In 1949 a unique oil deposit was discovered under the Caspian Sea. The field was named Oil Rocks (Neft Dashlari in Azerbaijani). It was a milestone in the development of the country’s oil industry. The deposit had to be extracted from the open sea, up to 100 km from the coast. State-of-the-art sea craft were created by domestic engineers to meet this challenge. At the time, Oil Rocks was the world’s largest offshore oilfield, both in terms of deposit capacity and volume of extractable oil.

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of offshore oil wells drilled around the world. Many countries in Western Europe and America satisfy their hunger for power with oil and gas extracted from the North Sea, off the coasts of Canada or Brazil, or from the Mexican Gulf. Yet this early pioneer of offshore drilling still attracts the attention from foreign experts over 60 years later. A man-made city of platforms on the sea, Oil Rocks has a story to tell.

Interest in the first offshore city on the sea is understandable and Oil Rocks has iconic status for every country involved in developing continental shelf oil and gas. It pointed the way to the modern offshore drilling we see today.

The name Oil Rocks is historically significant. Long before the discovery of the underwater oil deposit, scientists noticed black rocks in the Caspian Sea that were covered by a film of oil. Thus the area was first named Black Rocks, and was being studied scientifically by 1859; there followed a long line of distinguished researchers. German Academician O. W.H. von Abich had a pioneering role. After him came geologists and oilmen: Fatullabey.A. Rustambekov, Agha Gurban Aliyev, Sabit A. Orujov, Yusif A. Safarov,and many others.

Otto Wilhelm Hermann von Abich (1806-1886) - outstanding geologist and traveller. From 1853, he was a member of the St. Petersburg Academy. Abich devoted himself to extensive research of the Caucasus, Transcaucasia and Persia. Between 1859 and 1861 he made two visits to the Caspian Sea – to Baku and the Absheroni archipelagos, describing the area now known as Oil Rocks. His description was the first to give an outline of the arrangement of underwater rocks there, showing how they related to an underwater range connecting the Absheron and Cheleken (Turkmenistan) peninsulas. He also noted areas where hydrocarbons were being released. In 1863, Abich made the first geological map of the Absheron Peninsula to the scale 1:42000 and this was long the basis of all geological exploration for oil and gas on the peninsula. In 1877, Abich retired to Vienna and compiled all his research in his book, Geologische Forschungen in den Kaukasischen Landern. Four volumes were published before his death. A posthumous edition of his letters and notes, containing many colourful descriptions of the Caucasus, was published in Vienna by his widow as Aus Kaukasischen Landern Reisebriefe, I-II v., Vienna, 1895.
Mikhail Kaverochkin Mikhail Kaverochkin

First glances offshore

From 1934, mining engineer Fatullabey Rustambekov wrote many prescient articles in the magazine Azerbaijan Oil Industry about the development of sea-based oilfields in the Caspian and he was the first to suggest methods of developing the fields. He listed six potential exploration sites on the Caspian shelf and the epoch-making discovery of Oil Rocks in 1949 proved him to be correct.

One of the pioneers of offshore oil production was mining engineer Vitold Zglenitsky, who made a formal request to the Baku Mining Department on 3 October 1896 to begin drilling wells on reclaimed land in Bibi-Heybat Bay. This was an innovative project, involving the installation of a special waterproof platform, rising 4 metres above sea level, which allowed the draining of the oil produced into barges. Special barges with a capacity of up to 200,000 tons of oil were stipulated, to ensure the safe delivery of oil onshore in the event of an oil-gusher. The Caspian Mining Management turned down his proposal but it did find that the Caspian Sea bed close to Absheron was oil-bearing and that it would be as well to check the oil-bearing capacity of the seabed and to consider both the technical feasibility of oil production and the cost of such an operation. The first practical work to study the geological structure of the area around Oil Rocks was conducted in 1946 by an oil expedition from the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences; this resulted in the identification of huge reserves of oil.

The legends of Black Rocks

This zone of the Caspian Sea, starting 42 km from the Absheron Peninsula, had a storied past. Sailors told of hair-raising encounters rivalling tales of the Bermuda Triangle. On old pilot charts this zone of the Caspian Sea is characterised by treacherous banks and sharp reefs, as if the very name Black Rocks spelled danger. The most experienced captains avoided this place in bad weather, referring to it as a ships’ graveyard. Indeed, one of the tragic fates associated with Black Rocks became, by a fluke, the launch of this unique sea deposit’s biography.

The renowned geologist Agha Gurban Aliyev, having heard for many years about the problems of sea oil, decided to do some research. In early 1946 he began looking through the ship’s log of Maria, an old Caspian schooner which had sunk many years before during a storm at Black Rocks. He was riveted by a particular entry made by the captain:

If the wind blows from the north, the seamen – even at a great distance – can decipher by smell alone the dangerous ridge of underwater and treacherous surface rocks.

