According to rumours circulating among divers, taxi-drivers and bartenders in Cyprus back in the early 1980s, Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad was behind the sinking of the Zenobia – and they whispered that the massive ferry had been carrying more than just trucks and greyhounds on her maiden voyage. Missiles and uranium bound for Syria was the word on the street. DAVID PILOSOF has the inside track for Divernet; photography by Zenobia Diving Centre
Also read: Mass Zenobia dive for ‘gentleman and legend’
How was the myth born that Mossad sank the Zenobia? The answer lies with three Israelis who set out in search of hamburger-sized gold coins in the waters of Cyprus, and became the first to dive the ship a few days after her sinking.
Many of the tens of thousands of visitors who have dived the Zenobia (and who could go to Cyprus without diving that famous wreck?) have heard versions of the stories.
You might think that everything would already be known about the shipwreck and its discovery, but here I am behind closed doors talking to Shmulik Mashiach, a scuba instructor who founded the Diving Club in Neviot on the Red Sea, was later director of the Mint Club there, and was one of the group claiming to have been first to explore the wreck.
His story is too good not to retell on Divernet. It all started with Danny’s wedding…
Larnaca is a nice town that regularly attracts Israeli citizens. It has good restaurants and the sea is clear. Getting married took about an hour, which left four days for the wedding party to kill.
Options for the young people who had come over from the Sinai desert included strolling around the island, swimming, exploring the various eating and drinking places or, still a novelty at the time, playing video games.
It was noon on a hot day, and the guys had sat down in a restaurant on the promenade. A young waiter bounced over to the table, and Danny stared at the Rolex on his wrist. “Are you a diver?” he asked.
“No, just free dives.”
“And what do you see on those dives?” asked Danny.
“Not much. But I know someone who found gold coins the size of hamburgers…”
Shmulik, who had been counting flies, became alert. “Found what?” he asked, in a slightly louder voice than usual.
“Gold coins the size of hamburgers,” the Cypriot repeated indifferently.
“It seems to me that the wedding has just become a secondary matter,” Shmulik murmured in Hebrew, not intending his girlfriend Sheila or the bride, Gail, to hear the remark.
“My name is Kyriakos, and I’m the restaurant owner’s son. I have no idea where they found the coins, but I think I can convince the guy to find out.”
Kyriakos was quickly promised a free diving course in Neviot in exchange for information about the location of the coins, and a cruise back to Cyprus was planned for a week or so after he had completed the course. Meanwhile the restaurant become a favourite with the wedding party, whose members displayed a growing affection for Kyriakos as they enjoyed many a discount on their meals.
Crossing for gold
Groaning from the effort, Danny and Shmulik carried a portable compressor from the dive club and placed it on the sand.
Samson picked the unit up and placed it casually on the trailer. Samson was a guy who had earnt beers by challenging the entire reserve battalion at the nearby Nuweiba military camp to arm-wrestling contests. He would place an empty crate at his feet, and soon fill it with alcoholic donations from those who had failed to shift his formidable arm even slightly.
And Samson, Shmulik’s younger brother, was a necessity for the operation. He was a big, strong man but, more importantly, he had a red Mercedes with a towing hook.
The compressor was followed by dive-gear, personal equipment, clothing and even shoes – items rarely used by divers in the Sinai. A six-hour journey brought the trio to the port of Haifa, where they loaded the car and trailer aboard a ferry. Then they took up positions from which to keep an eye on the vehicle and equipment on the lower deck.
Whistles and mooring manoeuvres woke them. The group passed through immigration and customs and took the road leading from Limassol to Larnaca.
A spacious apartment had been rented in a small village near Larnaca. “Drag your friend the golden hamburger man here tomorrow,” said Shmulik, placing his hand on Kyriakos’s back in a friendly gesture. “We’ll start diving in the morning.”
Next day’s breakfast was eaten in silence, the result of hangover headaches. “Talking gibberish should be outlawed,” grumbled Shmulik. “How many headaches lie in a drink made from the pits of grapes?”
Kyriakos arrived, looking crestfallen. “The guy doesn’t want to come,” he told the Israelis. “He’s afraid of the tourist police, and I’m afraid he told them about us.”
“All this shit and in the end – nothing?” said Samson with a grin.
“OK,” said Shmulik, “do you have more or less of a location? Anything you’ve heard?”
Kyriakos looked up from his shoes. “Not exactly, he just hinted at something to me.” This sounded less than convincing to his new friends.
“OK, let’s load the equipment,” said Shmulik. “We’re here now, so we’ll try some sorties. Maybe we’ll get lucky.” Samson and Danny nodded reluctantly, and started arranging the equipment in the trailer.
“Don’t look now, but I saw that guy in the white car when we left the house.” Shmulik picked up a tank from the trailer and drew the others’ attention to a car parked about 20m from the sea.
“He was in front of the restaurant this morning too,” said Samson.
The group confirmed that they were being followed as they left the apartment, while they ate in the restaurant, on the beach before entering the water and when they came out again. It was also clear that their watchers were not trying too hard to hide.
