I looked out over the right hand side of the small fishing vessel, as I clung to the handrail. Without warning my body was in momentary freefall. In an involuntary movement, I let go the contents of my stomach, set free to ride the gentle swell of the North Sea.
‘Ugh,’ was all I could manage after the violence of my brief but colourful outburst. I glanced to see if the skipper had noticed my indiscretion. Jonas was in the wheelhouse, occupied with charts or navigation or whatever skippers of fishing vessels do, as they leave port. Two days before, as I made the booking, he had referred to his vessel as a Whitby Cobbler, named Maisy. To be honest, as long as it floated I didn’t really care much what it was. All I knew was that we had successfully cleared Whitby Harbour and had now lurched vertically into the North Sea, bound on a northeasterly heading.
‘Look at the horizon and you’ll be fine,’ a smoky voiced boomed from the wheelhouse.
‘Bollocks,’ I muttered.
Despite the water looking pleasantly flat from the harbour side, we now bobbed up and down, rolled side to side with the gentle swell. There was a slight, warm breeze blowing across my face: this and staring at the horizon seemed to be helping. Luckily for both of us yesterday’s storm had blown itself out. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for, more than a week now. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on what I was doing out here and exactly what I expected to find.
‘Miss Fletcher?’ For a moment it seemed as though he was talking to someone else. Jonas had finally emerged from his cramped wheelhouse, clutching a navigation chart. He was a compact bundle of cable-knit, oilskins, leathery features and grey tousled hair, topped off with a navy beanie cap. I was already lost in the romance and the mal de mer of the endless, open water. I quickly regained what composure I could muster, brushing hair from my eyes.
‘Yes?’ I managed. At least he had been kind enough to ignore my earlier reflexive response to an unfamiliar sensation.
‘Are you sure these co-ordinates are right, as there’s nothing out there these days?’ Jonas questioned, in a heavy Wearside accent whilst pointing at his chart.
‘Positive. They’re from a very reliable source and I’d trust them with my life,’ I replied. ‘To the platform we head,’ I added, in more of a dramatic manner than I had intended.
‘Okay then. If you’re sure? Then that’s where we’re going.’ Jonas started to turn and head back to his wheelhouse.
‘I am. By the way, call me Bella. ‘Miss Fletcher’ seems a bit formal on such a small boat.’
‘She may be small, Bella,’ Jonas sounded affronted and looked around, ‘but Maisy has everything I need.’ He obviously felt the need to defend his beloved vessel from any unintentional slur.
Jonas gave the nearest piece of his vessel an affectionate pat and returned to his open-backed and cramped wheelhouse. He increased the speed of the engine. It took a while for the boat to pick up any further momentum through the water. I imagined him saying under his breath, “Go on old girl, show her what you can do, my little beauty... .” I think I liked Jonas. He said what he meant and didn’t say it too often. We had first met as a ‘friend of a friend’ a few times, so when I needed to charter a boat at very short notice, he was my first (and only) choice. Thankfully, he had remembered at least who I was friends with, and hadn’t needed that much persuading.
After a few minutes of staring blankly at the far horizon, I moved forward and approached Jonas’ hideout.
Two days before I had received the first hard, tangible evidence of my investigation: a small gem of information regarding what I believed, were two connected disappearances.
The first was that of a mysterious, wet cargo vessel flying under what seemed like an ever-changing flag of convenience, carrying an equally mysterious (and probably legally-dubious) load. The MV Brightest Star was last heard of three weeks ago heading westbound out of the East German port of Travemunde. Officially it had not been heard of since but I had received information of sightings of the vessel around the northeast Scottish coastline heading south, slowly and erratically, over the last few weeks. It was obvious that the vessel’s operators didn’t want any undue attention. The MV Brightest Star seemed to have established a nonsensical pattern of movement to evade any detection. In addition, she would also put down anchor after nightfall and be on her way before the next daybreak. There had been no sightings of the vessel at all for the last four days. The final one was of the merchant vessel heading south past Eyemouth, north of Berwick. Nothing since. I wasn’t surprised, especially with the storm yesterday.
The second disappearance was the sudden departure the night before last, of a significant population of gulls and assorted wildlife from an area of the Northeast Yorkshire coast, around a once-thriving fishing village called Staithes. Apparently this was unusual enough for word to get back to me, which is quite a way down anyone’s chain of information. My source said that the locals were really spooked and that they claimed that this ‘event’ was almost certainly a harbinger of doom. Old fishermans’ wives tales? Possibly, but it seemed to fit in with my hypothesis. And anyway, I don’t believe in co-incidences.
