Toronto Star

One big game of minesweepe­r


The waters of Tallinn Bay off the shore of Estonia’s capital are usually teeming with boats. But on a recent day, the boats stayed huddled near shore as a military diver slipped beneath the surface of the bay.

After a 90-second descent through opaque green water, Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class Imre Alljarv halted next to a tubular black object — a Second World War-era mine containing enough explosives to sink one of the cruise ships that frequently pass by. He placed explosive charges of his own around the mine, then headed back up toward the sunlight.

A few minutes later, Alljarv set off his charges, turning the mine into a plume of water, sediment and metal that rocketed into the air. One down, 80,000 or so to go. That’s roughly how many mines are still floating in the Baltic Sea. “It’s unbelievab­le how many mines there still are,” said Cmdr. Peeter Ivask, the head of Estonia’s navy. “Our mission here will last decades.”

After the Second World War, the Allies decided to dump 300,000 tonnes of munitions into the ocean, which appeared to be the safest and most easily accessible disposal ground. But some of the weapons — including landmines containing mustard gas — were simply dropped into the Baltic and North seas rather than being taken to faraway dump sites.

No area of the Baltic is more heavily mined than the waters near Tallinn. During the Second World War, the city was the gateway to St. Petersburg — then called Leningrad — and the Soviet Union’s Baltic Fleet. The Estonian government estimates that there are up to 50,000 mines hidden in the seabed nearby.

The Estonian navy’s primary peacetime mission consists of cleaning up what the Germans and Russians left behind. But it has only three small minehuntin­g vessels for the task — and merely 300 sailors in the entire force. “Sometimes, when we have U.S. destroyers visiting the bay, there are more American soldiers on board than our country has sailors,” said 2nd Lt. Karl Baumeister, a navy spokespers­on.

The Estonian navy also has remote-controlled vehicles that can investigat­e and detonate mines. But Alljarv prefers to head to the bottom himself, even though conditions in the Baltic Sea are rarely ideal. Visibility is sometimes no more than a few inches, especially as the sea heats up during the summer. “Usually we work as if we were blindfolde­d,” Alljarv said.

Even though the mines remain a potentiall­y fatal threat, dealing with them daily has helped him shake off some of his initial fears. “I’m not really nervous anymore. I actually think they’re exciting,” Alljarv said.

Others share his enthusiasm. During an annual countermin­ing operation that brings together many Baltic and western European navies, there’s an unofficial competitio­n to see who can clear the most ordnance from the water.

These days, Baumeister said, the Germans are usually winning.

 ?? TOOMAS TUUL FOCUS/UIG ?? The Estonian government estimates there are up to 50,000 mines hidden in the seabed near Tallinn.
TOOMAS TUUL FOCUS/UIG The Estonian government estimates there are up to 50,000 mines hidden in the seabed near Tallinn.

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