This Virtual Reality Program Lets You Experience A Real WWII Shipwreck From Your Couch

In October 1941, a German submarine attacked and sank the SS Thistlegorm, a British freighter ship. It was a huge loss to the Allied forces: the Thistlegorm was carrying a full load of supplies that would have helped relieve troops fighting in Northern Africa. In retaliation, under the cover from US Naval bombs dropping from above, another British ship swept in and sank the U-boat, creating a massive wreck that has since become one of the most famous shipwreck dives in the world. However, it could only be accessed by experienced divers — that is, until Project Thistlegorm began. On the 76th anniversary of the big boat's sinking, the Project Thistlegorm website went live, opening a whole world of treasures underwater to those of us without the SCUBA tanks and wetsuits.

The underwater world informs much of what humans know and can learn about history as well as the natural environment, but these treasures are often hidden from the general public, only available to those willing to dive to the deepest depths to view and sometimes retrieve them. However, Project Thistlegorm changed the game when it brought virtual reality and a decades-old sunken war ship together. Thanks to an insane amount of photographs and 360 videos taken by divers, everyone can access a virtual reality tour of the fascinating shipwreck. 

  • The Wreck Was Discovered By Famous French Explorer Jacques Cousteau
    Photo: Gilbertus / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Wreck Was Discovered By Famous French Explorer Jacques Cousteau

    Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a famous French explorer known for his historic dives (as well as The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a movie based on his life), and it's partially thanks to him that the SS Thistlegorm became a popular diving site.

    He used information from local fishermen and a 1948 Admiralty chart to discover the wreck in the early 1950s. He documented the ship in his book The Living Sea, and brought many artifacts from the Thistlegorm up to the surface.  

  • The Way The German U-Boats Wiped Out The Ship Makes For A Perfectly Accessible Dive

    After Cousteau's discovery, the Thistlegorm was actually pretty much forgotten about by everyone except local fishermen for decades until the 1990s, when the area became a popular diving spot. It was discovered that the wreck was super accessible to divers because of how it came apart when it was wiped out by the Germans during WWII.

    After it was "rediscovered," the Thistlegorm became an immensely popular diving spot. Since its deepest level is 100 feet, it is the perfect depth for diving without necessary special equipment. And thanks to the incredible amount of sunken "treasure" it boasts, it's actually one of the most popular diving sites in the world.

  • Although It's A Super Popular Dive Location, The SS Thistlegorm Is Now Considered An Underwater Heritage Site

    Ship wrecks are a wealth of treasure and information, but are usually only accessible to those willing and able to dive down to the depths of the ocean to find them. There are an estimated six million divers in the world, which means only 0.1% of the population gets to see them. That is, until Project Thistlegorm. 

    Advances in technology have allowed marine archaeologists to compile a 3D rendering of the Thistlegorm, allowing the general public to visualize these underwater sites as if they were diving down themselves.

  • Divers Took Thousands Of Photographs And Videos In Order To Create The Virtual Reality Tour

    Project Thistlegorm was made possible by thousands of photographs and 360-degree videos taken by divers Simon Brown and Jon Henderson along with their team, which included divers and archaeologists from both the University of Nottingham and Egypt's Alexandria University.

    Brown focused on photography, while Henderson focused on video capture. Brown collected his photos over a total of 12 dives in five days, during which Project Thistlegorm's team sat moored above the wreck. 

    There are a total of 24,307 photographs, making the seven-acre "photogrammetric survey" of the SS Thistlegorm the largest ever made of a shipwreck.

  • The Project Aims To Both Raise Awareness Of The Wreck, And Also To Make Diving It Safer

    The 3D rendering of the Thistlegorm serves two purposes, both of which are incredibly important to the preservation of diving sites. The first aim is to raise awareness of shipwrecks like the Thistlegorm. Jon Henderson, 360-videographer, said:

    "I think once people know about this heritage, then hopefully they will start to care about it, and that will increase the level of protection, particularly for wrecks like the Thistlegorm."

    The other purpose of the project is to help make diving to the Thistlegorm, an incredibly popular dive site, safer for divers by letting them see what they are going to experience beforehand. Being able to survey the landscape makes the dives safer, making "an effective management strategy for sustainable diving activity.

  • The SS Thistlegorm Was A British Freighter, And Was Carrying Allied Cargo To Soldiers In Egypt

    The SS Thistlegorm was launched in April 1940, and was partially financed by the British government, and as an armed freighter considered the responsibility of the royal navy despite being privately owned.

    It was on its fourth trip in October 1941, carrying a large amount of allied equipment including cars and ammunition, when it was intercepted by a German aircraft on its way to Egypt. According to eyewitnesses from another ship, the Thistlegorm was incapacitated in minutes and reportedly almost vertical, succumbing to explosions caused by the supplies on board.