Wrecks in the North Sea: ‘Identify the Bad Guys’

Thursday 11 April 2019

Who does not remember the first scene from the movie Titanic, in which a robot sinks to the bottom of the ocean to research the wreck of the passenger ship that perished with all hands on board. Over twenty years after the release of this film, researching wrecks at the bottom of the ocean is much more advanced. Welmoed van der Velde, Maritime Law lector, together with NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences and Maritime Institute Willem Barentsz students, maps ship wrecks. ,,The Dutch seabed offers a lot to discover”.

Three Thousand Wrecks

You would not say so if you walk along the coast, but off the Dutch coast, a whopping number of three thousand wrecks can be found. Besides ships, there are also planes at the bottom of the sea. ,,The origin of only 800 of those is known”, says lector Welmoed van der Velde. ,,Of the vast majority of the wrecks, we have insufficient information about the provenance, what happened on board at the time, if there is a risk of explosion, whether toxic substances may be released. Reasons to start the North Sea Wrecks research in order to find out more about these wrecks.”

Fishermen, transportation of cargo, but also tourism and windmill parks; the North Sea is used more and more intensely for various purposes. This makes a good data base, in which not only the location of the wreck is indicated, but which also provides information about the nature of the wreck. ,,Perish the thought that, when placing a windmill, you encounter a Second World War plane, with bombs aboard and all”, describes Van der Velde. ,,That is why we, with the help of hydrography, register exactly what is lying beneath the water surface.’’

Hydrography has been used for years to map the seabed. ,,Using sensors, we are very well able to measure fluctuations in depth”, the lector explains. ,,The exact same applies to a wreck. With our Ocean Technology students, we navigate over the spot where the wreck is located and, with the help of sonar equipment aboard our training ship Octans, we are able to convert the reflection into a detailed image of the wreck.” To illustrate, Van der Velde shows an example of  submarine located near Terschelling. ,,You can still see the command tower”, she points.

Risks Connected to the Wrecks

The objective of the research project is not only to identify the wreck, but above all to better assess the risks connected to wrecks. It is therefore important to know what is still on board. ,,Think of a full fuel tank, ammunition or chemicals”, the lector provides as an example. ,,In such cases, the wreck is declared a ‘risk’. That means that the government may keep an extra eye on the wreck or maybe even proceeds to removal.”

Not all three thousand wrecks need to be removed, emphasises Van der Velde. ,,Wrecks also have positive effects. They become nurseries for fish, mussels may attach themselves to it and they serve as fish hideouts. In short: clearing everything would be a waste. But we want to register the bad guys.”

Welmoed van der Velde is lector Maritime Law at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences. She is furthermore a deputy judge with the The Hague Court of Appeal, where she judges maritime cases.