Arabia to transport vast amounts of treasure to fund the war with the Turks at the turn of the last century. As research continued, this story became just a ‘theory’. Then later, when the wreck was confirmed as having nothing to do with Lawrence of Arabia (it sank before he was even born), the conclusion was: ‘Well maybe not then!’ Howard was heavily influenced by Peter Benchley’s adapted movie, The Deep, which premiered two years earlier and featured Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset diving for gold on an old wreck. Despite his blatant act of pure fiction, Howard does, however, deserve a great deal of credit for his genuine and painstaking work in ultimately establishing the wreck’s true identity. This mainly came about with the collaboration of BBC researchers Christopher Lent, Damaris Fletcher and series director Eli Cohen.
While the film crew was present, the Camp David peace talks were taking place and upon hearing the news of the ship wreck US Ambassador, Samuel W. Lewis, took a break to pop down to the Naama Bay jetty and be interviewed with Howard Rosenstein. Samuel also expressed on film that he had no doubt that this ship was used by Lawrence of Arabia for the transporting of gold and treasure. He then announced to Howard, with the cameras still running, that during the peace negotiations he had handed back the Sinai to the Egyptians (hopefully this was undertaken with a little more research and advice than he had received about the contents of the SS Dunraven!).
So with the prospect of closing down his business and being forced back into Israel, Howard was now faced with a race against time to discover the true identity of the yet-to-be-named ship lying off the end of Shab Mahmoud, near Beacon Rock.
Howard and his dive team, which included the artist and author, Schlomo (he’s the one who produced the early colourful Red Sea guide book with the tracing-paper inside!) returned to the site several times and continued to remove bottles, plates and other items of interest. There were many clues pointing towards the ship’s identity such as the name Dunraven etched on several dinner plates. However, this revelation eventually made the task of naming the ship more complicated. Lloyds of London and other archive and record sources turned up two ships that were also previously named Dunraven. One was the Sara Radcliff that had been torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic in 1917. The second ship was a ‘Q’ class pirate ship used by the British to track down German submarines in WW1. She was renamed The Marshal before being sunk in the Channel by enemy action.
On one visit to the wreck, during the filming of the documentary, the boat of a rival dive centre could be seen moored above the site. There were no clear laws about wreck ownership then, nevertheless, Howard felt a little aggrieved that the fruits of all his work might go to others. A small argument broke out and it was clear that great rivalry existed between the two clubs. Interestingly, the rival club’s manager who spoke with a heavy German accent and wore a pair of aviator shades and a thin moustache and bore an uncanny resemblance to the owner of a well known, leading German dive centre found in Naama Bay today.
A breakthrough came when Howard’s divers found some unusual soda bottles with the name of the manufacturer. They read: Webb’s Double Soda and Other Waters. Research found that the company existed between 1836 and 1880 therefore scuppering any belief that the ship contained Lawrence of Arabia’s treasure. Also found inscribed on the chinaware were the initials G.F.B which belonged to George F. Barnes, winner of the first prize of a china design exhibition in London in 1873. Given the closure of Webb’s in 1880, Howard now had a seven year window in dating the ship. Enlisting the help of a coral expert who had previously dated the coral growth to between 50 and 70-years-old, the wreck (at the time of filming in 1979) could now be dated to between 1873 and 1880 - or maximum 106 years old. They scraped away the stern area with an underwater rotating saw, driven by compressed air from a 12-litre scuba cylinder and indeed found the raised lettering, ‘S-S-D-U-N-R-A-V-E-N’.
Finally, the Maritime Museum in Newcastle turned up the supporting evidence that this wreck was the British SS Dunraven built in 1873 by C. Mitchell and Company Iron and Ship Builders, Newcastle-upon-Tyne for use on the route to India via the new Suez Canal.
The secret cargo of unimaginable wealth? Wool, spices, cotton and wood! It is here where the story of Howard and the BBC ends and where another begins; how did the Dunraven sink?
Being a British transport ship, such casualties were subject to a Board of Trade Inquiry, which found the Captain, Edward Richards Care, guilty of navigational negligence. In calm conditions during night time it appeared that Captain Care and the second mate had difficulty identifying a light that he thought was a lighthouse. They were approaching the Gulf of Suez area on a return trip from India. When the light mysteriously went out the second mate was left in charge and later the ship grounded on the reef. It wasn’t until 5pm the next day when sufficient water had entered the damaged hull that the ship sank. The date was 25 April 1876. The crew of 25 were rescued by Egyptian boats and then transferred to homeward bound vessels. Captain Care was given a 12-month suspension of his Master’s rating but allowed to continue as a first officer.
The Dunraven can easily be reached by daily boats from Sharm el Sheikh without too early a morning start. It is only an hour past Ras Mohammed’s Shark Reef. At depths between 15m and 29m it is an ideal recreational dive but occasional currents and overhead conditions make it unsuitable for beginners. Dunraven is upside down and broken in two, but still retains the outline of a large ship measuring 82m long and weighing 1,600 tons. Few details remain, however, the engine, boilers, overhead beams and decking are still good to swim around. Being against the reef, it’s also a good drift dive.
During the late Seventies, Howard’s divers found bones inside the wreck, which they and a doctor claimed were human. Another doctor in Sharm el Sheikh was later to confirm them as that of a pig. Given the time it took to sink and the proximity of the local Egyptian boats that rescued the crew, it is unlikely that there was any loss of life on the Dunraven.
With special thanks to Howard Rosenstein of www.fantasea.comin Hofit, Israel for supplying photography (the old ones) and also to Paul ‘Doozer’ Close of Ocean College, Sharm for lending me his copy of the SS Dunraven documentary.
Written by John Kean.