So these were the reasons behind my trip. In some ways this boat journey was the culmination of months of work and covert investigations. What I hoped to find, all the way out here, I believed would help me piece together a whole mystery I had been chasing since February of this year. ‘It had better,’ I muttered to myself, ‘...or I’ve just wasted a third of 1987.’
Moving stealthily forward whilst swaying from side to side I enquired, ‘Any idea how long it will take to get there, now we’re clear of the harbour?’
Jonas turned around. I could see him quickly doing the calculations, ‘Should be there in a little under three hours. Quite a swell on today, which is slowing us down a fair bit. Good job Maisy has a full lighting rig for night trawling, as it looks like you’ll need it to search for whatever it is you’re hoping to find.’
I simply smiled and nodded.
Our conversation over, Jonas turned back to the wheel. As I stood and watched him, he constantly flicked his gaze between Maisy’s compass and charts, keeping his best friendon a true course with just a slight trim every now and then. I left Jonas to what he did best and went back to the where my gear was stowed.
As we got nearer our destination, I thought about what Jonas had said earlier about there being nothing out there, where we were heading. As I drifted in and out of reflection, my eyes surveyed the emptiness of the North Sea. If it wasn’t for the skipper’s continual updates I would have lost all notion of time itself, as apart from the movement of sun, there were no reference points out here.
Something nagged at the edge of my consciousness. I eventually realised it was Jonas. He was standing just outside of the boat’s wheelhouse, calling my name... ‘Bella? Bella? Are you asleep?’
I quickly came to. ‘Sorry Jonas, I was miles away... What is it?’
He looked at me, the way a parent looks at an itinerant teenager, ‘I was saying that we’re nearly at your co-ordinates.’
‘How near is nearly?’ I asked, now feeling wide awake but also the cold chill of an eastern wind.
‘Oh...about ten minutes or so. I’m going to rein the old girl in bit just in case any of that old platform has broken away, especially in the last storm.’ He added, ‘And if you’re right and there is anything around here to find, we’ll damn well find it, even if it takes all night.’
Despite his dogged reassurances, I could tell that he wasn’t wholly convinced that there was anything out here. He headed back inside, to his compass and his charts.
I was much more aware of that cold chill, now that I had stood up. The daylight was fading; behind us, the sky was turning a fiery orange and ahead, growing darker. I took a thick, cable-knit jumper out of my bag, added it to what I was already wearing and went forward.
Jonas had seen me coming and had stepped fully out of the wheelhouse, although he kept a steady hand on the wheel itself. Before I could speak, he started.
‘I remember the construction and siting of the Doggerland platform.’ Jonas looked around as if hoping to see the platform itself, even though we were still apparently a way off. He turned back to face me. ‘There can’t be much of it left now. It was decommissioned soon after it went in to use, from what I recall. Since then, I’ve never seen any activity out here. Most of the remaining structure is below the surface anyway: been turned over to the fishes and the crabs. That’s why no-one comes out here: too easy to get holed below the waterline, if you’re not careful.’
‘I knew you would know all about it, as there can’t be many landmarks out here.’ I smiled and continued, ‘The Doggerland exploratory distribution pipe inspection platform, to give it its full title, opened in 1984 to enable the construction and inspection of the initial gas distribution pipelines, for the very productive Amber Gasfields. Within six months the gas distribution was fully automated, including the inspection regimes. So by the end of 1985 the platform was already being decommissioned. Despite being redundant, the platform itself stayed put. It was seen as too expensive to fully dismantle and so, as you say, it was one of the first man-made structures in the North Sea to be designated as an eco-friendly abandoned structure. Much to Greenpeace’s annoyance. By all accounts it’s now seen as an ecological model for other potential sites. Or at least it was until the other night, if both my source and my suspicions are right.’ As I finished, I realised I had been giving a bit of a lecture, and Jonas’ eyes looked a little glazed over.
Even after I had stopped talking, Jonas still looked a bit distant. I must have just bored him rigid, I thought and went to apologise but something in his eyes stopped me. Jonas had a fixed stare, which sliced right through me. His eyes were focussed on something over my right shoulder. I turned around, away from Jonas and followed the track of his eyeline.
