A Nazi Shipwreck That Sank 80-Years Ago Is Leaking Toxic Chemicals Into The Ocean

According to researchers, a Nazi shipwreck that sank in the North Sea in 1942 is still polluting the seafloor around it, with sea life in the area appearing to show signs of adapting to the wreckage.

Sonar image showing the wreck of the John Mahn on the ocean floor
Sonar image showing the wreck of the John Mahn on the ocean floor

The Nazi patrol boat was sunk by British warplanes in the North Sea in 1942, yet according to recent research, even after 80 years have passed, the wreck is still leaking hazardous chemicals into the ocean.


On October 18, Frontiers in Marine Science published a study showing that chemicals from the historic shipwreck are leaking into the North Sea - including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from its fuel, heavy metals, and traces of explosives - all of which are said to be effecting the geochemistry and microbiology of the seafloor where it now rests; researchers have hinted that thousands of wartime wrecks in the North Sea, between the European continent and Britain, are posing a similar threat to the marine environment.


A researcher at the Flanders Marine Institute told Live Science: "The heavy metals can come from various sources - the metalwork inside the wreck itself can be a source of metal ions, as well as the fuel (coal), paint, and lubricants.


"The PAHs and explosives are more clearly linked to the cargo of fossil fuels and munitions."


Mr De Rijcke, project leader at the Flanders Marine Institute in Belgium said that the wreck of the V-1302 John Mahn was selected to be studied due to its position in the North Sea, which gives average hydrological conditions for the coast of Flanders; it is away from shipping lanes, with good visibility and at a reachable depth.



Another reason for the study was that the John Mahn was known to contain a large quantity of munitions, which had been seen by recreational divers.


The study was launched to try and ascertain if such shipwrecks were affecting the microbial communities and surrounding seafloor, giving researchers an insight into the threats posed to the environment by this type of wreckage.


History Of The John Mahn


The John Mahn began life as a German fishing trawler that first set sail in 1927, however, after World War II started it was transferred to the German navy - called the "Kriegsmarine" under the Nazis - and was classed as a "vorpostenboot", or patrol boat, with the designation V-1302.


The boat was based out of the occupied Dutch port of Rotterdam, and in February 1942 served in Operation Cerberus, which was a major naval operation that was also known as the "Channel Dash" - as part of a convoy escorting the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, and the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst through the English Channel to various German ports.


On February 12, 1942, the V-1302 John Mahn was sunk by British bombers - resulting in 12 crew members being killed and a further 26 being rescued by German ships in the vicinity.


The wreck now lies off the coast of Belgium at approximately 115 feet, in the North sea.


De Rijcke said: "The munitions and fuel found on this wreck were in common use across all Kriegsmarine ships.


"A more heavily-armed destroyer or cruiser with the same munitions would be worth investigating, as our results show that the munition casings can be corroded through."


Chemicals Leaking Into The Ocean


In July 2020, researchers took samples directly from the steel hull of the wreck and the surrounding sea floor, these samples have been kept frozen ever since.


The study showed that while many of the chemicals were hazardous, after 80 years beneath the ocean, they were all below toxic levels, De Rijcke added: "At these concentrations, they are all harmless."



The ship's coal bunker showed the highest level of metals such as copper and nickel, while the highest concentrations of PAHs were discovered in samples taken closest to the vessel itself.


It was noted that a high level of fish, crabs, and other crustaceans, as well as marine plants, appear to use the wrecks as artificial reefs.


The study showed how microorganisms on and around the wreck had adapted to the leaking chemicals and metals of the vessel, and some were even using them as food.


De Rijcke said: "We see an increase of PAH-degrading bacteria near the coal bunker, indicating that some bacteria are benefitting from the availability of this chemical as a resource."


The study was launched as part of a project aimed as assessing the environment risks from the many sunken wrecks that are sitting at the bottom of the ocean, allowing governments the information to prioritize the most hazardous wrecks for quick inspection.


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