DCSIMG

METHANE MAY HAVE SUNK TRAWLER

TO a fisherman, all areas of the sea have names, just as a farmer will name his fields or we name our streets.

It's a means of communication, common ground with other men, an aid to understanding. Small local boats might set out to fish the Heugh Hole or Shald Water; on hearing their destination, other fishermen would immediately know exactly where they were headed without the need for any further explanation. A fisherman setting out for Jock Hutcheon wouldn't have a rendezvous with a male friend, but would be heading for a fishing ground off Newtonhill. He could just as easily be going to the

Hoosie on the Dyke, the Skate Hole, the Dog Hole or the Blue Deeps depending on his intended catch.

Vessels capable of steaming out to 50 miles could find themselves at the Turbot Bank, Scalp or Aberdeen Bank. Some of these names are self explanatory: skate or turbot would likely be prolific at their namesakes. Others are less obvious. Who was Jock Hutcheon and why has he been immortalised?

At around 100 miles off, there's a series of grounds whose very names give a clue to their nature – the Devil's Holes and the Witch's Ground are volcanic areas where the fishing is good, but the bottom is very rough and gear can easily be damaged or lost. The skipper needs to be very precise when shooting his nets to ensure that he finds the small areas of good ground.

Within the Witch's Ground lies the Witch's Hole. This hole is a 300m wide depression in the seabed like a pockmark. There are numbers of these pockmarks out there caused by methane gas escaping from beneath the seabed. A few years ago, scientists studying the Witch's Hole discovered the wreck of an early 20th century steam trawler. Submersible camera equipment showed that the trawler was sitting upright, undamaged, and with her nets still streamed, right in the centre of the hole. Now experts say it was almost certainly doomed by methane gas bubbling from the sea bed there. The rising gas reduced the density of the sea water so much that the boat couldn't stay afloat. It disappeared down the gas "hole" like car keys dropped in the harbour. And fishermen jumping overboard would have done the same. The unknown 75 foot boat is sitting exactly where the methane would have escaped from the sea bed.

Methane is held in the earth's crust by pressure and low temperatures, but where there are weaknesses it can escape. Often this escape is gentle, releasing a constant flow of bubbles; other times the release is sudden with catastrophic consequences for any transport directly above the eruption. Methane has also been implicated in the infamous Bermuda Triangle where numerous boats and planes have simply disappeared without even the time to send out a May Day call. It seems likely that this is what happened to the mystery trawler in the Witch's Hole.

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