Northern Islands Coast


Northern Islands

Series exploring Britain's coastline. Neil Oliver discovers the story of the World War II freedom fighters who risked everything running the Shetland Bus.


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This coast might be inhospitable, but that hasn't deterred generations of invaders.

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The Vikings landed here

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and sited their capital at the harbour village of Scalloway.

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These islands feel very different from the rest of Scotland.

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They were under Norwegian rule right up until the 15th century.

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The ties to Norway are very, very strong.

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They were never stronger, though, than during the Second World War.

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In 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Norway.

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Shetland's neighbour needed help and the North Sea offered a lifeline to Norwegian resistance fighters.

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The islands became the base for a daring, secret operation - the Shetland Bus.

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The Bus was a fleet of fishing boats which smuggled people out and agents in to occupied Norway.

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Many lives were saved and many lost.

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The islanders have never forgotten the sacrifice of these men.

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The names, the age,

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when they died and the boats they were on.

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23, 28, 21, 21, just wee boys.

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Just boys.

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'Karen Anderson's father was one of the Norwegian sailors who survived.

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'At 23 years old, Kaare Iversen risked everything for his homeland.'

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So how did your dad get involved in that story?

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Dad escaped from Norway

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in 1941

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on his father's boat.

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They came across to Shetland and he was approached

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to see if he was suitable for the Shetland Bus and he was.

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Most of their missions were carried out in winter

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when the dark nights provided some cover for the 500-mile round trip across the North Sea to Norway.

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Ammunition was stored at Scalloway Castle

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while resistance fighters and refugees found shelter with the locals.

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The men became heroes. After the war, their bravery was celebrated

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in the Norwegian feature film Shetlandsgjengen, The Shetland Gang.

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It was very dangerous because they didn't know what they were going across to Norway to face.

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The weather was against them and the Norwegian fishing boats they were using weren't big.

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He said if he was captured that they all had a cyanide pill to take,

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rather than be interrogated by the Germans.

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Losses were heavy. Over 100 died in storms or German attacks.

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But many lives were saved.

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By the end of the war, more than 350 refugees had been carried to safety.

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-How much does the story of the Shetland Bus still mean to people in Shetland?

-A great deal.

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I'm very proud of my dad. Really.

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I cannot say in words how I feel about what...not only him, but what other Norwegian boys did.

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That's part of Scalloway's history. Always will be.

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These islands have provided safe refuge to many.

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Its rich, unspoilt coastline is a haven for wildlife.

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Seals are at home in these well-stocked waters

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and there is a large population of otters.

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-Welcome aboard.

-'I'm catching a ride with skipper Tom Jamieson who knows the seas off this coast.'

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-All right, Tom?

-Hello, Neil.

-What kind of wildlife is out here?

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-We've had minke whales.

-Right.

-And also killer whales.

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We never used to see killer whales. There are more of them around now.

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These waters aren't just teeming with wildlife.

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North Sea shipping passes the southern tip of Shetland on its way to the Atlantic.

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At Garths Ness, one vessel's journey would end in disaster.

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At 5.10am on the 5th of January, 1993,

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the coastguard received a distress call from the crew of an oil tanker

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whose engines had broken down ten miles off the coast of Sumburgh Head.

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Gusts of up to 97 miles an hour were driving the oil tanker Braer ashore.

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After a six-hour struggle, she ran aground.

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84,000 tonnes of toxic crude oil spewed out into the sea,

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creating the worst environmental disaster ever to hit the British coast.

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Coastguards managed to winch the crew to safety, but Shetland's wildlife was not so lucky.

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Sea bird colonies, seals, shellfish, fish hatcheries, grazing bays were all badly polluted.

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Shetland braced itself for the worst. The storm raged for almost a month,

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seriously hampering the clean-up campaign.

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But the brutal power of the waves started to work in the islanders' favour.

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Ultimately, the sea's power broke up the oil and helped clean up the shores.

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The sheer force of the pounding water acted like a giant washing machine,

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churning up the oil and dispersing it out to sea.

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These islands are constantly at the mercy of the elements.

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But on this occasion, nature came to the rescue.

