Under the Baltic
September 4, 2008
Maritime archaeologist Vello Mäss of the Estonian Maritime Museum was featured in the September/October story ""The Wreck of the Mermaid," which described his search for the Russian ironclad Russalka. Captain of the research vessel Mare, Mäss is author of four books and more than 150 articles on maritime history and archaeology. Senior Editor Eric A. Powell asked Vello about his career and recent discoveries.
How did you get interested in maritime history?
I grew up on the rocky coast of northern Estonia. My parents were teachers and we had a very good library at home. My favorite authors were Jules Verne, Jack London, James Fenimore Cooper, and other writers of that time. A number of discovery books came later one. The Half Mile Down by explorer William Beebe still has pride of place on my bookshelf.
And when did diving become a passion for you?
I got very interested in diving in 1957 after seeing the Cousteau documentary The Silent World. I started diving with primitive, self-made equipment in 1958. For that, I was arrested by Russian border guards and was forced to promise never to continue such activities.
The research vessel Mare
But you still made a living at sea?
In 1962, I graduated as a navigator from the Tallinn Technical Fishing College and from 1967 I worked as captain on different ships, and since 1982 on the research vessel of the Estonian Maritime Museum. If the Soviet KGB knew that my close relative Edward Masso served in U.S. Navy as a high ranking officer (he's a rear admiral today), I would have never have been allowed to work at sea. Until 1976, I was allowed to work on fishing trawlers but was denied permission to enter into any foreign harbor and go ashore.
If you couldn't dive, how did you get involved in underwater archaeology?
During my captain's career on the fishing trawlers my ship very often encountered wrecks. Already having an interest in maritime history, I then became fascinated with maritime archaeology. The first book on this subject I read was Underwater Archaeology by George Bass.
Schematic drawing of the Latvian icebreaker Krisjanis Valdemars
Was it difficult for you to do research during the Soviet period?
The most difficult thing was breaking through the KGB's "stone wall" while preparing our first expedition in 1978. We had to get written agreement from the government and the Academy of Sciences, as well as written permission from the KGB Headquarters in Moscow.
What did you find on your first expedition?
On our first expedition we only found some small fragments of sunken ships. Our real achievment was discovering that conditions in Estonian waters are good enough for marine archaeology. During our next expedition, in 1979, we found a total of nine wrecks. It was also a great experience for us to dive in the open sea and feel ourselves free. (Although the Russian border guard ships very often supervised us at some distance.)
Model of the Latvian icebreaker Krisjanis Valdemars
What are some of the most interesting wrecks you have found since?
When we started looking for wrecks in 1978 there was not one sunken ship in our register. The number of found and registered wrecks exceeds many hundreds today. We've located many warships from WW I and II, submarines, icebreakers, and a great number of different cargo vessels, as well as different sailing ships from the 18th century. The oldest one is a fragment of a Hanseatic cog (the only cog ever found in the Eastern Baltic), but we've found ships from the 15th and 16th centuries too. Finding the wreck of ironclad Russalka in 2003, which was lost for 110 years, was a remarkable achievement for us, especially in an emotional aspect.
What about Russalka made such an emotional impact on you?
I grew up passing by the Russalka monument in Tallinn, which was created by the sculptor Amandus Adamson, a fellow Estonian. The angel on top of the monument seems to be waving to the lost warship. For me it was so spiritual. After practicing for 25 years in the field of marine research I felt ready to find this important wreck.
The Estonian luxury ship Vironia
What period of Baltic history most interests you?
The most interesting period of Baltic and Estonian maritime history for me is 13th century or the Estonian Viking period. I would very much like to see a vessel from that period. Today I know that such a vessel is impossible to find in the open sea. It could only be excavated on land.
Why does the Viking period interest you so much?
The Estonian Viking period was really the height of our prehistoric seafaring. At that time, Estonians got really experienced in seamanship and navigation.
I understand you just returned from the sea, what were you working on?
During last two weeks the Mare was especially successful. We managed to recognize two important wrecks for Latvians and Estonians. The first of them is the historical Latvian icebreaker Krisjanis Valdemars. The second is the Estonian luxury passenger ship Vironia, which was expropriated from the owners in 1940 and used as Red Navy's staff vessel later on. The ship was hit by a mine in 1941 and went down with about 1,300 people onboard. We were looking for her for many years and finally found the wreck. Both wrecks are lying at a depth of between 90 and 100 meters.
What sites do you think you and your team will be diving on during the next few seasons?
During this and next season, we will continue research in the area of the former WW II Juminda minefield in the central part of Gulf of Finland. We've already found 42 sunken ships there, including the Vironia.
Are there any ships you particularly want to locate?
There are many vessels that I would like to discover, among others the Estonian submarine Kalev, which was incorporated into Red Navy in 1940 and lost by the Russians in Gulf of Finland in 1941.
Does the Kalev has any special meaning for the Estonian people?
Before the last war, two modern submarines Lembit and Kalev were built for Estonian Navy in Barrow-in-Furness shipyard in Great Britain. Lembit survived the war and is on display in the Estonian Maritime Museum today. But Kalev is resting somewhere on the bottom of Gulf of Finland. I feel that she is waiting for us to come.