My eyes quickly adjusted to long-distance. I could just about make out a patch of water which seemed to be...boiling... there was no other description I could think of.
‘What is it?’ I asked with a slight trepidation.
‘That Bella, is where your platform is, or rather should have been.’
Twenty minutes later, as we approached the location of the Doggerland platform, we crept forward at quarter-speed; Jonas was rightfully being cautious. I could increasingly make out a broiling mass of molten metal, accompanied by wisps of a cloying, sweetened smell. It conjured up a match from my olfactory store: a couple years of working in a biochemistry lab had provided quite a few memories, not all of them overly pleasant. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, more commonly known as PAH. I was a bit mystified by its presence here though, in such noticeable concentrations. Because of the uncertainty of what we were witnessing and unlucky enough to be downwind, Jonas insisted that we each wear safety goggles and a breathing respirator. He said he had these on board, leftover from last year’s clean up of a coastal tanker collision, just off Helgoland. One of the islands off the German North Sea coast, apparently. I made a mental note to question Jonas further on this. Curious though. Maybe our paths were not that far apart. Again, I don’t believe in co-incidences.
‘Be careful’, Jonas warned as we passed through the fumes and billowing steam. We pulled alongside the rear of what was left of the Doggerland platform. I had moved to the back end of the fishing boat.
‘I always am,’ I replied. In fact, these days, that wasn’t strictly true. Since embarking on my new direction in life as a campaigning journalist (at least that’s what I liked to see myself as, others were not so generous), I had begun to take some ridiculous risks. Chartering a boat at a minute’s notice, and racing off to the possible site of a deliberate sabotage and major environmental crime, being the present case in question. In my previous existence, when I still thought that science held all the answers and could offer me purpose and direction, I was notoriously risk-adverse. Looking back on it, it was amazing I even managed to get out of bed in the mornings.
We tied up Maisy (fore and aft, as Jonas put it), on one of the steel edge barriers which still looked sturdy enough. The platform was a great deal bigger than I had imagined. Big enough to land a sizable transport helicopter on, and some. Which made perfect sense if I had thought about it.
‘I’d better stay close by to the old girl: she’s our only way back,’ Jonas seemed calm, which was reassuring. I was buzzing from a mixture of excitement and fear; it was fortunate for me that I had chosen such a wise old sea-dog as my expedition guide. Armed with an iron-hooked mooring pole, he turned away to look out for any chunks of metal thrown out from the boiling sea which could be headed our way. Skilfully, Jonas had positioned us between what remained of the platform and the main site of chemical activity. ‘Don’t get too close to the core of it and don’t be too long’, he added.
‘I won’t, on both accounts,’ I shouted back as I jumped off Maisy and raced across the long-abandoned, irreparably damaged platform, my upturned camera slung across my back.
Even before I had reached the edge of the Doggerland platform, despite the goggles my eyes were streaming. After a few seconds of this I removed them as I couldn’t see a thing in front of me. Not one of my wisest decisions. Quickly wiping them round with my gloved fingers, I hastily put them back on. My eyes felt puffy but at least I could see again. Although my journalistic instincts were trying to get the most of the situation I found myself in, my scientific reflexes was starting to kick in, thankfully. Without even thinking about it, my brain started to analyse the sensory information available. The aromatic hydrocarbons were really strong here and I suspected that this was the cause of my ocular discomfort. There was another smell, or was it a taste? Whatever it was it just sat beneath the sweet pungency of the hydrocarbons. What was it? Two things hit me simultaneously: that tang was hydrogen fluoride gas and with it, the evidence that Jonas’ protective equipment wasn’t up to too much protecting. I panicked. Without thinking I took as deep a breath as my respirator would allow me. In any normal laboratory situation this would probably have been the worst thing I could have done. Out here, if I wanted to get anything useful out of this ‘field trip’, I didn’t have much choice. Holding onto the toxic breath, I rushed towards the boiling sea at the edge of the doomed platform.
Seeing the images in front of me, I couldn’t believe them. Bringing my camera around, I started shooting off the roll of film until it clicked empty. Another thirty seconds and I’d have to draw in another lethal breath. My throat and chest were burning but I wasn’t sure whether this was from the cocktail of chemicals trapped in my respiratory system, or the carbon dioxide building up inside my lungs. Either way, if it didn’t get out soon, it would be the end of me.