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Shetland may feel like a different world to the mainland,

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but to some people, it is the mainland.

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24 miles out to sea is Fair Isle.

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Three miles long and a mile and a half wide,

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you're only ever three-quarters of a mile from the sea here.

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This is home to fewer than 80 people, many drawn here by a way of life

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that is hard to find anywhere else in the UK.

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'..thundery rain or showers, moderate or good.

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'Fair Isle, south, four or five, occasionally six, becoming variable, three or four.

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'Rain or showers, moderate with fog patches, occasionally good later.'

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'I think lots of people will know of Fair Isle from the shipping forecast.'

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12.4. 'I'm Dave Wheeler, I'm a weather observer on Fair Isle,'

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doing regular weather observations every hour of the day from six in the morning till six at night

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for 35 years now.

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12.4.

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0.1 millimetre of rain.

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'People do ask me quite frequently what the weather is going to do.'

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Tomorrow will not be too bad a day.

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I think it looks like it'll change.

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-'I hope I can give them a good service.'

-Thank you very much.

-Bye!

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'If I'm wrong, they don't hold it against me.'

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Hello, puss.

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This is the sunshine recorder.

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Hmm, no sun. Surprise, surprise!

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And we said what visibility?

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50 metres visibility, dense fog.

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We hope for a better day tomorrow.

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'Fair Isle, south, four or five, occasionally six,

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'moderate with fog patches, occasionally good later.'

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Over 67 different islands make up Orkney,

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or, as they were known to their Viking rulers, Orkneyjar - Seal Islands.

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Nowadays, the island-hopping lifestyle of the locals has led to a unique claim to fame.

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People come from all over the world to fly less than two miles between Papa Westray and Westray.

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Here we are then, wheels up, on the world's shortest scheduled flight.

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I have to say it's all going very well so far.

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This journey usually takes a couple of minutes,

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but it's been done in just 69 seconds when it made the Guinness Book of Records.

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Somebody once told me that the most dangerous part of flying is taking off and landing.

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But that's all this flight is - a take-off and a landing.

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This flight might seem extravagant, but the £14 fare is subsidised

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because it's an important link for these remote communities.

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And we're down!

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Tourism certainly adds to the traffic around Orkney,

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but 260 years ago, it was trade that dominated these waters and navigation was a nightmare.

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These islands, like the rest of the British Isles, were surrounded by largely uncharted waters.

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But in the 18th century, that was all about to change.

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Over in Kirkwall, Mark Horton is discovering how one Orcadian made our seas safer.

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In 1743, a curious advertisement turned up

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in newspapers and coffee houses throughout Britain.

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A local schoolmaster from here in Orkney, Murdoch Mackenzie,

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planned to make a really detailed chart of these treacherous waters,

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but was desperately needing sponsors to help pay for his ambitious project.

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'Orkney was the hub for North Atlantic trade routes,

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'but hazardous tides and uncharted seas meant shipwrecks were common.

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'With finance from traders and merchants,

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'Murdoch Mackenzie set about charting Orkney's coast

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'in ways that would revolutionise map-making around the world.

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'Local sailor Sandy Firth has studied Mackenzie's pioneering work.

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'He even owns a rare copy of his original survey.'

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So is this the actual folio of charts?

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Yes, one of them. That's it, the bound edition of Mackenzie's survey.

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-1750.

-1750.

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Mackenzie was the first man to start putting in these symbols.

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They indicate the nature of the bottom of the sea.

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He gives you the state of the tide at different times

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and the direction of it.

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-No-one had bothered to do that up till then?

-No.

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Mackenzie's symbols that you'll see here are still used to this day in Admiralty charts.

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I've got a good idea.

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I want to go and actually survey this bay

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and let's see if we can actually make a map using the same methods that Mackenzie used himself.

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'Mackenzie devised a method

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'of charting any position at sea by using fixed reference points on land.'

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-There we go, spot on.

-Yeah.

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-Around 69 degrees roughly.

-69 degrees.

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"A" to second lamp-post...

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'Mackenzie realised it wasn't only essential for sailors to know where they were at sea,

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'but also what hidden dangers were lurking under the water.