Much earlier, in reports from 1913 by a naval hydrographical expedition on the Caspian Sea, the geologist researcher found similar statements about Black Rocks. Unfortunately, with the beginning of the First World War in 1914 all expeditions had been halted. Talking with many captains and navigators of the Caspian Sea, Aliyev learned that they were always pursued by the smell of oil during a storm in the area around Black Rocks. Thus, the geologist concluded that there should be an oil-prospecting expedition to Black Rocks. However, to begin the industrial development of a new sea deposit was no easy matter. As opponents were quick to point out, many thousands of tons of materials were required to build the underwater platforms needed for the drilling wells, to stand them on piles in the sea. They believed that such a project was unthinkable without a quay or other berth. Hydro engineers were also opposed, citing the experience of the Ilyich Bay development.

The production of sea oil from Ilyich Bay (now known as Bayil Limani) was accomplished via Oil Well # 71, constructed in 1924 on timber piles. This gave a huge impetus to further exploration of oil and gas fields in different parts of the Caspian Sea. Later, in the USSR from 1932-1933, another two platforms were constructed. The first was constructed 270 metres from the eastern arm of the bay. In water up to 6 metres deep, the platform area was 948 m² and 55 metres long. Timber piles were not used in America until 1937, in the Gulf of Mexico. They were used for drilling 1,500 metres from the coast in 4 metres of water.
Ali Jabarov, first assistant driller to Kaverochkin Ali Jabarov, first assistant driller to Kaverochkin

Toe in the water, to oil – one year

Despite the difficulties, on 14 November 1948, the sea towboat Pobeda (Russian for Victory) was moored to the rocky groups of islets that had such a bad reputation among both sailors and local fishermen. The towboat’s captain, Azhdar Sadikhov, was one of the most experienced post-war Caspian captains. Also on board were the geologist Aga Gurban Aliyev, drilling expert Yusif Safarov, and Sabit Orujov, head of the Aznefterazvedka Association, established in 1947. This team successfully landed on the islet and even managed to construct the first drilling installation and a small hut for a drilling crew (an expansive 14 square metres!)

Yusif Safarov (1907-1963) was a talented oil scientist and major contributor to the founding of the Soviet oil industry. He won the Stalin Prize twice. In 1949, jointly with L. Mezhlumov and Sabit Orujov, he designed a new construction, the MOS large block foundation and its modifications MOS-1, MOS-2 and MOS-3, which were used in sea depths of up to 25 metres. Later, other constructions of this type were built at Gyurgani-more, Darwin’s Bank, Zhiloy (Chilov) Island and, especially, Oil Rocks (the Oil Rocks settlement on the Caspian Sea was attached to Artyom district council and had 1,600 residents by 1956). In Houston in 2004, Safarov was posthumously awarded the American Ocean Star Order for prospecting and developing offshore oilfields on the Caspian Sea between 1945 and 1952. Sabit Orujov (1912-1981) was a major contributor to the founding of the Soviet oil and gas industry. He was appointed Minister of the USSR Gas Industry in 1972; he was awarded the Lenin and State Prizes of the USSR, was a Doctor of Technical Sciences and an Associate Member of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences. Orujov was actively involved in developing a number of major oil and gas fields in Azerbaijan, Western Siberia, Russia’s Orenburg region, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In 1978, on his initiative, Mingazprom (the Ministry of the Gas Industry) began the exploration and exploitation of sea-based oil and gas fields. They developed works in areas of the Caspian, Barents, Black and other seas. On 18 July 1979, he signed the order, Arcticmorneftgasrazvedka. The experts of this trust established records for deep-water immersion and opened up major fields on Russia’s northern shelf. Nowadays, the best students of Russian Gubkin State University of Oil and Gas receive Orujov scholarships. The USSR’s largest gas-producing association, Urengoygasdobicha, was also named after Orujov.

Work on the first exploratory well on Oil Rocks began in June 1949; a drilling base was created by towing and sinking the superannuated ship Chvanov at the site. On 24 August 1949 a team led by the future Hero of Socialist Labour - Mikhail Kaverochkin (with first assistant driller Ali Jabarov) - began drilling the first well, which gave up the long-awaited oil on 7 November of the same year. It was a world class triumph: the well went down about 1,000 metres, and produced 100 tons of oil daily. This event signalled not only the beginning of the biography of the city on stilts, but also the central theme of a novel documentary about the Caspian oilmen, made by leading Soviet film director Roman Karmen: a black fountain rocketing into the sky, cheerful oilmen and the master himself shown daubing his face with first offshore oil. This was how Azerbaijani oilmen remember the legendary Kaverochkin.