After seeing as much as possible, I turned and raced back to the other end of the platform, my lungs bursting with pain. As I approached Jonas, who stood firm on Maisy’s bobbing deck, I could just make out the shock on his face, even behind his goggles and respirator.
As I reached him, I exhaled and started to collapse in a heap, all in one fluid movement. I could see the metal platform rushing up like the end of a tunnel approaching fast, whilst my lungs screamed for air and then, nothing.
“Haaarrrr...” I awoke violently with a sudden, rasping exhalation of breath. I opened my eyes with a determined effort, despite the pain. Along with my lungs and throat, they stung and they were dried and cracked. It felt as though I had spent an afternoon in the desiccator cabinet of my old ecology lab. I shivered, despite being tightly wrapped up and the warmth of the early evening solstice sun bathing my face. In spite of being surrounded by the stuff, judging by the gentle rolling motion, I felt that all the moisture had been sucked from my body. Blinking my eyes continuously, I tried to stimulate some lubrication: slowly the ‘ground glass’ feeling receded.
Turning my head slightly, I could see Jonas in the wheelhouse. He looked anxious. Guessing that was down to me, I tried to attract his attention. He must have caught the slight movement of my head. Jonas locked the wheel into position and rushed over to where I lay on deck.
‘Don’t try and speak,’ I could hear the trepidation in his voice. Jonas reached behind my head, ‘Here, have a sip of this, if you can?’ He held a glass jar in his hand.
I blinked my eyes slowly, to acknowledge him. He smiled cautiously, lifted my head up and placed the jar against my lips. I could taste cold, domestic tap water, its sharp chlorination heightened in my present sensitive state. Sipping gently, I had to fight the temptation to sink the whole jar in one go. At least I could still make rational decisions.
Shaking my head, I mouthed ‘thanks’. Jonas smiled again and seemed a bit more relaxed. He placed my head back down onto whatever cushioning was behind me. It felt like a coarse blanket; it was soft and warm, and I didn’t really care if it was just an old fishing net. Closing my eyes and drifting off again, I fell back into the maelstrom of the platform, recalling my all-too vivid experiences. I could feel Jonas’ presence standing guard over me, blocking out the glare of the descending sun. This brought comfort and soon I slipped into a deep, exhausted sleep, away from dark memories.
As I came to, this time in a more sedate manner, there was a noticeable chill in the air. With some persuasion, my eyes prised themselves apart. From a slightly elevated position, I could see that the last of the sun was slipping down over the horizon. How long had I been asleep? Looking up, the whole sky seemed to be on fire. Free from any pollution haze the base of the departing sun slowly seethed, its reflection creating a deep crimson canopy which unfurled out ahead of us, back towards the horrors and delights of Whitby Bay.
Jonas must have placed a large, pungent oilskin over me whilst I’d been asleep. I stirred and felt stronger than my last venture out into consciousness. Sitting up awkwardly, I managed a feeble wave at Jonas. It felt as though I had been at the centre of a large-scale chemistry experiment. After a fleeting flashback of running on empty, I started checking for my camera. This probably contained the only verifiable evidence of what we had witnessed out there at the Doggerland platform. I would guess that the platform itself, the fledgling marine colony and the MV Brightest Star were now just memories at best; unfortunately, the latter could yet prove to be an aquatic nightmare-in-waiting. My camera was where it had always been, its strap still slung around my neck.
As we headed into the darkness and left behind the blood-red twilight, Jonas illuminated Maisy’s navigation lights. I held the glass jar in my hand and had to resist the temptation to drink it all at once. Jonas had said small sips, so I tried my best. The sudden illumination made me jump in a half-hearted sort of way, luckily I had a firm hold on the jar. Different sections of the vessel were now strategically bathed in green, red or white pools of light, dispersing the night and its demons. I had never been on such a small vessel in the dark. The silence, the space, the different contours of the night-time: blues, blue-blacks, the deepest blacks of the sea speckled with clean, white spray, all added to a feeling of isolation and helplessness. It was an eerie sensation and not an all-together unpleasant one. In a different situation with different company, it could almost be described as ‘romantic’. Maybe.
After being settled for a while, some of my strength returned. I wrapped the oilskin tightly around me; its oversized nature a comfort. After a few wobbles I found my ‘sea-legs’ once again and approached Jonas, at home in his wheelhouse.
