Clandestine Oil Transfers 2.0

Published 2018-10-05 08:25:22 UTC in Discoveries.

On July 29th, 2018, a Turkish Suezmax crude oil tanker by the name of BESIKTAS DARDENELLES departed the Russian oil terminal of Novorossiysk, located on the northeastern bank of the Black Sea. This tanker was carrying 1,019,482 barrels of crude oil by our measurements. She sailed southwest through the Bosporus Canal in Istanbul, Turkey and navigated her way south through the Aegean Sea archipelago, avoiding the obstacle course of islands that stand in her way of an open Mediterranean Sea. Once she entered high seas, the vessel disappeared off the map. There was no AIS (Automatic Identification System) data being uploaded by land-based VHF or satellite to reveal her position or heading. This was an intentional effort to go dark. The last known destination she was broadcasting was "OPL Port Said" (OPL= Off Port Limit; an area where ships usually meet up for ship-to-ship transfer of cargo). However, when you look at the map below, it seems that the angle of trip trajectory is facing southern Israel instead of Port Said, Egypt. In that part of Israel, there is only one port which receives crude oil tankers of that size, and that is Ashkelon.

The vessel we were looking for is 274 meters long, 50 meters wide, has a red deck, a white bridge and two white cranes, based on imagery available on MarineTraffic's website. A match was quickly spotted at 31.68N, 34.49E on August 4th; just two mornings later by satellite imagery captured by Planet Labs.

The tanker remained in Ashkelon up until either the evening of August 8th or pre-dawn August 9th as she wasn't spotted in any of the images on the 9th. Here is an animation covering the 4th, 6th and 8th.

Four days passed, at which point we received an instant notification alert from MarineTraffic saying that the tanker has re-appeared on the AIS map; meaning that her transponder is back in action. When we checked the map, she was already sailing past the OPL of Malta, where AIS is mandatory given the crowded tanker parking lot as vessels transfer oil to one another from various parts of the world. When we did a trajectory analysis of the bearings she sailed towards as well as from, the two lines met perfectly at Ashkelon. The tanker is now sailing onwards to Castellon, Spain with 505,013 barrels of crude oil, of another grade, it picked up at the same port in Ashkelon after dropping off the million barrels it brought in from Russia. This explains why she spent 4 days there, as a regular discharge/delivery only takes approximatey one day.

BESIKTAS DARDANELLES now sails onwards to Spain. Image taken on August 12th, 2018 at 36.23N, 15.33E.

This now begins the question: Why did the crew of this Turkish tanker decide to keep its AIS transponder switched off for as long as it did? The answer is not a matter of time, but one of distance. They didn't want to have any records showing that they were in Israel, especially now that there is a diplomatic spat caused by a geopolitical disagreement following the relocation of the US embassy in Israel; from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; along with the armed reaction by the Israeli military against protesters in the Gaza Strip. Turkey's president applied harsh rhetoric against Israel and expelled Israel's ambassador (while Israel expelled Turkey's consul), but the back-and-forth flow of oil refined products continued between Turkish and Israeli ports even after the fact. Our previous public coverage of such transports caught the attention of Turkish media in many publications, and we believe that vessel operators are now taking this into account. Now that the vessel is carrying a Turkish flag, they thought that switching off/on further away than usual would do the trick.

Of course, it didn't!

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