Underwater Research Center

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The Underwater Research Center of the Russian Geographical Society was founded by the Russian Geographical Society and the National Center for Underwater Research in 2014. The organization unites representatives of various professions and industries: historians, archaeologists, divers, oceanographers and many others. Its purpose is to research events of the marine history and try to solve diverse secrets of nature.

The Underwater Research Center acquired its greatest fame in August 2015, when its specialists ensured the dive of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea to explore a centuries-old Byzantine wreck. However, research of ships lying on the bottom is not the only thing the center does. The center plans, for example, to open a museum of underwater archeology in Kronstadt, to design an inhabited underwater vehicle and fulfil other projects.

Passion for research

One of the most important areas of work of the Underwater Research Center is expeditions. For several years already, specialists of the center have been conducting archaeological research in the Baltic Sea.

In the summer of 2013, before the official foundation of the Center, the Russian Geographical Society together with the National Center for Underwater Research organized an expedition to survey the frigate "Oleg" that crashed between Hogland Island and Sommers Island in 1869. The reason for its destruction was collision with another vessel when performing complex maneuvers. During the expedition, a group of divers and archaeologists examined the ship, took photographs and raised a few artifacts from the bottom. According to experts, the frigate sunk more than 150 years ago and it is well-preserved. Everything from dishes and furniture to ship bells and cannons is extremely well preserved in Baltic waters.  Jul 15, 2013 President of Russia Vladimir Putin climbed into a three-seat submersible craft to examine the ship. He stressed the importance of such research to promote knowledge about the history of the Russian Fleet.

Since 2014, specialists of the Center have made archaeological research on the German merchant ship "Archangel Raphael" sunken in the Bay of Vyborg in 1724. They cleared the internal space of the ship, found a lot of artifacts of archaeological and value, some of them were raised to the surface. In particular, divers raised a well- preserved caftan from the bottom, and its restoration was subsequently carried out by specialists of the State Hermitage Museum.

Another object interesting for further study was found by underwater archaeologists of the Center in the Gulf of Finland near Kronstadt. It is not excluded that here the battleship "Portsmouth",  built according to the drawings of Peter I , one of the first battleships of the Russian Fleet, is lying at a depth of about 10 meters. It sank in 1719. Experts hope to find artifacts that will allow identifying the ship. It is planned to create its photomap and 3D-model.

The Underwater Research Center also takes part in international missions. One of them is the submarine "Som", discovered in 2015 in the territorial waters of Sweden. The Society is now in negotiations with the Scandinavian side aimed at discussing details of a joint expedition to explore the ship and at determining the fate of the Russian submarine which has been lying in Swedish waters for more than 100 years.

- In mid-October, we returned from Kabardino-Balkaria, where we examined Tserik-Kel, the deepest karst lake in Russia. The results of the expedition have yet to be summed up, but some facts I can tell now. In particular, data on the depth of the lake were updated. Previously, it was believed that it is equal to 258 meters, but we managed to find an underwater cave in the South-Eastern part of the lake, the depth of which was 279 meters. In addition, we designed a 3D model of the underwater part of the lake, took soil samples, and found out the chemical composition of water in the lake. We hope that the data will allow scientists to explain how lake Tserik-Kel was formed, and most importantly to understand how to preserve this unique natural object for future generations, said Executive Director of the Underwater Research Center Sergey Fokin.

Another object of interest for study was found by the underwater archaeologists at the Underwater Research Center of the RGS in the Gulf of Finland, near Kronstadt. Here, at a depth of about 10 meters, lies the battleship “Portsmouth”, built according to the drawings of Peter the Great; one of the first battleships of the Russian fleet, that sank in 1719. In 2017, the specialists of the URC RGS retrieved a lot of artifacts from the ship, including a massive cannon.