He smiled at me, ‘I thought I’d lost you there, more than a few times. You were slipping in and out of consciousness. The only thing I could think of was to try and get back to harbour as quick as the old girl,’ he gave the wheelhouse an affectionate pat, ‘could safely carry us. We should be back in Whitby in under an hour.’
‘Thanks for looking after me,’ I said humbly. Jonas just smiled. ‘What happened out there? One minute I was running back to the boat; the next I was waking up with a view of the sky, and a feeling that all the moisture had been sucked out of my body?’
‘Well, I was hoping you could tell me, lass? All I could see from where I was standing was the sea boiling away, smoke and fumes rising from the surface of the water and you on a suicide mission frantically taking photos, on the edge of it all. I was thinking at that point, I was going home alone and how on earth was I going to explain your disappearance?’ Jonas’ relief was evident in his gentle, lyrical voice.
‘How long was I unconscious for?’
‘The first time was for about forty-five minutes, after I got you back onto the old girl. Had to leave you on deck where you lay I’m afraid, and get out from the platform before it went under. It wasn’t until we were well clear of that whole mess that I could try and make you comfortable. I removed your respirator and goggles and you looked a right state, sorry but you did. Your eyes were all puffy and swollen, along with your lips and nostrils. It was the shallow breathing which really scared me though.’ Jonas’ recollection played out on his face, which visibly paled as he talked.
I must have looked shocked with any hint of returned colour draining, when Jonas quickly added, ‘You look fine now, obviously the main puffiness and swelling was just a temporary effect of whatever was out there.’ After a short pause, he added, ‘Do you have any idea what it was?’
‘Unfortunately, yes. A very clear idea. But can I come back to that? How long in total was I out for?’ I asked, eager to establish the extent of the effects of my exposure.
‘Alright.’ Jonas paused. ‘As I said, the first time for about forty-five minutes, the second, about four hours,’ he said bluntly.
‘Four hours!’ I was shocked enough to repeat it. That would explain the subsidence of the stiffness and swelling, I suppose.
‘I wouldn’t read anything into the time you spent out; it’s just the shock. I’ve seen my fair share of that over the years. Once your breathing was back to normal, I wasn’t worried anymore. Just keeping you warm, that was the main priority. And water, of course.’
‘Thanks for the oilskin. And for getting me back on the boat, in the first place,’ I pulled the faded yellow cape closer around me, as if to emphasise my gratitude. Jonas just smiled. Collecting my thoughts for a few minutes, I returned to staring out across the dark, vast sea. I presumed Jonas had gone back to steering Maisy.
How much do I tell him, partly for his own sake and partly because this is my investigation, which I’ve spent months on? Jonas broke in on my silence, ‘If you’d rather not tell me what went on out there, that’s fine.’ Jonas had been standing behind me waiting patiently for an explanation. He added, ‘If it’s that bad, I think I’d rather not know.’
He saved me. He needs to know. I am being paranoid but if anything happened to me, at least someone else should know what this is all about.
I drew a deep breath, which rattled my windpipe much more than it should have, and started, ‘It is bad, very bad. You have a right to know, even just for the reason that you and I were the only witnesses to this violent, criminal act. What makes it even worse is that it was most likely helped along by some tin-pot administration somewhere.’
Jonas looked solemn. He returned to the wheelhouse, placed Maisy back onto a normal cruising speed, came back, nodded and listened.
‘What we’ve just seen and what these photos,’ I touched the outline of my camera under the oilskin, ‘will hopefully prove is just what happens in a world where a combination of systematic and cynical abuse of maritime regulations, an acceptance of illegal and unethical practices, and the exploitation of the ‘flags of convenience’ regulations, all come together to result in one explosive mixture.’
‘The destruction of the Doggerland platform?’ Jonas offered.
‘The loss of that platform may only be the tip of the damage. It wasn’t just the man-made structure I’m talking about, which at the end of the day is only scrap metal. At a local level, it was the establishment of a new marine colony, on and around that platform base. The first stages of colonisation were already underway, as cold water coral or Lophilia pertusa, had started to be observed there in significant quantities. For a change, the oil and gas industries providing something beneficial for the seas: I know this sounds a bit ‘green’ and a bit ‘hippy-ish’ but it’s not about that at all. I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you that without the establishment of new colonies to provide a firm basis for an ever-changing marine ecology in the North Sea, the food chains on which you and others rely on for making a living, will have simply collapsed in a hundred years time.’ I could feel myself going off an ecological tangent, which wasn’t a help to anyone. Rein it in, you’re not a scientist anymore. Less of the preaching and more of the practical action: that’s what it’s all about now.
