AT THE SOUTH-EAST CORNER OF SWEDEN lies Oland, a four-hour drive from Copenhagen or Gothenburg. Close to its eastern coast is the main shipping lane between western and eastern Europe. For hundreds of years hurricanes, war and ice have taken their toll here, and the seabed is littered with wrecks.
In deep brackish water, free of woodworms and with a low oxygen content, these wrecks remain in an incredible state of preservation. In the 1980s the discovery and excavation of 17th century man-of-war the Kronan, a project that is still going on, revealed the fantastic diving conditions, but in the days before satellite navigation, cheap sonars and amateur trimix diving, this treasure was hidden.
Now it is starting to give up amazing secrets. Intact virgin wrecks are being discovered almost on a daily basis.
Most were unimpressive ships and carried no treasures but coal, iron ore and wood. But bound up with them is the economic development of Europe and the fate of many seamen.
Our project started in 2000. A fisherman approached us after a dive trip to the E-19 wrecks (Excuse Me, May We Sink Your Ship?, June 2001) and said: "Do you know that there are more wrecks out there that nobody has dived? Talk to the trawler guys over there, they know all about it."
I had my doubts, but I talked to the fishermen anyway. They showed me their plotter and I got goosebumps. There were wreck signs everywhere.
The positions were out in the deep open sea, but with trimix and GPS I realised that if the fishermen had not simply got stuck on big rocks, this was a treasure chest waiting to be opened.
In May 2000, we visited the first promising object. The fishermen had got a 10m spike on their echo-sounder 14 nautical miles from the coast and the divers came down in 30m visibility on the stern of a ship. They couldn't believe their eyes. Before them was a wall of wooden carvings of a ship's stern, flowers, birds, flags and a coat of arms, still with remnants of its gold colour.
Below was the name of the ship: ss Emmy Haase. Further up on the stern was a big steering wheel with the name in the centre. In front of the wheel were two skylights with spiral staircases leading into the hull. The doors had been torn off, possibly by the rushing air when she went down.
The hinges were beautifully carved oak-leaves cast in brass. Someone had been very proud of this ship and put a lot of effort into decorating her. After the holds came the engine-room skylights, which had the builder's plate on it: "JL Thomson and Sons, 158, Iron Ship Builders, North Sands, Sunderland 1880".
It was lying on its port side, intact but for the crushed bow. Its masts were in place, which had saved all its deck structures from trawlers. Only the bridge was somewhat collapsed, but it contained a beautiful wheel. There were rows of dead-eyes along the rails.
I found nothing in Swedish archives except Emmy Haase's Lloyds registration. Diver's Kendall McDonald advised me to write to the Guildhall Library in London, where the Lloyd's archive is. There they found a note in Lloyd's Missing Vessels Book 1885-1889 that the ship had been declared missing on 2 November 1887.
Shipping Gazette and Lloyd's List Weekly Summary of 4 November stated: "Emmy Haase of London sailed from the Tyne for Cronstadt with coal on 19 September last, passed Elsinore (Helsingšr) on 23 September, and has not since been heard of." So she had vanished with all aboard without trace.
Guildhall Library also advised me to write to the Maritime History Archive in Newfoundland. It keeps old contracts for journeys by British merchant ships. To see the shaky, ink-spotted signatures of the 20 crew gave me an eerie feeling.
ss Emmy Hasse was launched on 23 September 1880 in Sunderland, ordered by F Gordon & Partners for £15,650.
A 260ft flush-decked steamer grossing 1963 tons with a 160hp two-cylinder compound steam engine, she probably also had a short sailing rig.
On 19 September 1887, 20 men signed on for what would be her last voyage. Regular captain Mathew Gibb was unavailable so James Elliot from Sunderland, 29, took his place. He had signed on for £7 a month. First Engineer J Watson was paid £13, which illustrates his importance.
The same day Emmy Haase left South Shields with a cargo of coal for Cronstadt (St Petersburg). On 23 September she was seen passing through …resund but was never seen or heard of again until the divers found her 112 years later.
Most of the crew came from the Newcastle area, so I asked a local newspaper for help in finding relatives of the missing seamen. The response was overwhelming. Press and TV were after the story and underwater pictures.
A great-nephew of one of the crew gave me copies of articles about Emmy Haase and her disappearance. A private collector gave me a photo of her.
We filmed the wreck for the BBC and Swedish TV. The sun was shining, the sea flat and viz 30m. We had sunshine 60m deep. It could have been the Red Sea.
