January 1993 was one of the stormiest months of the 20th century in the Northern Atlantic and also one of the wettest January’s in Scotland.
During the early hours of the 5th of January a huge oil tanker, called the Braer was crossing the north of Scotland en route from Bergen in Norway to Quebec in Canada. The ship, which was carrying around 85,000 tonnes of light crude oil, had lost power and was thought to be in no danger as it bounced along on the rough seas from a major storm system crossing the north of the country.
Initially the ship was about 10 miles south of Sumburgh Head being battered by storm force 10 to violent storm force 11 winds. At around 8.30am some of the ships crew were taken off by helicopter, leaving 20 people onboard.
As it approached 9am it looked like the ship was going to smash into the rocks on Horse Island at the south-west of West Voe of Sumburgh, however luckily due to local variations in the water currents the ship missed the island and continued to flounder in the heavy seas.
The ship was now headed for the Bay of Quendale where an attempt was made to attach a tow and pull the ship to safety were made, but failed. By 11.19am the Braer was reported as grounded at Garths Ness and oil began to drain from the vast tanker.
Since the oil the Braer was carrying was a light crude compared to the typical heavier North Sea oils it was broken up easier by the action of the waves and evaporation. Even though the situation could have been worse more than 1,500 sea birds died along with several thousand pounds of commercially farmed salmon, 10 gray seals,
and 4 otters. Two of the otters were run over by a camera crew covering the spill, however, and the other two probably died of old age.
The rescue effort of animals was hampered by the near constant stormy weather during the month and some of the dead birds may have been washed back out to sea meaning the mortality rate may be higher than the final figure recorded.
While the Braer was battered on the rocks of Shetland for 6 days leaking it’s oil the final blow came for the ship on the 11th when a massive storm swept across the north. The Braer broke up on the rock releasing a huge amount of oil and a heavy hydrocarbon odour was reported as far north as Lerwick during the evening.
The storm on the 11th underwent what we call ‘explosive cyclogenesis’- which means the low pressure deepens by more than 24mbs in 24 hours. At one point the storm had a central pressure of 916mb, making it the lowest pressure recorded at mean sea level in the world outside of tropical storms and the centre of tornadoes.
Following the storm the vessel broke up into three pieces and the continuation of strong winds, which at times peaked around 100mph, helped to disperse the oil. After the 21st of January all visible oil had disappeared from the sea but a little oil and tar was still washed ashore for the weeks and months that followed.
The Braer has joined the numerous other ships and boats resting on the sea floor around Shetland and is now a feature for divers…