In 1949 an historic oil field was discovered under the Caspian Sea. The field was named “Neft Dashlari, which in Azerbaijani means “Oil Rocks,” and it was a milestone in the development of the global oil industry. The resources had to be extracted from open waters, up to 100 kilometers from the coast. Domestic engineers created state-of-the-art marine vessels specifically to meet this challenge.
At the time, Oil Rocks was considered the world’s largest offshore oil field, both in terms of reservoir volume and recoverable oil reserves.
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of offshore oil wells, of course. Consumers around the world satisfy their thirst for energy with oil and gas extracted from the North Sea, off the coasts of Canada and Brazil, West Africa and the Middle East, and from the Gulf of Mexico. Yet this precursor to 21st-century operations still attracts attention more than 70 years later. Oil Rocks, an iconic “city in the sea,” pointed the way to modern offshore drilling as we know it today.
The name “Oil Rocks” is historically significant. Long before the discovery of the subsea oil deposit, scientists noticed black rocks in the Caspian Sea that were covered by a film of oil, so the area was first named “Black Rocks.” Scientific studies began in 1859, inaugurating work by a long line of researchers.
Beginning in 1934, mining engineer F. Rustambekov wrote many prescient articles in the magazine “Azerbaijan Oil Industry” about oil fields in the Caspian Sea and he was the first to suggest methods of developing them. 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 Witold Zglenitsky, who made a formal request to the Baku Mining Department on Oct. 3, 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 four meters above sea level, which allowed the draining of the oil produced into barges. Special barges with a capacity of up to 200,000 tons (about 1.4 million barrels) of oil were specified, to ensure the safe delivery of oil onshore in the event of a gusher.
Management turned down his proposal, but it did find that the Caspian Sea close to the Absheron Peninsula was oil-bearing. This area was used for proof-of-principle, to establish the oil-bearing capacity of the world’s oceans and reveal the technical feasibility and the cost of offshore oil production. The first practical work to study the geological structure of the area around Oil Rocks was conducted in 1946 by the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, and it resulted in the identification of huge reserves of oil.
This area of the Caspian Sea, starting 42 kilometers from the Absheron Peninsula, had a storied past. Sailors told of hair-raising encounters rivalling tales of the Bermuda Triangle. On old piloting charts, this area is characterized by treacherous banks and sharp reefs, as if the very name “Black Rocks” spelled danger. The most experienced captains avoided the area in bad weather, referring to it as a ships’ graveyard. Indeed, one of the tragic incidents associated with Black Rocks became, by a fluke, the launching point of this unique marine deposit’s history.
The noted Azerbaijani geologist Agha Kurban Aliyev (1911-1997), having heard for many years about the problems of oil in marine environments, decided to do some research. In early 1946, he began looking through the ship’s log of “Maria,” an old Caspian schooner that 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 detect by smell alone the treacherous surface rocks and underwater ridge.”
Aliyev found similar statements in much earlier reports from 1913 by a naval hydrographical expedition on the Caspian Sea. Unfortunately, with the beginning of World War I in 1914, all expeditions were halted. Talking with many captains and navigators of the Caspian Sea, Aliyev learned that they always noticed the smell of oil during storms in the area around Black Rocks.
Aliyev concluded that there should be an oil-prospecting expedition to Black Rocks. However, to begin the industrial development of a new marine 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 drilling wells. They believed that such a project was unthinkable without a quay or other berth. Hydrological engineers were also opposed, citing the experience of the Ilyich Bay development.
The production of offshore oil from Ilyich Bay (now known as Bayil Limani) was first accomplished via Oil Well No. 71, constructed in 1924 on timber piles. This gave a huge impetus to further exploration for oil and gas fields in different parts of the Caspian Sea. From 1932-33, two more platforms were constructed. The first was 270 meters from the eastern arm of the bay, in water up to six meters deep. For comparison, timber piles were first used in America in 1937, in the Gulf of Mexico, to drill in four meters of water, 1,500 meters from the coast.
Despite many difficulties, on Nov. 14, 1948, the marine 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-WWII Caspian captains. Also on board were Aliyev, drilling expert Yusif Safarov, and Sabit Orujov, head of the Aznefterazvedka (Azerbaijan Oil Exploration) Association, established in 1947. This team successfully landed on an islet and managed to construct the first drilling installation and a small hut for a drilling crew (an expansive 14 square meters!).
Work on the first exploratory well at Oil Rocks began in June of 1949; a drilling base was created by towing and sinking the old ship “Chvanov” at the site. On Aug. 24,1949, the team led by Michael Kaverochkin began drilling the first well, which yielded the long-awaited oil on Nov. 7 of the same year. It was a world-class triumph. The well went down about 1,000 meters and produced 700 barrels of oil per day.
