In a truly perplexing case of brazen robbery, a very expensive high-tech underwater observatory has been stolen, leaving only a cut cable as evidence of the crime.
The submerged scientific station had been operational since December 2016. The GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel and the Helmholtz Center Geesthacht (HZG) installed the observatory for environmental measurements on the seabed in a restricted area at the outlet of Eckernförde Bay.
The underwater observatory at Boknis Eck is part of the COSYNA network (Coastal Observing System for Northern and Arctic Seas) of the HZG.
Boknis Eck is one of the oldest, still-active marine science time series in the world today. Every month since 1957, environmental data such as temperature, salinity, nutrients, oxygen, and chlorophyll have been collected at a specific position at the outlet of the Eckernförde Bay, allowing the ongoing analysis of the state of the ecosystem of the south-western Baltic Sea.
In December 2016, GEOMAR teamed up with the HZG to install an underwater observatory in a restricted area that has been continuously measuring flow velocities, temperature, and levels of salt, oxygen, nutrients, chlorophyll, and methane. The sensors provide important data to detect changes in marine ecosystems.
On August 21, 2019, at 8:15 pm local time, data signals from the observatory suddenly stopped. When divers arrived on the scene to see what the problem was, they were shocked to see only a frayed land connection cable end lying on the sea bottom. The two 550- and 220-pound racks on August 21 had been removed with great force from their position.
Professor Hermann Bange , Boknis Eck coordinator who heads oceanographic research at Geomar in Kiel, said that “at first we thought of a transmission error,” but realized just how wrong the scientists were when divers reported that the entire structure had vanished without a trace.
The Boknis Eck Observatory is comprised of two desk-sized racks. One is responsible for the power supply of the plant and with a cabled connection to the coast. The other frame carries the actual sensors.
“When the divers reached the bottom of the sea last week at the observatory’s location, they found only the torn off land cable. It was completely shredded,” reported Prof. Bange.
The torn power cable was found 22m (72ft) down and 1.8km (1.2 miles) offshore in a prohibited region of the seabed north of Kiel, Germany. No boats, including local fishing boats, are allowed access into the area, called Eckernförde Bay, about 70km (44 miles) south of the border with Denmark.
Typical threats to such an underwater scientific station include storms, currents or large marine animals – not human thieves. The equipment weighed more than half a tonne (equal to 500 kg – half a metric ton – or 1100 pounds).
Prof. Bange appealed to the public for help solving the mysterious disappearance of the oceanic station:
“At first, we tried to find the devices with our own research and other diving applications. So far without success. That’s why we would be very happy about the hints. Maybe someone saw something on the morning of August 21 at the Sperrgebiet ‘Hausgarten’ near the Hökholz campsite. Or someone finds parts of the frames somewhere on the beach.”
Police in Eckernförde were alerted to the theft and are looking for people responsible for making off with the underwater observatory, which cost €300,000 ($330,000). Prof. Bange stressed the value of the information being gleaned from the marine data collection project and the importance of continuing their research efforts:
“[T]he data that we collect is downright priceless. They help research to register changes in the Baltic Sea and possibly take countermeasures. Therefore, we will try to get the observatory back up and running as soon as possible.”
Theories from online observers explaining what prompted the unexpected theft range from scrap metal robbers to a Russian submarine. Prof. Bange discounted these ideas. At 14.5 meters below the water’s surface, the observatory was too shallow for access by a large sub.
Furthermore, Prof. Bange stated that “while the station was incredibly valuable to us, it was made mostly of steel that wouldn’t have much resale value.”
A much more likely culprit, according to Prof. Bange, would be fishing poachers with no particular interest in making off with the valuable machinery:
“Fishing boats have transmitters that tell them they’ve entered the research area, but they just switch it off.”
Tracks leading from where the station had been, suggesting that the station was dragged for some distance, stopped with no sign of any physical evidence other than a broken piece of one of the sensors.
GEOMAR is planning to use ship-based sonar to scan for signs of the missing equipment. If that fails, the nearby naval base has offered to contribute its minesweepers and other scanning technologies to help locate signs of the crime or the facility itself.
If the stolen underwater science observatory can’t be tracked down, it will take 6 months to a year to replace it, according to Prof. Barge. Although the station was insured, the claims process will take some time.
“We have to see if we find any pieces,” stated Prof. Barge.