Jonas continued to look at me, his face blank but his eyes seemed concerned. I wasn’t surprised. Even I was questioning myself, philosophically speaking. Unable to tell if he was viewing me sympathetically because of my present condition, or he was genuinely interested, I decided to continue on anyway. ‘The main catalyst for what happened out there at the platform was a small tanker, the MV Brightest Star. Origin unknown, sailing out of Travemunde on the Baltic Sea, flying under an ever-changing number of east African and Middle Eastern flags of convenience.’
Over the next twenty minutes I gave Jonas everything I had on the transit of the errant tanker, the various communiqués I had in tracking its progress over the last four months, the history of its journey, my theory that the captain had been waiting for a storm and a convenient place to set down, unload his crew, arrange transport and then scuttle the toxic vessel and finally, how this all tied into the disappearance of the seagulls in and around Staithes. Jonas knew Staithes well. He was in fact a Staitheser himself,born and bred. He seemed to take a keener interest in my story when the disappearance of the gulls and wildlife from his home town was mentioned. If I have to be honest, up until that point, Jonas didn’t look particularly engaged in my plight. After this was revealed though, I seemed to have his wholehearted attention. So I took the opportunity to explain further about how I thought both disappearances were connected, along with my theories of animals in their natural habitats having a heightened instinctual reaction to impending danger, even if it was happening tens of miles away. From studies undertaken in my previous professional life, I had found that these ‘flight’ mechanisms served the animals successfully in helping them avoid unnecessary exposure to danger. I explained to Jonas that these instinctive reactions were commonly associated (not always correctly) with naturally-occurring events or disasters such as tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes, tidal surges and flooding. However, I added, there was a growing body of evidence to support the theory that non-domestic animals can detect rather than predict in any prescient way, changes in natural environments. This could sometimes be minutes or even hours before they become noticeable to their domesticated animal and human counterparts, even with our sophisticated technology.
Jonas let me carry on without interruption, and listened intently to what I had to say.
When I had finally finished, there was a thoughtful silence for a few seconds and then Jonas said in a measured fashion, ‘Let me suppose that what you’re saying has some truth to it. If so, then I’ve got two main questions.’
‘Okay. Let’s suppose.’
‘Firstly, what was that tanker carrying which caused its disintegration and the destruction of an oil platform? I mean, I couldn’t even tell there had been a vessel there, never mind a light tanker probably six times the length of old Maisy here? And secondly, what could those seabirds sense all the way back in Steers, which posed such a danger to them? If it’s a danger to a flock of seagulls tens of miles away, then what else is it a danger to?’
Jonas looked at me expectantly for the answers. His gaze was clear and accusatory, almost as if I were a part of this potential disaster or at the very least, that I should have done something earlier to stop it from happening. Talk about shooting the messenger, I mused.
After a few moments of deliberation, I decided to give it a go. ‘Being a fisherman, I don’t need to tell you that animals can sense things which we humans are oblivious to: changes in magnetism, ultra-high and low frequency sounds, light spectra unseen by our eyes, visualising microwave radiation... the list goes on. I suspect that the results of those chemical reactions we were just caught up in, may have been in increasing concentrations, heading towards the nearest point of land to here...’
‘Which just happens to be Steers...,’ Jonas interjected.
I slowly nodded and continued, ‘...which just happens to be Staithes, yes. It’s an onshore north-westerly tonight; the tail-end of yesterday’s storm blowing itself out. It might have just been the gulls got the slightest taste on the storm winds, of what was happening out here and their preservation instincts took over. Possibly the rest of the resident wildlife took flight too: some sort of shared, localised community instinct? I don’t know even if such a thing exists, but it’s possible.’
‘Okay. For now, that takes care of why the gulls and the other wildlife may have disappeared. What about my first question, do you have an explanation for that too?’ Jonas was growing frustrated.
I looked at him and tried not to judge too much, as this was his hometown we were talking about, and presumably people he knew and held dear.
‘I’m not going to bullshit you Jonas,’ looking him squarely in the eyes. ‘From what I experienced and what you witnessed, I’m fairly sure I know roughly what happened out here.’
‘And that is?’
