A joint mission by the Estonian and Swedish safety investigation authorities to film the wreck of the MS Estonia ferry and raise the ship's ramp, is due to begin in two weeks. The mission is expected to last a total of ten days.
"As of today, the departure is expected to happen on either July 19 or 20. Our Swedish colleagues are still finalizing the date, but the contract signed by the Swedes states that the survey company must give at least seven days' notice of the exact date," Märt Ots, head of the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau, told ERR on Thursday.
The research vessel is set to depart from the Swedish port of Karlskrona and should reach the site of the wreckage within approximately a day and a half, depending on the weather.
"The plan is to first film the ship's car deck, then raise the ramp and likewise film the areas that have not been filmed during previous surveys, such as the area behind the ramp, and maybe some other parts of the shipwreck. There are also plans, if possible, to raise some other objects, which might be near the wreck," Ots said.
Ots was clear to point out, that all the work will be done using submersibles, meaning no people will be sent down 80 meters to the seabed.
Asked what other objects might be brought to the surface in addition to the ramp, Ots said it was not possible to say for sure. However, as the wreck is being explored using submersibles capable of retrieving details from the seabed, the possibility of some other metal objects being retrieved cannot be entirely ruled out.
"But we can't promise anything for sure, we have to take into account that the Estonia wreck is still at a depth of 80 meters and this is a very, very special operation," Ots stressed.
Ramp to be lifted and thoroughly examined
Ots said that the ship's bow ramp, which is to be lifted from the wreck, will be brought to Paldiski to be investigated by Estonia in agreement with the Swedish Accident Investigation Authority.
"Since the ramp is coming to Estonia, we will investigate it. That has been agreed. We want to do a metal analysis, laser scanning and chemical analysis - a thorough investigation. All of that is our job, it's our job specifically to do all the studies on the ramp," Ots said.
"Obviously, we can check all the chemical indicators, we can see if there might be any traces of other substances there (on the ramp – ed.), that's the first thing, or if there may have been some kind of collision at sea. There is most likely a low probability of that," he explained. "But the main work and the main goal is still to get accurate data from the ramp and use that to create a digital model of the ship sinking," Ots added.
Inside and outside of wreck to be filmed
The wreck will be filmed using video cameras only, with no other techniques applied to capture the shape of the hull, Ots said. "But there is no doubt that these cameras have been adapted for filming on the seabed. Our Swedish colleagues have chosen a professional company that does marine work and I am absolutely sure that they have all the professional equipment needed to film as well as possible," he added.
Ots went on to say, that addition to filming the wreck's exterior, the cameras will also access the ship's car deck. "A deep-water submersible will go onto the car deck and film it. So, in that since, the submersible will go into the wreck."
"Since the aim is to create a digital model, and modern computing is so advanced that we can make a fairly accurate one, then of course on the car deck, you can look and see which intermediate doors were closed and which were open. To some extent, you can look at the position of the cargo on the car deck and so on. All of that provides a lot of input, from which to make the digital model as accurate as possible," Ots said.
Digital model of shipwreck to be created
Ots also explained that the data and footage from the ramp investigation will be used to create a digital model of the shipwreck.
The model, which is due to be completed next year, should be able to show the MS Estonia sinking. from the moment the visor and ramp came off the side, up until the point when the ship filled with water.
"Our aim is to add as many different inputs as possible into this model. Since the ramp is a very important detail, we can certainly increase the accuracy of the studies significantly by extracting it," Ots stressed.
Studies will already be carried out on the ramp this year, with the production of a comprehensive digital model planned for next year.
"I very much hope that the government will continue to fund this project and that we can still go ahead with creating this digital model," Ots said.
Mission funded by Sweden
Ots explained that the investigation of the wreck is a cooperative operation involving Estonia, Sweden and Finland. However, the current mission is being commissioned and paid for by Sweden alone.
"The mission is paid for by the Swedish side. Estonia's costs are only related to the transport to Sweden. So, Estonia's costs are very minimal, only the travel costs," Ots explained.
"The Swedish Accident Investigation Authority is the contractor and the work will be done by a Norwegian company. The crew of the research vessel will be international I think, and as it is a well-known deep-sea exploration company, I am sure they will do a good job," Ots said.
"Estonia is the lead party in the survey and our role, along with the Swedes, is to coordinate all the activities. The plan of what to do is fixed, but you never know what might happen on the seabed, whether one aspect of the investigation or another will be successful. So, Estonia's role is to coordinate everything on the ground with our Swedish colleagues," he explained.
There will be no Finnish representatives on board the research vessel, as Finland is participating in the mission indirectly, Ots explained, adding that all the survey results will be shown to the Finns.
Aim is to make all material public
Asked whether the film footage will be made available to the public, the head of the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau (ESIB) said, that the decision depends on Sweden. However, given that the videos filmed prior to now have been made public, that should also be the case for these ones.
However, Ots added, that even though the films will be recorded in high-resolution, the images uploaded to the Internet cannot necessarily be of such high quality. "But we do want to put out as much information as we can," he confirmed.
Ots also said, that there will be continuous updates on the mission, with information provided regarding absolutely every important step. "First of all, when the ship leaves Karlskrona, we'll issue a press release. Then, as soon as the submersibles have been surveyed, something important has been found, and the ramp has been lifted, we'll let you know."
Once the research vessel arrives in Paldiski harbor with the ramp, we expect that the press will want to film it, Ots said. "We have to take into account that, as it is still a rather large metal object, which has been on the seabed for 30 years, safety has to be ensured, first and foremost," he added.
ERR will be on board
Journalists from ERR and the Swedish public broadcaster SVT will also be on board to monitor the mission and relay information to other media outlets in their respective countries.
The wreck was also visited last summer
The wreckage of the MS Estonia was also explored last year, during a missio, which lasted from May to June. A submersible robot was used to help take more than 40,000 photogrammetric images of the wreck and visit the ship's car deck.
Editor: Michael Cole