In the middle of the Caspian Sea, some 55 kilometres from the coast of Azerbaijan, sits a city of interconnected oil wells and Soviet-style housing blocks propped up on scuttled ships. According the Guiness Book of World Records, it’s the oldest offshore oil platform in the world, known to the locals as Neft Daşları, or “Oil Rocks” to the Russians.
In 2009, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) boasted of extracting a total 170 million tons of oil from the Caspian over their 60-year history. They claimed there was still another 30 million left to go, but even then Oil Rocks was pretty dilapidated. Most of its 300 kilometres of roadway was zoned off and rusting into the sea, while its antiquated oil wells were sporadically killing workers in explosions and fires.
Today it’s just about impossible to get up-to-date info on the place. Oil Rocks doesn’t even appear on Google Maps, and most media reports and photos come from their anniversary celebrations in 2009. That's when these photos were taken and published on a Azerbaijan-based forum.
I managed to contact the owner, who turned out to be an oil and gas worker who was given a tour of Oil Rocks for their anniversary. Some of these photos were his, others were fairly heavily photoshopped versions taken by his colleague. He requested anonymity to protect his job, but was happy to describe his observations via email.
“Life on Oil Rocks is extremely difficult and dangerous,” he wrote. “Most of this is due to the weather conditions on the Caspian Sea, and especially during winter. When I visited the cold made it impossible to open my eyes. Wind was literally pouring down and I couldn’t walk anywhere without gripping the railing.”
He explained that pay rates there are substantially better for live-in employees, and at that time SOCAR had updated new facilities including their restaurant, tennis courts, a park, a cinema, a soccer pitch, and a hospital. “In some ways this makes working conditions quite acceptable, but in spite of this, the work on the Oil Rocks requires a certain amount of courage."
He described seeing employees battling through the sleet, “without unnecessary talk or complaints… and I realised the gap between ordinary workers like myself and the real workaholics. In that terrible weather, for some reason, it made me think of Kamikaze pilots.”
Oil Rocks was first constructed as part of a Stalin-led five year plan, with the first explorative drill hitting paydirt on November 7, 1949. There’s a surprisingly stirring account of this online, with a former engineer named Seyyad Ibrahimov describing how it felt finding some of the Soviet Empire’s first major oil.
“Nobody could sleep that night… There, off the coast of Azerbaijan, would mark the first time oil had been recovered from depths in the sea. And just as predicted, it happened. Oil was struck at a depth of 1,100 meters beneath the Caspian. And when that black, thick fountain started to pour forth, and no one could contain their excitement and exuberance. Everyone rushed to feel it, to put their hands in it and smear it all over their arms and faces, hugging each other and shouting for joy.”
The Capian proved to have one of the largest reserves in Central Asia, and the 1950s saw a series of wells drilled across an ever-expanding web of platforms and artificial islands. To fast-track the process of platform building, old ships were sunk and used as building foundations, including the world’s first oil tanker, the Zoroaster.
According to German publication Der Spiegel, the complex employed around 5,000 people at its height in the 1960s. But the slow decline of the Soviet empire, along with fluctuating fuel prices through the 70s saw Oil Rocks begin its slump into disrepair. Der Spiegel claimed that in 2012 only 45 kilometres of its 300-kilometre roadways were usable. The rest had become too badly rusted or had collapsed into the sea. But, as journalist Arno Frank noted, “Dismantling Neft Dashlari would probably be more expensive than simply keeping it going with a scaled-down oil production. To the government, the place is still the proud, closely-guarded secret it was in Soviet times.”
This secrecy also explains why in the late 90s SOCAR wouldn’t let film producers on The World Is Not Enough shoot a James Bond chase sequence. Instead an enormous set, based on photos of the complex, was built at the UK’s Pinewood studios.
Interestingly, and again in time for the 60th anniversary, they allowed a team of Swiss filmmakers to shoot a feature documentary, Oil Rocks: City Above the Sea, released in 2009. Today the platforms of Oil Rocks continue their slide into the sea. While I gave up trying to source more recent photos, these ones still paint a compelling picture. Like a rusting Atlantis, or a set from Waterworld, Oil Rocks is a Soviet relic from an oil race with the West.
“Oily Rocks is never far from my mind,” wrote former engineer Seyyad Ibrahimov in 1997. “It's both legend and reality—a combination of passion and romanticism, heroism and routine, all blended together in my heart like a sweet melody.”