The hold of the Louise shipwreck
Under the Baltic Sea, it is dark, frigid, and a graveyard for the wrecks of ships that have sunk over the centuries. The oldest remains found are said to date back some 800 years – which, if proved, would make this the most ancient shipwreck found in the world thus far. Many others are the more recent casualties of the two world wars, and while these may be younger, they still see divers attempting to investigate their potential treasures.
Anchor of the Tobias Enge shipwreck
One of the reasons the Baltic Sea is a sepulchral home to such a great number of sunken craft is that it has been used for maritime trade for over a thousand years, since at least as far back as Roman times. Both merchant vessels and warships have crisscrossed its waves through the ages.
Technical photo shooting on the Louise shipwreck
The Baltic Sea is brackish, as it is filled with the freshwater run-off of the surrounding land. And this reduced salinity means that it is inhospitable to the shipworm that damages craft in saltier waters. Here, the sunken ships can lie relatively intact, waiting to be discovered and researched by underwater archaeologists like those pictured here.
The research ship off Hogland, under a shower of Perseids
The wrecks in these photographs – taken by Russian underwater photographer Viktor Lyagushkin – lie in the Gulf of Finland region of the Baltic. Their discovery is part of an ongoing project, supported by Nord Stream, called the ‘Secrets of Shipwrecks’, which has been underway for the past decade. Nord Stream is laying pipeline under the Baltic Sea and at the same time unearthing a treasure trove of old shipwrecks.
Measuring the headboard on the shipwreck of the America
In this photograph, underwater archaeologist Roman Prokhorov measures the headboard on which the ship’s figurehead was mounted, with the information then used to help identify the wreck. The data collected here points to it being Russian Navy vessel the America, which was originally built in New York. How it ended up at the bottom of the Baltic is an interesting story.
The hold of the shipwreck America
In this image, a diver explores the hold of the America. In 1829, Nicholas I, Emperor of Russia from 1825 to 1855, is said to have spotted the ship in Kronstadt flying the flag of its home country. Filled with admiration, he exclaimed that he wished he had such a craft in his own fleet. To those accompanying the emperor at the time, this declaration from their sovereign was as good as an order, and they set about fulfilling his desire.
Sail rigging fragments of the America
Officials arranged for the America’s purchase from the United States for £10,000 ($15,523). The amount is reckoned to have been more than the ship was worth, so it’s not overly surprising that the Americans agreed, and it was delivered the following year. Here, archaeologist Igor Galayda examines a section of the once-prized vessel’s sail rigging.
Porcelain jar from the America
In this image, Galayda examines a porcelain jar from the America, a ship that was considered so luxurious during her time that Russian navy men aspired to be part of her crew. In fact, after scrutinizing the America, the emperor himself ordered that, from then on, all Russian ships be made to her standard.
Remains of the America’s gun carriage
In this shot, again featuring Galayda, we see what's left of the America’s gun carriage. Although the purpose of the ship’s last voyage was to transport building materials, she had 10 carronades (cannons) on board when she sank in October 1856. In fact, those heavy weapons are thought to have contributed to the ship’s demise.
Salvaging a ceramic jug
On her ill-fated final journey, the America encountered a cyclone off Hogland, an island in the Gulf of Finland, and the rolling of the ship’s cargo and heavy carronades are believed to have torn up the wooden planks of the deck. The captain then made a misjudgment and steered the ship onto the rocks, where it was broken in two. Of the 130 reported people on board, 84 made it to shore and were rescued thanks to a lighthouse keeper.
Archaeologists prepare to dive
The America is only one of the shipwrecks to have been explored by the Secrets of Shipwrecks project, as the endeavor is part of a larger Russian heritage endeavor that employs teams of archaeologists and divers. So far, they have found around a thousand individual objects in their underwater searches.
The wreck of the frigate Oleg
A diver can be seen here shining his torch on sunken frigate the Oleg, which has been lying at the bottom of the Baltic since 1869 after capsizing during a training exercise. The ship is said to have sunk very quickly – in just 15 minutes – yet this is why the vessel, which was a flagship of Russian Emperor Alexander II, is still, incredibly, all but intact. These days, the wreck is considered to be of great historical value, and dives on it are not permitted.
The Tobias Enge was a Russian military galliot that is believed to have crashed near Hogland on October 28, 1771. Here, archaeologist Roman Prokhorov does some technical photo shooting of what are thought to be fragments of this very same vessel. At the bottom of the picture is an antique galliot steering wheel, quite different to modern ships’ wheels.
Cleaning a figurehead from the Louise
The shape of this wooden ship’s figurehead can be seen quite clearly here. It belonged to the Louise, a Danish merchant ship sunk in an accidental collision with the America. During the incident, three smaller ships were apparently on a collision course with the America. Two turned away, but the Louise continued, and the two ships crashed into each other. The Louise sank bow-first, but the America survived.
Caught in a net above the Louise
The America suffered hardly any damage in the encounter, but, rather eerily, it sank almost 18 years to the day in the same location. Diving around shipwrecks is not without its dangers and challenges, either – as we can see here: archaeologist Prokhorov struggles to release himself from a net attached to the Louise’s broadside.
Discovering a glass bottle on the Louise
Here, an archaeologist finds a glass bottle in the Louise shipwreck. Objects like this, found on the wrecks, are vital for dating and identifying the ships to which they belonged. Of course, sometimes they can also be very valuable in their own right.
Ceramic plates from the Louise are valuable for dating the wreck’s age.
This time, it’s ceramic plates that the divers find on the Louise. When the ship went down, it was carrying cargo to Hamburg, and the fleeing crew had no time to take the goods with them. Nevertheless, the Danish treasury was compensated for its loss.
These artifacts date from quite a bit later than the time of the Louise: they’re Mauser bullets from a German landing ship. In September 1944, the Germans tried to capture Hogland from their former allies the Finns, only to suffer major losses. The Baltic Sea floor is littered with combat materials, some of them hazardous, from the battles waged on its surface.
A corked flask
Incredibly, this flask, discovered by Prokhorov, appears to still contain a yellow liquid inside. Shipwrecks in the Baltic Sea sometimes reveal some amazing surprises. For example, in 2010, 145 bottles of 200-year-old top-quality champagne were found with their contents intact.
Setting out plastic marks on the Louise
In our last photograph, an archaeologist sets plastic marks in place before he begins technical drawing of a section of the ship Louise. And the Baltic Sea shipwrecks continue to be studied as the construction of the gas pipeline moves forward.
The divers’ efforts in digging up and preserving valuable historical finds is partly motivated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states that all archaeological discoveries in international waters must be conserved. Who knows what other astonishing artifacts still lie in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea, waiting to be brought to light?