They appeared to be Cypriot security personnel in plain clothes but, on the Wednesday, someone else joined them. “An Arab, without a doubt,” said Samson, who spent much of his life in the company of Arab fishermen in Acre. From that day the three kept their spearguns within reach day and night.
Their dives brought up pottery, lots of pottery… endless broken urns, sculpted columns, fragments of mosaic floor – antiquities that would have thrilled any Israeli archaeologist but at the time considered trifles in Cyprus.
Eventually the group concluded that finding golden burgers might be a task for professionals rather than some beach-boys from the Sinai desert and their uneducated local guide. Over a meal, they made the decision to stop searching for gold coins.
Shmulik left the restaurant. “I’m going for a walk – I’ll be back in time for the ride back to the apartment,” he said, and set off towards a street parallel to the promenade, intending to buy a reconciliation gift for his girlfriend.
Then he saw a reflection in the window of one of the clothing stores. It was a familiar face – that of the Arab.
“This guy doesn’t seem to belong to the Cypriot authorities,” thought Shmulik. “He looks more like a representative of our friends from Fatah. It’s time to move on.”
He accelerated away from the shop and turned sharply to the left, though not before catching sight of his tracker hurrying across the road. He took a few more steps, stopped, turned and ran back to the corner, calculating the time it would take for his fist to meet the Arab’s face.
His timing was bad. He turned the corner with the other man still about 6m away, which gave him time to stop, turn and run. “Lucky son of a bitch!” Shmulik exclaimed, and returned to the restaurant empty-handed.
That evening the four sat in their apartment in the village, talking a little, staying silent a lot and drinking even more.
“Did you hear about the ship that sank yesterday?” Kyriakos threw out, to get the conversation going.
‘Which ship?” Samson asked in a bored tone.
“A ship that was floating with a heavy list in the evening but by morning had disappeared.”
Danny looked at the Cypriot with interest. “What was her cargo?”
“According to rumour, trucks and racing dogs.”
“Racing dogs?” said Samson. “Maybe we should check what that means.”
Kyriakos looked at him in horror. “No way, man, they won’t let anyone get close to the site.”
“And that’s definitely a good reason why we should check it,” Samson said with a smile.
Next day, the group arrived at the marina and tried to hire a boat to take them out to the wreck site. None of the fisherman would take them and, upset by the request, unanimously tried to dissuade the four from pursuing their plan.
Kyriakos finally managed to convince the owner of one large fishing-boat to hire it out by telling him that it was for a quiet sunbathing and swimming cruise. They sailed out to a village beach where another local friend joined them and helped load their dive-gear. The watchers were nowhere to be seen.
The sea was calm and, despite what the fishermen had said, nobody was about to prevent them from reaching where they estimated the wreck site to be. To their surprise, although the ship had come to rest at a depth of about 40m, it could be seen through the perfectly smooth water’s surface. The rare and spectacular sight caused them to catch their breaths.
They dropped anchor and Shmulik, Samson, Danny and Kyriakos kitted up and entered the water while the other Cypriot remained on board.
Descent to Zenobia
A rapid descent to allow more bottom-time brought the divers to the shipwreck, and they penetrated the command bridge door, which was wide open.
The room was large and modern, but although everything still looked new and shiny all the wall and seat upholstery had been torn away, as if someone had been looking for something hidden between it and the walls.
Shmulik tied two intact armchairs to the anchorline. They seemed perfectly suited to the home of Kyriakos’s parents and would, he thought, serve as a thank-you gift for their generous hospitality.
As they exited the command bridge and swam along the deck, Samson pointed to the hold, which was not only locked but welded. Was the cargo something more valuable than racing dogs?
On the upper deck, the divers saw lifeboats still fastened in place. After collecting a few more souvenirs such as navigation equipment and dislodged copper lamps, Shmulik signalled that it was time to head up to the decompression station.
While ascending along the line, Samson pointed upwards. The sound of diesel engines could be heard as the hull of a large vessel swayed close to their own. Through the clear water, figures were visible peering over the side of the boat.
Shmulik surfaced briefly before immediately returning to the group, signalling “police” with three fingers on his left sleeve to denote the rank of sergeant.
He discarded the beautiful set of cutlery he had borrowed from the ship’s kitchen, and motioned for the others to do the same with anything they had brought up. A cascade of glittering objects made their way back towards the ship, though the divers were under no illusion that this activity was going unobserved by those at the surface.
The four climbed into the fishing-boat under the watchful eyes of the police officers aboard the patrol boat.
“You give me camera!” one of them shouted at Danny, on seeing his Nikonos.
“Don’t give it to him. If you do, you won’t see it again,” Shmulik whispered and, aloud in English, said: “We’ll give it to you at the police station.”
“You give me now!” the officer shouted.
“We’ll follow you to the port,” Shmulik replied.
The policeman opened a box beside the wheelhouse cabin and pulled out a sub-machine gun. Kyriakos and his friend were on the point of involuntary fluid loss. “Give it to him, give it to him!” urged Kyriakos’s friend in a trembling voice.