I took another deep, rattling breath. ‘According to my research, the Star was carrying a lethal combination totalling a thousand tonnes of Organochlorines, including: polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, which when released into the food chain can have a destructive and devastating effect on an ecosystem; PAHs or Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, one compound of which forms one of the carcinogens found in tobacco smoke; the toxic biocide TBT or tributyl tin, present in anti-fouling paint, which can cause deformities in oysters and sex changes in marine snails such as periwinkles and dogwhelks; dioxins, some of the most toxic, cancer-causing chemicals known and which have no ‘safe’ levels, just think ‘Agent Orange’, and finally but not least, hydrogen fluoride. This last compound, 2HF, would have converted immediately to hydrofluoric acid or HF, releasing hydrogen fluoride gas upon exposure to liquid water. Most likely this was responsible for the acidic atmosphere around the platform as the 2HF came into direct contact with the sea. I imagine that the hydrogen fluoride must have been held in the vessel’s interior tanks and only released as the result of other chemical reactions eating through the bulkhead, after it was scuttled. Otherwise we wouldn’t have found anything left of the platform, by the time we had got here.’
I let the dead weight of this hang sadly in the air between us.
‘Dear god.’ Jonas was clearly shaken. ‘Where did it all come from?’ he asked.
‘Anywhere unscrupulous companies are illegally dismantling decommissioned oil and cargo tankers. It could have come from any number of states and regions in Africa, the sub-continent, Asia, even from behind the Iron Curtain, or so it’s been rumoured. Truth is, this vessel probably picked up additional ‘cargo’ en-route for sizeable cash payments, as it toured the world’s poorest ports. It’s been on the move for at least four years, hopping from place to place, never unloading its initial cargo of plastic garden furniture from Taiwan. This more than likely was dumped overboard shortly after leaving Koahsiung Harbour. And that’s not to mention the oil the Star was carrying in its tanks as both ballast and as a fuel supply,’ I added, just to complete the full ugly picture for Jonas.
An uncomfortable silence followed, briefly.
‘So, these chemicals and their reactions are the cause of your injuries?’ Jonas enquired sympathetically.
‘More than likely. I could smell the sweetness of the PAHs and PCBs. I could certainly feel the effect when I started to breathe in traces of what I suspect, was hydrogen fluoride gas. Also, the dryness of the air indicated a high concentration of a hygroscopic or moisture absorbing solution, something like hydrogen fluoride. If it wasn’t these exact compounds then it was something not too far away from them on the Periodic Table,’ I replied, rather dolefully. I felt like the original ‘harbinger of doom’ to Jonas and to his fellow Staithesers.
‘I’m not sure I understand everything you’ve just said, but I get the gist of it.’ Jonas looked downcast.
I jumped suddenly as a crackling sound from the wheelhouse broke through the atmosphere. I’m not normally the nervous type but it was so quiet out here in the darkness and seeming tranquillity of the North Sea.
‘It’s okay, that’s just the Harbour Master. We must be nearing the entrance channel. It’s standard practice to send a short burst of static for approaching vessels of a night time. Sometimes people fall asleep on the job,’ Jonas said, as he headed back to Maisy’s wheelhouse. He responded with a few clicks of his VHF handset, just to acknowledge the ‘wake-up’ call.
This burst of static had effectively brought our conversation to an end. I wondered if I had said too much. Too late now. With the oilskin wrapped tightly about me, I stared forwards to the coastline and the faint glow of harbour lights, announcing Whitby’s presence to the world.
As we headed in, the neon lights of the ruined Abbey were clear in the distance. The feted structure kept a sentinel watch over both the harbour and town below. My eyes were still tender and slightly swollen; my lids were crusted with a sticky rheum but despite this I could see fine, thankfully. Good job it’s dark. I shivered, ‘That place really gives me the creeps,’ I suddenly said out loud to no one in particular, and shivered again. An icy wind followed on behind us. Turning around, I took a deep lungful of the freshest, North Sea air: the chill soothing my increasingly sore and seemingly, uneven throat.
Jonas busied himself in the wheelhouse making sure he was guiding us back in safely. I had the feeling that he didn’t wish to know any more than what I had already told him. I walked to the front of Maisy and let the clean breeze blow over my face, as we made our way into harbour. Might as well take the chance to have a quiet moment before we land... won’t be many more opportunities once we do. With that, I closed my eyes and drifted across the surface of the dark and increasingly foreboding waters.