Book review: Diving the Thistlegorm

Everything you ever wanted to know about the world’s number one wreck dive

Author: Pat
8th December 2020
 

Superhero movies are hugely popular – whether you’re into Spider Man, Wonder Woman or whoever. The blockbuster ‘Avengers Assemble’ went one better and threw Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and many other superheroes on screen together in a format that proved to be box office gold. This approach best describes the team behind new book ‘Diving the Thistlegorm’ from Oxford-based publisher Dived Up Publications, which has assembled a formidable array of subsea superpeople to create a guide to the ultimate shipwreck.

A guide created by a formidable array of subsea superpeople

The Thistlegorm will feature in many divers’ logbooks, and be on the bucket list for many more. Like so many wrecks she was a casualty of the second world war, with a relatively short life between launch in May 1940 and her sinking in October 1941 off Ras Mohammed in the Red Sea by German bombers. Of the 41 crew aboard five lost their lives after she caught fire, an explosion splitting her in two and sending her to the bottom. There she may well have been quickly forgotten, had it not been for a visit from Jacques Cousteau in the 1950s for his ‘Silent World’ series which brought it into the public consciousness. Following the explosion of interest in sport diving during the 1990s word of the Red Sea’s ‘must-do dive’ really began to spread, so much so that today divers come from across the globe to explore this remarkable museum in the sparkling azure waters of the northern Red Sea.

Other books have been written about the Thistlegorm, but as befits the wreck this one is probably the most visually arresting ever to go to print. Its words and pictures are the result of a collaboration between storytellers from multiple disciplines including photogrammetry, 3D rendering, multibeam sonar and historical research. Compared to the black and white dive guides of 20 years ago this feels like a book that simply wouldn’t have been possible without major advances in affordable technology. Even with wet lenses and major processing power it’s still a remarkable achievement, and clearly a labour of love by a group of professionals smitten by this wreck.

Thistlegorm bow-to-midships

The cast of this blockbuster includes Alex Mustard, who will be familiar to many UK divers for his incredible images from all around the globe. Simon Brown is known as a pioneer of photogrammetry, where a 3D image is built up from a mosaic of images taken above and around an object. Also contributing to the book are Mike Postons of 3Deep Media, who specialises in digital 3D modelling, and underwater archaeologist Jon Henderson of Edinburgh University. This formidable group have honed their skills over many years on challenging sites worldwide before teaming up to survey the Thistlegorm as never before.

Despite all the rich detail they contain, many dive guide books are incredibly dry: this isn’t wholly surprising, particularly for wrecks closer to home which lurk in low visibility waters and are thus difficult to photograph. Not in this book though, as stunning colour image after stunning colour image leaps out from every page. It’s all here, taking the reader on a journey through the ship and drawing attention to things which might easily be missed. The 5,000-ton Thistlegorm was a merchant ship and visually unarresting in most respects but the same cannot be said of the cargo stuffed in her holds. The vessel was loaded with Bedford trucks, BSA motorbikes, ammunition, steam locomotives, Lee Enfield rifles and much more destined for the Africa campaigns when she was sent to the bottom, and the book really brings to life what has survived and where precisely it can be found.

Thistlegorm - Norton motorcycles

The book even contains a section on the Thistlegorm’s marine life, which is unremarkable enough for the region yet shows the commitment of its creators to creating an all-encompassing guide.

The real acid test for a successful dive book is would it only be pulled off the shelf as a reference to look up a detail, such as the tide times or the number of lifeboats or propeller blade layout. ‘Diving the Thistlegorm’ is so much more than that, and could easily live on a coffee table to act as a conversation starter while you waited for the fondue to come out.

The final chapter of the book explains the processes behind successful underwater photogrammetry and 3D capture, which almost feels like a magician revealing his secrets. There’s a saying that any sufficiently advanced technology feels indistinguishable from magic, and the contributors to this book have certainly created magic from the remains of the Thistlegorm.

‘Diving the Thistlegorm’ is available in hardback priced £35 RRP. You can order now from Divedup.com, Amazon, online and from book retailers.

Thistlegorm Hold 2 lower

 
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