In the book My Motherland is Azerbaijan (2001) Nikolay Baybakov, renowned statesman, legendary oil industry worker and economic planner remarked:

It is with pride that I tell you I supervised the first landing on Oil Rocks. In November 1948, Academician A.A. Yakubov, geologist A.K .Aliyev, engineers, builders and rig fixers V.M. Roschin, Ivan Bugalayev, Fyodor Blokhin, Peter Zemskov, Shamil Jabarov, Anna Meleshina, Fyodor Kulikov, Peter Knutov, M.Yu. Salamov, H.A. Hadikov and the author of these lines landed on the mossy oil stones which were jutting out of the water in the open sea. And within less than a year, on the anniversary of Great October, thanks to the selfless work of those sea-borne workers a powerful fountain of oil gushed from the first prospecting oil well. The new sea oilfield Oil Rocks was entrusted to the team of skilled master driller Mikhail Kaverochkin, who was awarded the high rank of Hero of Socialist Labour (posthumously).

Mikhail Kaverochkin (1904-1957) – renowned driller from office №2 NPU Gyurgany-oil, Minnefteprom, the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. He was awarded the rank of Hero of Socialist Labour posthumously in 1959.
The first base on Oil Rocks, 1949 The first base on Oil Rocks, 1949

Seven Ships Island

In constructing a drilling base for the second well, seven redundant ships were flooded, among them the legendary Nobel steamship Zoroaster. Thus was born the artificial Seven Ships Island, which was extracting oil six months later. Old, unseaworthy vessels (Chvanov, Zoroaster, Tsarevich Nicolai etc.) thus laid the foundation for a new scientific and technical world.

The Zoroaster was the world’s first bulk-oil steamship. It was built by order of Ludwig Nobel at a factory in Motala, Sweden, in 1877. Ludwig named his steamship after the ancient Persian prophet Zarathustra (in Greek transcription - Zoroaster). The vessel had a steel hull 56m long and 8.2m wide, with a draft of 2.7m. The steamship was fuelled by oil. The Zoroaster was a twin-screw, bulk vessel with 19 iron tanks and a cargo capacity of 15 thousand poods (246 tons). Adaptations were made to the berth and coastal structure in Baku especially to accommodate Zoroaster. After the vessel’s arrival in the city a kerosene extraction pump was installed. In May 1878 a formal reception took place in Baku when the ship arrived via the Baltic Sea and the Russian river system.

A witness to these events, writer Josef Osipov, provides an interesting description in his book The Treasure of Black Rocks (1989):

In those hot days of a Caspian summer, the Pobeda was moored at the quay in a distant corner of Baku port where obsolete steamships and tankers were parked. From time to time, another ancient vessel from a half-century before would be towed in, an aged invalid deleted from the list of the merchant marine fleet. The Pobeda’s captain, Azhdar Sadikhov, recognized the Lenkeranets. His grandfather – a sailor with the Caspian fleet – had sailed on her. The ship, with a displacement of 2,000 tons, had previously seen service under its old name Tsarevich Nicolai. Meeting his grandfather, who had arrived from Astrakhan or Enzeli, Sadikhov climbed aboard. For him then there was no vessel more beautiful than the Tsarevich. They ate Shiraz dates and Astrakhan watermelon in the ship’s tiny cabin. Seagulls could be seen through the open porthole. Rusty vessels rocked on the waves. The sea inspector was worried:

I am afraid this old ship will not make it.

No, this old friend will not let me down,

Sadikhov answered and smiled. And indeed, it sailed on. It did not go down before reaching Oil Rocks. The Lenkeranets was submerged near the rocky ridge. It was laid there as a foundation for underwater rocks. The welder went down to the hold, cut a large hole and returned to the deck. The water flooded in. They watched it disappear into the sea. 1 metre... 1.5 metres... The Lenkoranets touched bottom. ‘Go in peace’ - said Sadikhov. Then, another six old vessels were taken out and sunk on the shoal. Thereafter the rocky ridge was named Seven Ships Island.

The second well, drilled by a team led by Gurban Abbasov, also a Hero of Socialist Labour, was handed over for operations in the first six months of 1950 and produced approximately the same daily flow as the first.

Gurban Abbasov (1926-1994) made a considerable contribution to the development of the oil industry in Azerbaijan. He was promoted from driller to general director of the Kaspmorneftegazprom Association. He was a Hero of Socialist Labour (1959) and Honoured Engineer of the Azerbaijan Republic. Gurban Abbasov was a devotee and the closest assistant to drilling master Mikhail Kaverochkin. Tragically, the master died during a dreadful storm on 21 November 1957 which destroyed the drilling platform; in fact the whole drilling team was drowned. The 25 year old Gurban Abbasov was one of the replacements and his old drilling master was honoured for developing the first offshore oilfields on the Caspian Sea – Gyurgani-more and Oil Rocks (Neft Dashlari).

