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  • Danger is lurking off our coasts -- and hardly anyone suspects that there's a

  • problem. Weapons of war that have been deteriorating for decades.

  • These are ticking time-bombs.

  • This threat on the ocean floor is known only to a few experts.

  • It's a race against time.

  • But is this a race that we can win?

  • Here at the Polish port of Gdynia, a team of experts is

  • getting their research vessel ready for an expedition.

  • The crew includes hydrographers, biologists, and divers from the Marine

  • Institute in the nearby port of Gdańsk. They've been working together for years.

  • They're headed for a site located in the Bay of Gdańsk, about half-an-hour's

  • sailing time away. In 1999, experts made an alarming discovery there.

  • The team's leader is Benedykt Hac, a former Polish navy officer. His repeated

  • warnings about these underwater wrecks have made him unpopular with the authorities.

  • -Some of them don't like what we're doing here. But it's not our job to please

  • them, or to make things easy for them. This is like a mission for us.

  • -Full stop! We're there!

  • Benedykt Hac has been researching this part of the bay for years.

  • The site is located just two kilometers off the coast.

  • The pristine beaches along the Bay of Gdańsk are known as thePolish Riviera"

  • -- and they're an important part of the country's tourism industry. More than

  • two-million Europeans spend their summer holidays here every year.

  • -This is a great place to take a vacation. Just marvellous.

  • The beaches are beautiful, and the people are friendly.

  • Some think it's going to be like this forever -- but sadly, that's not the case.

  • There's a problem here that only a few people know about, and it's very dangerous.

  • The ship picks up speed to do a sonar scan of the seabed.

  • Gradually the sonar images reveal a relic from the past that poses a major threat

  • to the tourist beaches: the wreck of the German hospital shipStuttgart.” The

  • vessel was nearly 170 meters long.

  • In the autumn of 1943, the ship was anchored at Gdyniarenamed "Gotenhafen"

  • by the occupying Germans. The vessel was to take

  • on wounded soldiers from the Eastern Front.

  • On the morning of October 9th, 378 bombers of the U-S

  • 8th Army Air Force took off from their bases in Britain.

  • Their mission was to destroy the strategically vital ports and dockyards

  • along occupied Poland's Baltic coast. They reached the target area in about 4 hours.

  • TheStuttgarttook a number of direct hits. Fire broke out on the ship, and

  • flames lit up the entire harbor area. The crippled vessel was later towed out into

  • the bay and sunk, so that it wouldn't block the port area.

  • Today, the "Stuttgart" is just a footnote in history books.

  • The site of the wreck was soon forgotten.

  • But in 1999, Benedykt Hac came across the ship's wreckage while he was

  • mapping the floor of the bay for the Gdańsk Marine Institute.

  • He's returned to the site often since then. He and his

  • researchers continue to monitor the condition of the wreck.

  • Today, divers are braving the ice-cold water to have a look.

  • TheStuttgartlies just 20 meters below the surface.

  • It's overgrown with seaweed and shellfish.

  • There's not much left of the vessel, but the wreckage is spread out over an area

  • that would cover two football fields. In the 1950s, parts of

  • the ship were blown up in an operation to salvage scrap steel.

  • At first glance, the wreck and the area around it don't seem to pose a threat.

  • The divers will use special equipment to take samples from the seabed.

  • The first sample that's brought up shows why Benedykt Hac is so concerned.

  • It contains thick globs of oil. The researchers

  • call them theBlack Tears of the Sea."

  • Over the years, Hac and his team have collected over 1,000 seabed samples from

  • this site. But this is the most dangerous material that they've found so far.

  • It's a thick, foul-smelling mass that contains a lot more oil than sand.

  • -Look at all that oil!

  • -I've never seen anything like it here before!

  • -And it really stinks!

  • The researchers will take the mud back to their laboratory for closer inspection.

  • -We're on the brink of an ecological catastrophe here, and I don't think

  • we can do anything more to prevent it. This site is completely

  • contaminated. All forms of life have been eradicated.

  • Benedykt Hac intends to take another 200 seabed samples so that he can

  • assess the extent of the pollution in the Bay of Gdańsk.

  • Is theStuttgartjust a tragic one-off case? What about all the other sunken

  • warships that date back to World War II?

  • Do they pose a threat to the environment as well?

  • Less than 20 kilometers away, we find the Westerplatte peninsula on the Bay of

  • Gdańsk. This is where the first shots of World War II

  • in Europe were fired -- on September 1, 1939.

  • At 4:45 AM, the German battleshipSchleswig Holstein

  • opened fire on Polish positions.

  • The war would drag on until 1945 -- on land, and at sea. The Allies and the Axis

  • Powers had huge navies that battled for supremacy.

  • Allied merchant shipping was often targeted...

  • ...as Germany's navy and air force tried to cut supply lines.

  • German U-Boats, known as theGrey Wolves,” took a huge toll on allied shipping.