This event not only signaled the beginning of the “city on stilts,” but also formed the central theme of a novel documentary about Caspian oilmen, made by leading Soviet film director Roman Karmen. It portrayed a black fountain rocketing into the sky, with cheerful oilmen and the master driller himself shown daubing his face with first offshore oil. This is how Azerbaijani oil people remember the legendary Kaverochkin.
In his 2001 book, “My Motherland is Azerbaijan,” Nikolay Baybakov, who served as minster of oil industry and later chairman of the State Planning Committee for the USSR, discussed his supervision of the first oilfield development team at Oil Rocks. He said, “(We) landed on the mossy oil stones which were jutting out of water in the open sea. And within less than a year, on the anniversary of Great October (that is, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917), 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 Michael Kaverochkin, who was awarded the high rank of the Hero of Socialist Labor (posthumously).”
In constructing a drilling base for the second well, seven surplus ships were flooded, among them the legendary Nobel steamship “Zoroaster.” The artificial Seven Ships Island began extracting oil six months later. Old, unseaworthy ships (Chvanov, Zoroaster, Tsarevich Nikolai, Poseidon, Clara Tsetkin, Apostol Pavel and Yakow Zevin) laid the foundation for a new scientific and technical world.
Zoroaster was the world’s first bulk-oil steamship, generally considered a miracle of 19th-century marine technology. It was built under the orders of Ludwig Nobel at a factory of Motala, Sweden, in 1877. Nobel named his steamship after the ancient Persian prophet Zarathustra (in Greek transcription, Zoroaster). The oil-fueled vessel had a steel hull 56-meters long and 8.2-meters wide, with a draft of 2.7 meters. Zoroaster was a twin-screw bulk vessel with 19 iron tanks and a cargo capacity of 270 tons. Adaptations were made to the berth and other coastal infrastructure in Baku specially 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.
The second well, drilled by a team led by Kurban Abbasov, was handed over for operations in the first six months of 1950 and produced approximately the same daily flow as the first. In February 1951, the first tanker carrying oil from Oil Rocks berthed at the Dubendi oil terminal, northeast of Baku. The underwater oil pipeline from Oil Rocks in use today was constructed in 1981.
Oil Rocks today consists of more than 200 stationary platforms, and the “streets and lanes” of this city on the sea stretch for 350 kilometers. More than 1.1 billion barrels of oil and 455 billion cubic feet of associated gas have been extracted. About 2,000 wells have been drilled, of which more than 300 are still producing, providing an average of about 35 barrels of oil per day per well. Certainly, in comparison to total production from a modern permanent offshore platform like Chirag (the giant 1997 Amoco discovery in the Central Caspian), which produced about 190,000 barrels of oil per day in 2020, this is not a lot, but Oil Rocks led the way.
Experts working on Oil Rocks were later sent to work on other oilfields, especially in Central Asia. Azerbaijani specialists from Oil Rocks also worked on the Vietsovpetro joint venture, which was set up in Vung Tau (Vietnam’s Petroleum Center) in 1981, to develop the first oil field, the White Tiger, on that continental shelf. Later, they played a key role in the discovery of other large oil fields (Dragon, Wolf) on the shelf in the south of Vietnam.
Many practical innovations emerged from operations at Oil Rocks. For the first time in the USSR, pad drilling involving several deviated holes was approved. This cluster drilling method was then adopted in other oilfields across the USSR. The new trestle platform arrangement in the Oil Rocks field is unique. The experience gained there gave the impetus to further exploration and exploitation of other oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea.
Following a 1960 visit by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, two of the oilfield’s most serious problems were solved. First, he ordered that all employees be transported from onshore to offshore by helicopter. Previously, all personnel, equipment and goods were delivered by ships. He also ordered the construction of high-rise housing for the workers (five to nine stories) to be built on in-filled, solid foundations. Before his visit there were only one- and two-story houses built on piles. In the very early days, they had lived in the cabins of the ships sunk near the islets.
The demise of the USSR exacerbated the decline of Oil Rocks. The workforce was reduced, rigs and infrastructure were abandoned and some of the housing was flooded. More recently, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic has updated the facilities, production has increased, and the city on the sea is part of the Caspian’s modern oil transportation network. Currently, it is being operated by Azneft Production Unit, one of the divisions of SOCAR, and remaining reserves have been estimated at about 240 million barrels.
Oil Rocks has also taken its place in popular culture. The 1999 James Bond film “The World is Not Enough” features scenes filmed there and at Baku. Oil Rocks is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the first offshore oil platform.
It was not so long ago that humanity first ventured offshore to explore the rich marine oil reserves. Lessons learned early in the Caspian Sea were a key element in this historic endeavor.