First MS Estonia expedition dive unsuccessful

The first dive was handled by Jakob Olszewski (right), who has been to the wreck of MS Estonia the most times.RS Sentinel owner Kurt Rohde (left).
The first dive was handled by Jakob Olszewski (right), who has been to the wreck of MS Estonia the most times.RS Sentinel owner Kurt Rohde (left). Photo: Sander Punamäe

While the first eight days of the MS Estonia private expedition were spent studying the MS Estonia wreck using sonar and AUVs, divers took to the seabed to study damage to the starboard side of the hull on Sunday.

The day started with a meeting held at 6 a.m. during which Linus Andresson gave the crew an overview of conditions he had put together with the help of AUVs. Visibility was said to be poor. This did not discourage divers whose mission was to record the section of the hull between two breaches. The first dive was handled by Jakob Olszewski, who has been to the wreck of MS Estonia the most times, and Moritz Scheibler.

The German said before his dive that he feels great and is in high spirits. The lion’s share of preparation work was done the day before. The divers’ support team made up of former diver Hubert Hubal and his son Leonhard Hubal (20) were the first to be ready. The Hubals jumped into a motor board lowered from the deck of RS Sentinel.

When Olszewski finished his preparations, the divers donned their equipment weighing 70 kilograms and the operation was underway. The men entered the diving bell, which is a cage or rather lift used to lower divers into the water. The Hubals picked up Olszewski and Scheibler and took them to a buoy a few dozen meters from the RS Sentinel. A long safety line was lowered for the divers to use when descending to the wreck of the ferry. The men checked their gear one last time before their heads disappeared into the glistening sea.

Unexpectedly short dive

RS Sentinel owner Kurt Rohde even brought a clock to the diving section to measure the mission’s duration. Reaching the wreck was estimated to take four minutes and the entire dive two hours.

“We have agreed to work for no more than 20 minutes down at the wreck that lies 80 meters deep. After that, coming up takes approximately two hours,” Scheibler explained. The descent causes tiny air bubbles to form in a diver’s bloodstream. The higher the pressure and the longer the diver spends underwater, the larger the bubbles become. Upon their slow return to the surface, divers have to give the bubbles time to become smaller again and eventually disappear.

The radio cracked to life and announced Olszewski and Scheibler are returning to the surface a mere hour into the operation. Scheibler was the first to step put of the bell, his first words uttered in German and betraying clear disappointment. Kurt Rohde first asked the men whether they were alright. “Yes, yes. It’s just that we couldn’t see anything,” the usually high-spirited Scheibler said.

“A major disappointment...” Scheibler told Postimees. “The visibility was so poor that if you were standing in front of me down there, I couldn’t see you,” he said of the situation next to the wreck.

Head of the diving team Olszewski also did nothing to hide his disappointment. “The milky water made it impossible for us to leave the safety line.” He described the visibility as good on their way down, which caused optimism at first, while conditions did not facilitate studying the wreck when they reached the depth of 80 meters. Olszewski added that the team was aware of the possibility before.

The experienced diver said he hopes conditions will improve in the coming days to allow the diving team to get back to work.

AUV visits car deck

Olszewski and Scheibler were tasked with studying and taking pictures of a section of the starboard side of the hull that has been overlooked in the past. The section between two holes discovered by Henrik Evertsson and Linus Andresson two years ago has not been studied in detail. The section is hidden behind what is likely a wall of clay some 70 centimeters from the hull that has made it impossible for underwater robots to study the section up close.

Hopes now rest on divers who could fit between the formation and the hull.

A second, smaller AUV was sent down immediately after the divers surfaced that entered the ferry’s car deck to map the situation there. The robot had gotten several dozen meters into the ferry’s interior after an hour and recent information from RS Sentinel suggests it discovered quite a few interesting things. Andresson’s 3D photogrammetry camera has been taking thousands of images at night, with one-third of the MS Estonia wreck modeled by Monday morning.