  • In June 1942, they destroyed an average of four vessels a day.

  • But what was the total number of ships that were sunk during the war? And how

  • many of them pose an environmental threat today, like the the "Stuttgart" does?

  • To find out more, we travel to Tampa, on Florida's Gulf Coast.

  • Every year, U-S Coast Guard officials, scientists, and salvage experts take part

  • in theClean Gulf" conference, to exchange ideas on how to combat oil spills at sea.

  • Among those at this year's session is American biologist and environmental

  • analyst Dr. Dagmar Schmidt Etkin. In 2004, Etkin began a study on the number

  • of potentially dangerous wrecks in the world's oceans.

  • -I collected data on different wrecks in different places, including a number of

  • German databases -- which I translated from German into English. And some of

  • those were based on, you know, which U-boat had sunk which vessels.

  • For two months, Etkin searched through archives and gathered data from sources

  • around the world. She also examined sonar images of shipwrecks. Etkin's study

  • included only vessels that had combustion engines, and a weight

  • of more than 400 gross register tons -- or 150 tons for tankers.

  • -So I found 8,500-and-something wrecks worldwide -- and about three-quarters of

  • those were World War II-related. It was a surprise, you know.

  • These sunken ships can be found near ports, at the sites of naval battles, and along

  • trade routes. The number of World War II era wrecks is said to be more than 6,300.

  • They include Italian freighters in the Red Sea and Japanese battleships in the

  • Pacific. The majority of all wrecks in the last 100

  • years of navigation history date back to the war.

  • Many of the ships that went down were filled with fuel or crude oil. No one

  • knows how much of that material is still trapped in the wrecks -- but Dr. Etkin came

  • up with an estimate, based on the number of large ships that had combustion engines.

  • -If I had no information, I looked at the size of the vessel and the type of vessel:

  • a tanker or a non-tank vessel, a bulk carrier, or a Victory ship, or something

  • like that. And I assumed, 'Well, let's say at least ten-percent of the oil may still

  • be on there, maybe 90 percent, maybe all (of it), we dont know' -- so I have a range

  • of values. So I estimated, using that methodology, estimated about 2.5- to

  • 25-million tons of oil could potentially be on these wrecks. And that was (a cause

  • for) concern -- because (it) could potentially leak out, and cause the same

  • kinds of (damage) we see in other oil spills that occur now.

  • In March 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground off the coast of Alaska, and

  • spilled more than 37,000 tons of crude oil.

  • But that's just a fraction of the amount of material that's lying in World War II-

  • era wrecks. Dr. Etkin says that those sunken ships could contain up to 15 million

  • tons of oilabout 400 times the amount that was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

  • -I presented my results on the numbers, and the reaction was: 'This is too big a

  • problem, and we can't deal with it.' At least here in the United States, but also

  • in other parts of the world, it's sort of buried. 'It's too complicated. We're not

  • going to be able to deal with it. It's too expensive and so there's nothing we can do.

  • Dr. Etkin's study was published more than a decade ago. Since then, experts

  • have discussed the shipwreck oil problem at conferences, but have taken little action.

  • The delay has had serious consequences. Some of the oil has already started to

  • leakbecause the tanks where it was stored are starting to disintegrate.

  • A number of World War II wrecks lie off the east coast of the United States.

  • This research vessel is operated by the National Oceanic

  • and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA for short.

  • The team on board this ship is constantly on the lookout for World War

  • II shipwrecks. Today, they're conducting a search off the coast of North Carolina.

  • Before Dr. Etkin's study was published, there was little interest in these sunken

  • ships, except among underwater archaeologists.

  • But the experts at NOAA soon realized that they needed to learn a lot more

  • about World War II-era wrecks and their potentially deadly contents.

  • The researchers investigate every sunken ship that they find. They try to determine

  • the extent of rust damage, and whether any oil is leaking out. They use precision

  • laser equipment to measure every millimeter of the wreck.

  • One of NOAA's main tasks is to protect America's ocean- and coastal resources.

  • This is NOAA heaquarters in Maryland. Marine researcher Lisa Symons is in

  • charge of monitoring wrecks located in US waters.

  • Symons was alarmed by Dr. Etkin's study. She hadn't realized that there were so

  • many wrecks or that they contained so much fuel.

  • -Well, there was a lot of concern -- and that was something that we were very

  • aware of. Because there's been a lot of allegations about the waters of the

  • US, the waters of Germany, Europe, and Japan being full of ticking time-bombs.

  • Symons wanted to find out more about that threat. In 2010, the U-S Congress

  • provided one-million dollars to help NOAA determine

  • the risk posed by these sunken ships.

  • -It has taken a lot of very painstaking research effort with the archives (and)

  • going back to the newspaper records. Sometimes you can find living crew

  • members who remember being on a vessel, or hearing about what happened to a vessel.