In 2017, in the Gulf of Finland, in the waters of the island of Gogland, at a depth of 60 meters, the researchers at the URC RGS discovered a ketch loaded with dishes, going to Russia from England and shipwrecked in the second half of the 19th century. In July 2019, the divers of the URC RGS conducted the deepest underwater work in the history of the Russian archeology and brought many artifacts up to the surface.

In 2020, the specialists of the URC RGS participated in the study and identification of the “Armenia” motor ship found at the bottom of the Black Sea, which was sunk by the German aviation in 1941.

In addition, in 2020, the divers of the URC RGS recovered the artifacts from aboard the German torpedo boat T-31 and the Soviet minesweeper TSh-45, which sank in the Gulf of Finland in June 1944.

The Underwater Research Center also takes part in international projects. One of them is connected with the “Fulton” submarine, discovered in 2015 in the territorial waters of Sweden. Negotiations are underway with the Scandinavian side, the purpose of which is to work out the details of a joint expedition to examine and determine the future fate of the Russian submarine, which has lain in Swedish waters for more than 100 years.

Underwater vehicle development

The second line of ​​activity of the URC RGS is scientific and technical. Its specialists actively cooperate with various Russian and foreign companies in the field of conducting diving operations, as well as creating diving equipment. Within the framework of research and archaeological expeditions, tests of new devices and equipment are regularly conducted.

The Center has also began to design a research class manned underwater vehicle. Diving operations have physiological restrictions on the duration of a person’s stay under water, on the effective depth of immersion and on the types of underwater operations. Therefore, the development of manned underwater vehicles remains today a very pertinent task. They, firstly, will increase the depth and time of diving. And secondly, they will make it possible to deliver a single-discipline specialist – an archaeologist, historian, oceanologist, hydrologist, etc. –  who does not have scuba diving skills to the object under study .

“Today in the world there are foreign models of devices that are successfully used for diving, but each of them is designed to solve its own set of problems. Our goal is to create a Russian manned underwater vehicle, originally intended for research activities. To develop a model that will allow for a comprehensive inspection of sunken objects, will make it possible to carry out technical work at a depth, will be equipped with manipulators, special equipment and devices. For our country, this project is unique, because today in Russia no one is engaged in the development of ultra-small underwater vehicles. At the moment, a work team is being formed that will solve this problem,” says Sergey Fokin, Executive Director of the URC RGS.

Museum of Underwater Archeology

Another line of work is the cultural and educational activities of the Center, the most important part of which is the creation of the “Peter’s Dock” scientific complex.

“The project’s goal is the restoration of the unique hydraulic complex "Peter’s Dock" in Kronstadt, and the creation of a museum of underwater archeology there. Any object that has lain in water for several hundred years, after being brought up to the surface, begins to deteriorate very quickly. To prevent this from happening, it is necessary to preserve it. There are methods that allow you to save small objects in this way, however, it is impossible to do this with a whole ship's hull for a number of reasons. Therefore, the idea arose to leave the discovered vessels in the aquatic environment, but at the same time make sure that not only specialists, but also ordinary people could see them,” says Sergey Fokin.

According to the developed concept, the “Peter’s Dock” will be preserved as an object of cultural heritage, as well as an existing engineering structure with partial preservation of the original function, including as a shipyard.

After restoration, it is planned to divide it into sections. From above, the dock will be covered with a glass hangar dome with an additional tier floor. Such a technical solution will allow to display the sunken ships, as well as smaller objects directly in the aquatic environment, which will ensure their safety. In addition, it is planned to organize a Center for Underwater Archeology in the museum complex, which includes research, restoration and conservation departments. Also, training classrooms, a conference room, laboratories, and a library will be created here.

The specialists of the Underwater Research Center of the Russian Geographical Society will select potential objects for the exhibition. At the moment, they have about 200 such rarities at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. However, it will only be possible to talk about when and exactly which ships will take their place in the museum after the territory of the dock is finally ready to receive the objects. According to the plans, the process of filling the museum complex "Peter’s Dock" with exhibits will begin in 2022.