Hundreds of Dead Animals Wash Ashore on Russian Beach After Reports of Mysterious, Toxic Sludge

Investigations are still underway, but experts theorize that leaked hazardous materials from military bases are to blame

A Greenpeace expert collects samples of an opilio crab washed up at the Khalaktyrsky beach
Theories surrounding the source of the pollution are still swirling. Photo by Yelena Vereshchaka\TASS via Getty Images

Last month, hundreds of dead seals, octopuses, sea urchins and other sea creatures washed ashore the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East region in what experts say is Russia’s latest “ecological disaster,” reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Surfers were the first to raise a red flag after about 20 people reported symptoms such as stinging eyes, nausea and fevers during a surfing camp, reports Mary Ilyushina for CNN. Soon after, in early September, the peninsula’s pristine, sparkling blue water developed a thick, yellow-gray sludge floating at its surface and released a putrid smell. Just a few days later, the bodies of dead marine life began to pile up on the beach.

Kamchatka's Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology originally dismissed the reports, saying that the color and smell of the water were normal. But with mounting pressure from scientists and environmental activists, Russia’s Investigative Committee launched a criminal investigation to identify any possible violations in the use of such hazardous substances. Members of Greenpeace Russia and local scientists are also working on the ground to understand the severity and cause of this ecologically devastating disaster.

"On the shore, we did not find any large dead sea animals or birds," says scientist Ivan Usatov in a report translated by CNN. "However, when diving, we found that there is a mass death of [bottom-dwelling organisms] at depths from ten to 15 meters—95 percent are dead. Some large fish, shrimps and crabs have survived, but in very small numbers."

On Twitter, Greenpeace Russia announced that it detected petroleum levels four times higher than normal and phenol (a substance used in antiseptics and disinfectants) levels 2.5 times higher. Theories surrounding the source of the pollution are still swirling.

Russian biologist Vladimir Burkanov suspects that the pollutants came from old rocket fuel stored at nearby military bases. The tanks must have leaked, he says in a statement, and a heavy rainstorm flushed the toxins into the ocean, reports Dharna Noor for Gizmodo. On the other hand, local media outlets theorize that a military drill at one of the nearby bases must have gone wrong or an oil tanker leaked, which the Defense Ministry dismissed, reports CNN. Greenpeace Russia speculates that the source was a nearby toxic waste dump, especially since Kamchatka officials announced that a storage facility housing over 100 tons of toxic substances was breached.

Local officials announced that they will be continuing their investigations, but they haven’t identified any culprits yet. They are also considering that the toxins could have occurred naturally, such as from volcanic activity or lethal algal blooms.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.