  • The experts use 21 separate criteria to rank shipwrecks in terms of risk, including

  • the size of the vessel, and the type and amount of oil that's still on board.

  • Right now, Symons is studying the wreck of the merchant vessel "Coast Trader."

  • The ship was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine off the coast of

  • Washington state in June 1942. The records indicate

  • that there still could be 1,000 tons of fuel on board.

  • Such information is often reliable -- but sometimes the researchers can find

  • out more by using underwater robots. The team wants to determine where the

  • torpedo actually struck the ship.

  • Their investigation reveals that the vessel was heavily

  • damaged, and probably lost a lot of oil as it sank.

  • So this wreck now seems less of a danger than was first feared. But other wrecks

  • could contain more oil than the records indicate. NOAA simply doesn't have the

  • resources to use robots to study all these sunken ships.

  • The researchers so far have examined 573 major shipwrecks, and have written

  • detailed reports on 87 of them. 36 were believed to pose a serious threat if all

  • their oil leaked out. And five World War II-era wrecks were considered a major

  • risk that could cause serious environmental damage.

  • -The target audience though is the United States Coast Guard: 'These are the

  • wrecks in your area of concern that we did analysis of. This is what our findings

  • are. These are the wrecks that we recommend that you put into active

  • monitoring.' And it's up to the US Coast Guard to determine whether or not they

  • want to do an in-water assessment, and then determine

  • whether or not they want to remove the fuel.

  • But the U-S Coast Guard has so far not carried out an investigation of any of the

  • five wrecks listed by NOAA as extremely dangerous -- so

  • they obviously haven't gotten around to pumping out the oil.

  • The Coast Guard seems to be taking a “wait and seeapproach. The situation is

  • the same in some other countries that have to deal with this problem.

  • But the experts at NOAA are taking an active approach.

  • The agency operates its own satellite and information center.

  • Here, analysts evaluate data in real time for the U-S Weather Service.

  • They also work out long-term climate models.

  • And they monitor the surface of the oceans around the clock, keeping an eye

  • out for any oil spills. These experts use radar images to spot potential problems.

  • The researcher is focused on an area off the eastern tip of Long Island, New York.

  • The NOAA team also pays close attention to the sites in which possibly dangerous

  • shipwrecks have been found. This one is not on the list of high-risk sites, but the

  • analyst spots an unusual pattern. It could be an oil leak.

  • He marks the dark patch, and measures it. It turns out to be nine kilometers long

  • and 150 meters widewith a total area of about one-point-five square

  • kilometers. He sends the data to Lisa Symons.

  • Symons is familiar with this wreck. It's a British tanker that was sunk by a German

  • U-boat in January 1942. NOAA experts spot oil slicks near the site from time to time.

  • The Coast Guard started pumping oil out of this wreck in April 2019, over concerns

  • that the leaking oil could reach coastal areas. But the authorities don't often have

  • the resources to take action quickly to deal with potentially dangerous situations.

  • -It is a question of money -- but for some people, they're more concerned about

  • trying to deal with their issues now than (to deal with) a potential threat.

  • It IS possible to remove oil from sunken ships, but it's expensive. In April 2015, a

  • Russian fishing trawler -- theOleg Naydenov” -- caught fire and sank off the

  • island of Gran Canaria. The ship was carrying 1,000 tons of fuel, but salvage

  • crews later managed to pump out most of it. It was a difficult job, not least

  • because the trawler was sitting 2,700 meters down on the ocean floor.

  • The operation cost 30 million euros.

  • -At this point, I believe we can take care of any wreck. We can operate in any

  • operational environment, and (at) any ocean depth, at this point. It's just a matter

  • of making the decision to go and look for the wreck, and then to solve the problem.

  • Jim Elliott is a former Coast Guard officer. He's also vice-president of a

  • major salvage company, and president of the American Salvage Association -- so

  • he knows about these kinds of operations. Today, if a

  • ship sinks and its oil threatens the environment, the material is pumped

  • out. Otherwise, the ship's owner will be held liable for any environmental damage.

  • In the case of the Russian fishing trawler, robots cut access holes in the fuel tanks.

  • Then, funnel-shaped collection containers were installed to suck out the

  • oil. That's fine for modern vessels, but what about World War II-era shipwrecks

  • that may be disintegrating? Jim Elliott says that

  • those operations are extraordinarily complex.

  • -To be honest with you, it's very rare that we do this. It's amazing that we're still

  • talking about these wrecks, and they haven't been... the issues hasn't been

  • solved. But there's an argument that if that oil releases, if you're in an

  • environmentally-sensitive area, it could be a lot more catastrophic and definitely

  • a lot more expensive in the long run to do that. So for example, you're dealing with

  • a pollution-recovery cost -- and once the oil is released from that wreck, you can

  • only recover, say, ten- to 25-percent with current technology on the surface. So

  • really, it's a losing game once the oil is released.

  • Many countries have adopted a "wait and see" approach to these situations