“You give me!” the policeman yelled.
“Yes, yes, at the station,” said Shmulik, trying to put his mind at ease.
The policeman bent down, took a cartridge out of the box and loaded the weapon. “You give?”
“But of course, sir,” Shmulik replied, gesturing to Danny to hand over the camera.
Danny started the engine and motioned for Samson to raise the anchor. Samson went to the bow, but was stopped by Shmulik, who handed him a diving knife.
“Against the evil eye,” he explained to his brother. Samson immediately realised that, from any angle, lifting an anchor with two armchairs attached to the line would not look good, and knew what he had to do…
At the marina, the five men were received by uniformed police officers and plain-clothes detectives, who took them away in a convoy of cars.
At the police station they were placed in separate interrogation cells and for eight hours did their best to handle repeated questions such as “Who is your commander?” and “Who sent you?”.
The Israelis were not frightened, but refrained from admitting to their stupidity. They stuck to their line: “We came here looking for gold coins,” which was true enough. The two Cypriots begged for their lives and claimed to know nothing about their new friends or what their real motives were.
“How do treasure-hunters claim to be diving without professional equipment?” persisted the interrogators. “What are the spearguns for?… Where are the metal detectors?… Why didn’t we find any maps or other plans when we searched your apartment, or Kyriakos’s house?”
The Israelis stuck to their defence. “We’re all innocent divers… we were desperate to find these gold burgers, and decided to check on the condition of the racing dogs in the depths.”
The detectives questioned them in two-hour shifts in their separate interrogation rooms. Over time the divers learnt that the name of the shipwreck they had dived was Zenobia, and that she had been on her maiden voyage.
Shmulik thought he heard from the whispering investigators that the ship had been carrying missiles. Samson had heard somewhere along the line that its destination was Syria, while Danny said later that “the Arab” had been listening in at the side of the interrogation room.
Eventually the investigators gave up. The Israelis’ passports were returned by one of the interrogators, an earnest official with a thin moustache. “You are being deported and a restraining order has been issued against you in Cyprus,” he told them.
Kyriakos’s family could barely disguise their relief as the Israelis departed. Before they boarded the ferry, the moustachioed official summoned Shmulik, looked at him quizzically and took a stamp from his desk drawer. He took the stack of passports, put a large red stamp on each one and held them out.
As Shmulik reached for them, the man pulled his hand towards him and hissed: “Who sent you?”
Shmulik looked at him with a smile. “Come on…”
The man handed over the passports.
“How long are we banned from Cyprus?” Shmulik asked
“At least two years,” came the reply, and a wide smile spread across the official’s face.
A nice guy after all, thought Shmulik. He smiled back, waved and climbed into the waiting red Mercedes.
Samson drove through the exit gate at Haifa. “We must report the investigation,” he was insisting. “It isn’t by chance that the Cypriots put so much effort into it.”
Danny pointed east. “Maybe they’ll be interested at the naval base? Intelligence sounds like a logical place to tell our stories.”
Shmulik looked at the lieutenant standing in front of him. “Perhaps we should talk to someone with a slightly higher rank?” he ventured.
The lieutenant went next door and they heard him talking on the phone. Ten minutes later, two female officers entered the room. “Hello, my name is Yona and this is Yossi’s deputy,” said one of them, referring to a tall officer in the uniform of a lieutenant colonel.
The officers listened as Shmulik began to tell his story, but Yona quickly stopped him. “Zenobia, did you say?” She smiled at the other officers. “We know everything there is to know about that ship. Thank you for coming to us…”
In black and white
Look up the Zenobia today and you’ll see that she was a 172m Swedish-built roll-on, roll-off ferry that capsized on her maiden voyage in June 1980 while carrying 104 tractor-trailers loaded with an estimated £200 million-worth of cargo to Tartous in Syria. There were no casualties.
The captain had earlier noted recurring steering problems and a list to port, which was blamed on excess water in the ballast tanks caused by a fault in the computerised pumping system.
Two weeks after returning to the Neviot resort village from the adventure in Cyprus, Danny stormed into a bar with a large envelope in his hand. “Shmulik, Samson, come quickly – it arrived in the mail today.”
The brothers came over and other people crowded around them. Danny extracted a large newspaper from the envelope. “Kyriakos sent us a copy of the daily Cyprus Times – look at the headline.”
He spread the paper on the table. The headline screamed: “Israeli Commando Divers Apprehended”.
The rest of the article read: ”A group of Israeli commando divers were caught last night while trying to dive to a sunken Libyan ship. The ship was carrying a cargo of sea-to-sea missiles purchased for the Syrian navy. The ship, wrecked recently at the entrance to the port of Larnaca, is shrouded in mystery…”
David Pilosof studied underwater photography at Brooks Institute in California but, soon realising that he was not going to be a fish portraitist, widened his scope to produce everything from coffee-table modelling books to children’s titles. He publishes Israeli diving monthly iDive and, since 2005, has produced underwater photo-competitions, including the annual World Shootout