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At The Vasa Museum

Secrets of the Past Deep In The Baltic Sea


By Michael Tarm

The Associated Press


Vello Mass leans across a wood-spoked ship's wheel and scans the horizon of the Baltic Sea -- where, he says, the wrecks of thousands of ships from throughout the ages lie beneath the cold, gray waves waiting to be found.


"There are hundreds of Viking ships out there, hundreds of old trading ships, hundreds of warships," muses the captain turned researcher, called the Baltic's Sherlock Holmes in his native Estonia for locating so many sunken ships. "The Baltic's an archaeological paradise."


Standing on the bridge of his research boat, docked in the capital, Tallinn, the blue-eyed 63-year-old seafarer speaks excitedly about the next mystery he hopes to solve: the whereabouts of the passenger ship Vironia, torpedoed near Estonia by Nazis during World War II.


War and weather have claimed seafarers since early sailors plied the Baltic. Some vessels have been long forgotten. Others are more recent, like the ferry Estonia, sunk in 1994 after towering waves ripped off its bow doors, with 852 of its 989 passengers and crew lost.


There could be as many as 100,000 shipwrecks in the Baltic Sea, said Stefan Wessman, a marine archaeologist at Finland's Maritime Museum.


"The Baltic Sea has huge potential, and I believe this is recognized by scientists internationally," he said. "There is nothing comparable to it in the world."


It's not just the number of Baltic wrecks that enthralls underwater researchers like Wessman and Mass. It's that so many are well-preserved -- veritable time capsules certain to expand understanding of the past.


"It's hard to imagine something telling us more," said Wessman, speaking by telephone from Helsinki. "You can get a whole cross-section of a society on one ship. The only equivalent on land I can think of is if you found a whole ancient library buried intact."


Sweden's royal warship Vasa, the most celebrated Baltic Sea discovery, was so well preserved when it was raised in 1978 -- some 350 years after it sank -- that minute details were clearly visible, down to flashing teeth on the carved lions that adorned its elaborate interior.


Archeologists can thank the lack of wood-eating shipworms. The teredo navalis -- actually a mollusk, not a worm -- thrives in high-salt oceans and is averse to low-salt waters like the Baltic.


"If the Vasa had sunk in almost any other sea, you might find parts of it that were buried under the seabed -- but any wood exposed to the sea would be gone," Wessman said.


American marine scientist Robert Ballard, famous for discovering the wreck of the Titanic, also noted the Baltic's interest to undersea explorers.


"There is an appreciation among researchers around the world of the discovery potential of the Baltic given its unique characteristics for preservation of ancient wooden ships," he said.


The Baltic's frigidity also acts as a preservative.


The Swedish schooner Jonkoeping, sunk by a German submarine in 1916 and salvaged near Finland in 1998, held nearly 5,000 bottles of French champagne, perfectly preserved in constant 4 degree Celsius temperatures. Several bottles were auctioned by Christie's in London for 2,400 lbs.($4,000) apiece.


The Baltic is also a mere 55-meters deep on average, making its seafloor accessible to even relatively low-tech, cash-strapped explorers. By contrast, the Atlantic's average depth is 3,700 meters.


Sonar has also improved chances of finding wrecks -- even by accident.


A Swedish submarine crew doing routine scanning two years ago stumbled upon an 18th century ship intact and upright -- as if set lovingly on the seabed, a carved sea horse presiding majestically at its stern. Human skulls on the deck were the only obvious signs of mishap.


The mystery ship has never been identified or salvaged.


But the most important factor in opening up new opportunities in marine archaeology, at least for Mass, has been the demise of the Soviet Union which severely limited underwater exploration off the shores of its satellite states.


"The Soviets were paranoid about everything -- that we might see underwater military equipment, that we might escape to the West," recalled Mass, born the year the Red Army occupied the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1940.


With no Soviet-era courses on marine archaeology, Mass taught himself -- taking inspiration from the films of Jacques Cousteau. Now, Mass is one of just a few regional experts in the field, a one-man force in Baltic shipwreck hunting.


Speaking in his office in Tallinn's Maritime Museum, he keeps excusing himself to answer the phone as his Nordic counterparts called to ask about his latest discoveries.


"There's a hundred year's worth of work out there," he said, sweeping his hand at stacks of paper on his desk and estimating that 10,000 ships have sunk near Estonia alone. "Life's short. I've got to give it 100 percent."


His most recent find, in July, was of Russia's first armored naval ship, the Russalka, or Mermaid. Underwater photos of the ship, which sank in a storm in 1893, showed it stabbed vertically into the sea floor like an enormous sword. Russian authorities haven't yet decided whether to salvage the wreck, Mass said.


Hungry for more discoveries, Mass has thumbed through old newspaper clippings and quizzed fishermen to learn clues about the sleek-white Vironia, attacked by German planes as it fled the Nazis' 1941 wartime invasion of Estonia.


The Vironia was in a 90-ship convoy carrying Soviet officials and their families in a frantic, last-minute escape from Tallinn. In hours, 30 ships were sunk. Some 15,000 people died, one of the largest death tolls for a single engagement at sea, Mass said.


Fishermen told him how their nets kept becoming snagged near where the Vironia was believed to have perished -- crucial information that will help narrow down its precise location.


Mass said finding something comparable to Sweden's Vasa, the dramatic centerpiece of a Stockholm museum, is the fantasy of most divers. His is to find an Estonian-built ship from the Viking era, when Estonians staged raids across the Baltic Sea.


Shipwrecks also arouse talk of sunken treasure, but Mass says he pays no heed to the rumors that circulate along towns on the Baltic coast.


"I've got history on my mind, not gold," he said with a laugh.