Swedish newspaper archives revealed that on 24 September hurricane winds had been blowing around Oland, the worst in ten years. What happened? The bow of the wreck is crushed. The engine telegraph is on full-speed ahead. Doors and hatches are missing.
Emmy Haase had been extensively rebuilt after a boiler explosion - could she have been hit by a monster wave, had her back broken and dived straight to the bottom?
Emmy Haase was the appetiser that kicked off the Project Oland Wreck Survey. After hundreds of hours of sonar searches, we have found that the seabed east of Oland is totally flat, and every trawler position is a wreck.
On our first sonar search, the monitor drew a beautiful picture of a steamer at 65m. We saw the silhouette of a typical "three-islander" with poop, bridge and forecastle.
This was July, and the plankton blooming had started. We came down in a soup with hardly any viz. But at 25m I came out in crystal-clear water. The transition was knife-sharp, and when I looked up I had a roof over me.
Thirty metres below, I saw my buddies with their HID lights swimming over an intact steamer.
I dropped onto the bridge-wing, stirring up a cloud of silt, started the bottom-timer, hooked a strobe onto the shotline and signalled OK to my buddy.
The door to the bridge was gone and I looked in. There was a magnificent wheel and a beautiful binnacle. I felt as Howard Carter must have felt when he looked into the untouched grave of Tutankamen. It looked as if the ship had sunk only a few years ago. In front of the windows were "dropstones" of rust.
At the poop I found the bell, with the name "Heriot" on it. By the door to the engine-room was a plaque with the text: "Built by Osbourne, Graham & Co, No 125, Shipbuilders, Hylton, Sunderland".
It was not difficult to find the story of the Swedish ship Nelly, formerly Heriot. She had sunk in 1927 when her cargo shifted in a storm, but the crew had been saved by another ship.
The next day we visited another location close by. At 55m, the sonar gave us more wonderful pictures - and we found another steamer. Under the bridge was a dining saloon with furniture and porcelain still in place.
US diver Steve Berman, who was with us, described the experience as "like swimming into a museum".
The hull had been damaged. It had a tear in it the size of a man. The inscription on the bell was "OST 1889" and the archives told us that, under the name Auguste Helmerich, the ship had collided with the Normandie in 1919. All hands had been saved by the Normandie.
There were many stories of tragedy and heroism. ss Livonia, a beautiful wreck at 65m, had been hit in the stern by ss Napier in a thick fog in 1895.
She sank fast, but the crew managed to climb over to Napier, which was stuck in the stern.
The second mate discovered that one of the passengers, a girl, was missing. He went back to get her, but never returned. Livonia went down. On the wreck, we could see a big, wedge-shaped crack in the stern.
In 1956 the coaster ss Humber had been waiting in port for a new radio to be installed. The captain had grown impatient and left without the radio. The ship disappeared with all hands, but we found the wreck, far off course.
The weather had been rough and there had been ice. There had probably been an engine breakdown and she had drifted off course until the ice overtook her. That radio would have saved the crew.
Further out in the Baltic, we have found some interesting wooden wrecks, including the Tver. This was a Russian military ship under Captain Alexejev Ivanovitch Geling that was transporting luxury goods from France to the Imperial Court when she struck a rock outside Reval (Tallin) in 1852.
The crew abandoned her, thinking she was lost, but she came off the reef and drifted like the Marie Celeste for 240 nautical miles down to Oland before sinking.
The wreck is broken up, but the bottom is littered with bottles of wine, beer, vinegar, mustard, olives and spices. Some of the bottles have a nice white wine in them. The beer bottles are marked "C Jeff, Hull" and the bell is inscribed "Tver, St Petersburg, Porteur Maritime No 2".
At another site we found two wrecks in the same place, one broken in two. They have yet to be identified but are presumably victims of a collision.
High on our list of projects is the search for the 17th century wooden warrior The Sword. She was sunk at the same battle as the Kronan and drifted away, so the search area is big. It contains 80 positions in which trawlers have got stuck and the depth is about 80m, but it is only a matter of time...
Two views of the bridge on Auguste Hermelich
the bridge of the Emmy Haase
the engine-room hatch of the Auguste Hermelich
the bridge of the Nelly
The sheer number of Baltic wrecks reflect a tragic toll in human life
The Emmy Haase
Signatures of the ship's 20-man crew on a copy of the contract.
On the stern the divers found woodern carvings, with a coat of arms among them
The stern wheel of the Emmy Haase