Baltic Times Ten

Let us try to look at the Baltic Sea from ten different sides. To this end, we’ll look under the surface and peruse its rich history and look into its future. In short, we’ll try to change your existing ideas of this familiar sea. In truth, it’s much more intriguing than it seems. Let yourself be intrigued. 

Pejzaż, fot. Mateusz Arbatowski

Unobvious obviousness

The name Baltic is obvious to us, but where has it actually come from? Mare Balticum appeared for the first time ten centuries ago in the Treaty by Adam of Brema, a German chronicler. Most likely it comes from the Latin word balteus (belt), although experts are still divided. On the other hand, a long time before that, in the 1st century a.d., the Roman historian Tacitus named it the Suevi Sea in relation to the Germanic tribes living on its coast. A few hundred years later, Ptolemy called it the Sarmatian Ocean. Today though, what we know as the Baltic (Bałtyk), the Estonians call Läänemeri (the West Sea) due their relative geographical position and the Germans, for the same reasons, call it the Ostsee (the Eastern Sea). And so on and so forth …. The multitude of historical and modern names may give rise to some confusion. 


Many centuries ago, our sea was a stage for intensive commercial relations. In the Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League, also known simply as the Hanse, represented nearly 200 cities engaged in intensive trade with each other. This trade took place mainly through the Baltic. Members of the League included: Gdańsk (Danzig), Bergen in Norway and the capital cities of Tallinn (Estonia), and Riga (Latvia). The main centre and location for Meetings where all the decisions binding for all member-cities were made was the German city of Lübeck. The Hanse – which at that time was already weakened and had its best days long behind it – fell victim to the thirty years’ war. The last Meeting was attended by representatives of only 6 cities, Gdańsk being one of them. It is worth mentioning here, that the history of the most famous artworks appearing in the city, one of them being Hans Memling’s “The Last Judgment” is closely related to the Hanse. 


Yes, there has been a tsunami in the Baltic… Several in fact. In 1497, high water was destroyed the areas around the towns of Darłowo and Darłówek. The chroniclers described it as a “sea bear”. The name was due to the rumbling sound the invading water made. It’s difficult to imagine, but the water at the shore was then supposed to be at least 3 metres deep and entered around one and a half kilometre inland. Another tsunami took place in the middle of the 18th century. It invaded the towns of Rogowo and Mrzeżyno. The last one took place in 1779 and damaged, among others, the town of Łeba. The reasons for the tidal waves remain unknown. There have been several hypotheses, one of which claimed that it was caused by a falling meteorite. However, it’s more likely to have been an underwater methane explosion or an earthquake. Is our sea really as docile as everyone thinks it is?


The Baltic Sea may not be the Caribbean, but sharks can be found there. Seriously. Some readers may already have the iconic “Jaws” theme playing in their heads now, but there is no cause for worry. After all, not all sharks are made equal. The species observed in the Baltic are not dangerous to humans: the small-spotted catshark, porbeagle, and spiny dogfish. No man-eaters. Besides, chances to encounter one are slim to none. On a more cheerful note, apart from sharks, the Baltic also hosts some dolphins. 

Pejzaż, fot. Wojciech Radwański


Our sea is struggling with overfishing. An example of this is the Baltic cod. Due to its role in the marine ecosystem, it’s even called the King of the Baltic. In the mid-1980s, more than 100,000 tonnes of cod were fished annually and, as a result, the balance of the marine ecosystem was quickly disrupted. According to WWF data, today you rarely get specimens reaching to 30 cm in length, when as recently as the 1990s you could easily find ones up to half a metre. The situation is so serious in fact, that the European Commission has decided to ban fishing for cod in the Eastern Baltic. The ban came into force at the beginning of 2020 and is still biding. As a side note, fishing for salmon has also been suspended. That prohibition is in force across the entire basin. The future of cod and the restocking its population are highly uncertain. Will our sea be deprived of its king?


There are numerous wrecks on the bottom of the Baltic, which remind us that it was not only a theatre of trade, but also an arena of war. Of all these wrecks, one especially enjoys a grim notoriety. We’re talking of course about the, MS Wilhelm Gustloff. On 30 January 1945, the German vessel fled from Gotenhafen (Gdynia) and on the same day a Soviet submarine sank it with three torpedoes. There were around 10 thousand souls onboard. Mostly, refugees from East Prussia. Both civilians and military. It was impossible to accurately determine the number of fatalities on that day. It could be as high as 9 thousand… Something that is difficult for the human imagination to visualise. For certain though, it was the biggest maritime catastrophe ever. The wreck can be found a couple dozen miles east of Łeba. Since 1994, it is recognised as a “war grave”, which means a ban on diving within a half kilometre radius. 

A ticking bomb?

Wrecks are not the only reminder of World War II. The greatest concern is chemical weapons sunk on the Baltic. This was in line with the determinations of the Potsdam Conference, where the “Big Three” victorious powers met. As the saying goes – out of sight, out of mind. Unfortunately, this principle is not entirely applicable in this case. The containers with chemicals corrode and slowly release their contents. There are about 40,000 tonnes of chemical weapons on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Over ¼ of those are chemical weapons. For example, one of them is “Tabun” which is a synthetic compound classified as a weapon of mass destruction. The issue of chemical weapons remains unresolved and as more time passes, the worse it gets. The topic is extremely newsworthy and many myths have appeared around it. Sometimes, they reach apocalyptic proportions, preaching complete and utter destruction of the basin. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, but there is no doubt that decisive steps are needed. Last year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the EU to clear the Baltic Sea of WWII shipwrecks and chemical weapons. Now is the time for action. 


You don’t need to be an expert on geography to know that Poznań is not located on the Baltic Sea. This is an actual fact. So what is it doing on this list? The capital of Greater Poland boasts having a great skyscraper named Baltic. Now, where did that come from? The name is an homage to the “Baltic” cinema which has for many years been located at the exact site, where the city’s calling card is now (opened in 2017). The building is impressive, but we all know that there is only one Baltic.

Atomic sea

Nuclear energy raises more controversy than any other type it seems. We can find several nuclear power stations around the Baltic (among others in Finland and Sweden). Others are under construction. Poland has been wanting to build its own for several decades. Advanced plans were still being made in the last millennium, as evidenced by the infamous and unfinished plant in Żarnowiec. Very soon, close to what is often called “Żarnobyl”, the first Polish nuclear power station (Lubiatowo-Kopalino) will be erected. The reactors will be cooled using water from the seabed. Construction is scheduled to start in 2026 and the project should be completed by … the 2040s. Maybe we should come back to the present though. 

What about NATO

2022 will be a recorded as (after 2020) a turning point. No doubt about it. The events started on February 24th have resulted in virtually the whole sea basin being under NATO control. Finland and Sweden will soon become full members of the Alliance and will end their historic neutrality. This means another metamorphosis in the history of this unstable region. Due to Russian aggression, the Baltic Sea will transform into a NATO lake. Its future remains uncertain. In ecological, military, but also European terms in light of the tensions within the Community. 

We should end it here. We suggest you look up more information on your own. The Baltic is much more interesting than it would seem at a glance. It can be intriguing. And, in the name of well-intentioned local patriotism, let us remind you that March 22nd is the International Baltic Sea Protection Day.