Fishing for Ghosts
by Sabine Kerkau
Sabine Kerkau is a technical wreck and mine diver, writer and photographer. She has dived on several hundred wrecks down to 125m, and has identified many new wrecks. She has been on expeditions to the HMHS Britannic and the HMS Victoria in Lebanon. She was an expedition member of the MINEQUEST 2 project in Newfoundland and was part of the founding team of the Baltic Sea Heritage Rescue Project in Lithuania, which is committed to ghost net salvage, and wreck search, identification, and protection. She reports on her projects at international conferences, for several television productions, and in the magazines Wetnotes, Divemaster, Unterwasserwelt.De, Unterwasser, X-Ray Magazine, and Tauchen.
My fight against the ghost nets at the deep wrecks of the Eastern Baltic Sea began 3 years ago. At first, I just wanted to draw attention to the problem with pictures and videos. Very quickly, however, I realized that this was not enough. Together with my colleagues Rolandas Schön, Linas Duoblys and Tom Kürten, I founded the non-profit organization “Baltic Sea Heritage Rescue Project”. One of our goals is to search, identify and document wrecks that lie deeper than 40 meters. In addition to the condition of the wrecks and the existing artefacts, this documentation also includes an inventory of the ghost nets we find at the wreck. We cooperate with the Archaeological Department of the University of Klaipeda, the Lithuanian Sea Museum, various ministries and the Estonian Heritage Board. Under strict control and the requirement not to damage the wrecks, some of which are more than a hundred years old, we are allowed to recover the ghost nets from the wrecks.
We had planned six project weeks for this year. The goal of these project weeks 2019 was to clear the wreck of the freighter Elbing IX, which sank in 1914, from ghost nets. The wreck is 80 meters long and lies at a depth of 50 meters on the ground. It was shrouded in nets from bow to stern. In some cases, there were still floats on the nets, which ensured that the nets were not on the wreck, but hovered up to 20 meters above the wreck, an extremely dangerous situation for all sea creatures and us divers. The conditions in which we had to work on the wreck only allowed the use of very experienced divers.
In our team I am the one who organizes the project weeks and the dives. I am present at every dive and document our work on the wreck, locate and check the nets that are to be salvaged next, take care of the safety of the divers under water, document the recovery of the nets on the surface, write the reports for the press and our cooperation partners and much more.
The successful implementation of our goals is only possible with strong partners. I have to place the highest quality standards on the divers who support us as well as on my equipment. With my fourth element Argonaut dry suit and the flexible warm undersuits from fourth element I found the right products for me. In addition, I am very impressed by fourth element’s commitment to the protection of the seas.
In addition to the factors that I can influence in part, such as the selection of divers and equipment, there is much that I have no influence on, but on which the success of our project depends very much. Weather and the willingness of experienced divers to support us in our project weeks are two good examples of this. From our 6 project weeks 2019 we had to cancel 2 weeks at short notice because the weather did not allow any excursions. Another week I was alone on the ship, as no one had signed up. In the remaining 3 weeks, we have managed to achieve our target for 2019 to free the Elbing XI from several tons of plastic waste in the form of ghost nets. This was achieved in the end because we have reliable and very flexible cooperation partners in Lithuania. The team of Nardymo Akademija, a very professional and well-trained group of technical divers under the guidance of Andrius Albrikas, was always there when we needed help.
We are working on very old wrecks, which means we depend on the permits of the competent authorities and the cooperation with the university and the Lithuanian Sea Museum. Some of these partners were very sceptical about us at the beginning of our work. Often divers represent a greater danger to the wrecks than ghost nets. Divers were equated with looting and destruction. With our work and many conversations, we are on the right track to change this opinion. Another goal of our Baltic Sea Heritage Rescue Project is therefore also the protection of the wrecks from looting and destruction.
I am often asked: ‘Why Lithuania?’ And “Why stationary Eastern Baltic Sea?” The answers are simple. Lithuania because this is the first time that I have been confronted with the problem of ghost nets to this extent and because no one wanted to do anything about it. And stationary eastern Baltic Sea because sustainability is important to me. This can only be done if you are persistent and keep talking about the problem and informing. Unfortunately, for most people, everything that lies beneath the surface of the water is so far away that they don’t see it as their problem.
Our project will continue in 2020. The next wreck we will free from nets is selected. We will be in action for ten weeks in 2020 throughout April to September.
We are still looking for sponsors and financial support to fund these weeks. We would like to thank all those who want to support us in this.
Images by Sabine Kerkau / Stefan Pape