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'He gathered samples from the ocean floor, using a rope and lead weight covered in tallow - animal fat.'

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The tallow should pick up what's on the bottom, shouldn't it?

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-We've got the two bits of leather there.

-Two fathoms.

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Two fathoms and...

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-That looks like mud on the bottom.

-Genuine mud.

-Genuine mud, just like Mackenzie did it.

-Yeah.

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'Murdoch Mackenzie's methods changed the way we view the underwater world.

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'Over 260 years after he first charted the coast of Orkney,

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'the science of surveying he did so much to inspire has advanced to this.

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'This coastguard vessel is equipped as a state-of-the-art survey ship.

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'Rob Spillard is one of the officers whose mission is to boldly go

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'where the charts may not necessarily be reliable.'

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-You can see just to the south of Green Holm here, there's a 26-metre contour.

-Absolutely, yes.

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That's where we had an incident just a few days ago.

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A vessel grounded just off that island.

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It's done about a million pounds' worth of damage to the vessel

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and they put in a note saying the 26 metres was wrong. They claim to have grounded at 11 metres.

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We'll try and prove if the chart is right or wrong and make it safer for anybody else making the same passage.

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'This is real detective work.

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'There's an obstruction hidden out there that's already wrecked one vessel.

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'Next time, it may be fatal.'

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So how do you measure depth in the 21st century?

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As opposed to doing it with a lead line and a linesman and measuring maybe one depth every minute or two,

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we can measure several thousand depths every second.

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We send out pings of sound into the water underneath the ship and listen for their return.

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'The quicker the echo, the shallower the water.

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'By measuring return data, the team can produce a remarkably clear picture

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'of what lies below the surface.

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'This German U-Boat from the First World War was discovered on the sea bed just off Orkney.

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'But today, we're looking for something much nearer the surface -

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'an obstruction that has caused serious damage.

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'The ship is sailing back and forth over the suspicious area, gathering thousands of depth readings.'

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We're just going past where the vessel ran aground.

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On this screen, you can see all the rockiness on the starboard side of the vessel,

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-so you should see the rock as we come close to it.

-As we go over the top of the rock.

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-The depth under the keel is that figure?

-Yeah.

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As we get closer to where the vessel grounded, that will decrease as the sea bed comes up to meet us.

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When that figure goes to about five metres, that's when we've really got to run for the life jackets.

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-So the obstruction could still be out here?

-Yeah, it is quite touch and go, actually.

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'Already the soundings are showing that the charted depth of 26 metres is wrong,

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'but what we don't yet know is just how close below us these rocks are lying.'

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12, 11...

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We should be keeping our fingers crossed... 10!

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This is terrifying.

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We've gone down to 9.

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RAPID BEEPING

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'And then we find it, just 7.5 metres below us,

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'a massive rock, much closer to the surface than charted and a major risk to shipping.'

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If we had gone over that at very low tide, we'd have been very, very close to touching it.

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-So that's the structure of the rock?

-You see the crinkles and crevices. This area is made of rock.

-Amazing!

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'We're about to make a new mark on the chart of our coastal waters.

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'I'm sure Murdoch Mackenzie would have approved.'

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And really what's so amazing

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-is we could do it with this technology and it just took an afternoon to do.

-So quickly.

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With a lead line, it would have taken a long, long time to do.

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-New technology doesn't just save money, but lives too.

-Absolutely.

-A good day's work.

-We did well.

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Subtitles by Subtext for Red Bee Media Ltd 2009

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Email [email protected]

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Neil Oliver discovers the remarkable story of the World War II freedom fighters who risked everything running the Shetland Bus, a series of top secret missions into Nazi-occupied Norway.

One of the worst environmental disasters hit the coast at Garths Ness in 1993: Braer, an oil tanker, ran aground and spilt 84,000 tonnes of toxic crude oil into the sea, polluting Shetland's coastline and wildlife.

Neil takes a ride on the world's shortest scheduled flight, between Westray and Papa Westray, which provides an important link to these small communities. Mark Horton explores dangerous waters when he joins one of the world's most sophisticated survey ships on a mission to find the uncharted hazards that wreck unwary vessels in Orkney.


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