In February 1951, the first tanker carrying oil from Oil Rocks berthed at the Dubendi oil terminal. The underwater oil pipeline from Oil Rocks in use today was only constructed in 1981.

For comparison, the American Geological Society met in Chicago in December 1946 to prepare and approve a long-term (estimated 15 years) programme to study seabed geology. It expected to carry out investigations over the next 5 years following the exploitation of sea-based oilfields in the Gulf of Mexico. However, no exploration or exploitation of the Gulf oilfields was conducted from 1949 to 1953 for financial reasons. Only in 1954 did the USA construct an oil derrick to drill 6 slanting wells with rotor and crown block.

City on the Sea

Oil Rocks today consists of more than 200 stationary platforms, and the ‘streets and lanes’ of this city on the sea stretch for 350 kilometres. More than 160 million tons of oil and 13 billion cubic metres of associated petroleum gas have been extracted. More than 380 production wells work here, each providing an average of up to 5 tons of oil per day. Certainly, in comparison with the wells of a modern permanent offshore platform like Chirag, which produces up to 2,000 tons per day, this is not a lot. But we should always remember that Oil Rocks was, for more than half a century, a pioneer of the sea-based oil industry.

Oil Rocks established the whole cycle of works that are necessary for the extraction of oil at sea: from exploration to the delivery of the finished product, from experiments in sea engineering to development and application. Oil Rocks has made a valuable contribution to the education of the industry’s workers in Azerbaijan and the whole of the former Soviet Union. A whole school of training for scientific staff was formed during the prospecting and operational work conducted there. The latest ideas were developed in practice and scientists and workers gained professional experience and skills in the most challenging sea conditions. Experts working on Oil Rocks were later sent to work on other oilfields including: Kazakhneft, Turkmenneft, Dagneft, Tatneft and Bashneft. Soviet-era Azerbaijani specialists from Oil Rocks worked on the Vietsovpetro joint venture, which was set up in Vung Tau (Vietnam’s Petroleum Centre) in 1981, to develop the first oilfield, the White Tiger, on the continental shelf.

Many innovations to practice emerged from Oil Rocks. For the first time in the USSR a new method of drilling was approved; this involved drilling several deviating holes from one base. This cluster drilling method was then adopted in other oilfields across the USSR. The new trestle platform arrangement in the Oil Rocks field is still considered the world’s first and remains unique. The experience gained there gave impetus to further exploration and exploitation of other oil and gas in the Caspian Sea.

The work did not go unrecognised by the Soviet government. In 1951 the Azerbaijan Oil Industry Workers Group was awarded the USSR’s State Prize, First Class. In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party paid a visit. He effectively solved two of the oilfield’s most serious problems. First, he ordered that the watchmen be transported from onshore to offshore by helicopter. Previously, all people, equipment and goods were delivered by ship. And secondly, he proposed that taller housing (5 to 9 storeys) be built on in-filled, solid foundations for the workers. Before his visit there were only one and two-storey houses built on piles. Thus, the important problem of accommodation was solved. In the early days the workers had lived in the cabins of the ships sunk near the islets.

The legend lives on

SOCAR (State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic) specialists estimate reserves at 365 million tons, of which 182 million tons are extractable. By early November 2009, 167 million tons of oil had been produced. However these reserves may increase considerably in the future with further exploration and improved technology.

Programmes are being developed to this end: additional hydro-technical constructions are being erected, technology improved and updated, new oil wells drilled, and research and experimentation conducted. Constructions and piers that have fulfilled their historic mission are now being decommissioned.

In November 2007, the new platform No 2387, planned for the drilling of 12 wells, was handed over for operation. The twin-block platform rises 45 metres, it weighs 542 tons and it was positioned in 24.5 metres of water. Blocks assembled at the Baku deep-water base factory have an operational life of 50 years. The plan is to drill down 1,800 metres from the new platform.

A 66.6 kilometre, 20-inch diameter, gas pipeline was commissioned on 25 December 2007. With a capacity of 5.5 million cubic metres per day, it connects the Oil Rocks and Bakhar oilfields. The pipeline will transport natural gas extracted from the Guneshli oilfield onshore.

It was not so long ago that humanity first ventured into the oceans and seas to explore their rich oil reserves. As onshore sources of oil dwindle, the world looks to these underwater reserves and Azerbaijan continues to play a leading role.