From Gibraltar, a local ship-spotter watches the new Cold War through binoculars: Russian, American and Chinese warships, among others, regularly come through the Strait between Europe and Africa, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.
GIBRALTAR — Michael J. Sanchez is a local retired policeman who has discovered a very global hobby to pass his time: watching, identifying and sometimes photographing ships that pass in front of the Rock of Gibraltar. Perched at this critical geographical juncture, he's noticed a bit less traffic than usual, as Russian ships no longer pass through Gibraltar because of the war in Ukraine.
On a recent week, a pair of support ships passed by: an oil tanker and a tugboat, on their way to Dover, UK. Two weeks ago a frigate, two smaller corvettes and a Russian tanker came through. Now, they are off the coast of Norway, where NATO is holding naval exercises. The opposing sides are face to face, looking right at each other. It's another Cold War.
I discovered Sanchez by happenstance and observation. On April 23, my mother, a keen coastline observer, noticed a column sticking out in the middle of the sea off the Gibraltar coast. It looked as if from one day to the next an oil platform had sprung into existence. I was with her at the time and while trying to unravel this mystery, we stumbled upon Sanchez's Twitter account. The retired policeman had reported, that it was an Italian frigate, and included a photo to his post.
Gibraltar is a gateway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. As a strategic enclave, its maritime traffic is some of the most intense in the world. So much so that the day before meeting Sanchez, he reported that three warships and a support tanker, all Russian, had sailed just a few kilometers from the Peninsula. The group was made up of two corvettes and the Admiral Grigorovich, a renowned frigate.
According to Europa Sur, it was responsible for bombing Aleppo in 2016, as part of the Kremlin’s support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime during the Syrian civil war.
A barometer of geopolitical conflict
"There's something interesting," says Sanchez, pointing to the Moroccan coast, just 27 kilometers (17 miles) away. He is staked out by the lighthouse at Punta Europa, the southernmost tip of the British colony. Two weeks after the Russian warships passed through, Sanchez peers through his binoculars, raising his long-lens camera to take a picture.
Everyone spies on each other, including between allies.
"I'll have to study it carefully on the computer, but it looks like a Russian spy ship," he says, as a group of European tourists get off a bus nearby. "The Chinese and U.S. pass through here too. They have ships with a lot of antennas and radars. Some of them are even fishing boats. They collect communications wherever they go. Everyone spies on each other, including between allies."
Their "Oohs" at the proximity of the African continent become "Ohs" when they notice the number of ships around them. The majority are tankers waiting to receive orders, or to enter the port of Algeciras, Spain.
Sanchez's earliest ancestor to arrive on the Rock was a merchant who shipped goods from Barcelona. According to family legend, in 1834 someone warned him that if he returned to Spain, he would be imprisoned for an unknown reason. A century later, Sanchez's grandfather worked in the infirmary at the Gibraltar naval base. His father also worked there as an electrician, and even his wife, whose family is of Italian origin, was hired there for a time. "I don't know if that's where my passion comes from, but now that I'm retired, this is what I devote my days to." Even when he was a policeman, Sanchez didn't hesitate to lose sleep if someone rang to warn him that a warship was passing by.
The Vessel HMS Scott cold moved from the Commercial ship repair Gibdock Shipyard to HM Naval Base South Mole, Gibraltar.
Global turbulence in maritime traffic
"Since '77, I've kept a diary of everyone who has passed through. Back then, there were an average of 200 boats a year. There are fewer these days, because with one ship you do the work four used to. Now, there are between 40 and 50 a year, which is more than in the 2000s. In the wake of the Syrian war, especially since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, traffic has increased. We've seen more Russian ships, some Chinese and even some Indian," he explains nonchalantly, avoiding any kind of political judgement — not only because it is part of the shipspotting culture to avoid tension, but also because he is genuinely more interested in the ships.
But, inevitably, Sanchez and the 20 or so amateurs on the Rock dedicated to identifying these vessels quickly noticed how the turbulence of international geopolitics results in changes in the channel's maritime traffic.
In his diary, Sanchez recorded the passage of 26 Russian warships in 2022, and 32 in 2021. "Russia no longer holds the bases that the USSR had in Algeria, Tunisia or Egypt. It still has the Tartus naval base in Syria, but it has to go to Russia for relief." Sanchez noticed a sharp drop in the number of Russian merchant ships because of global sanctions. He counted only 12 in 2022: "They come from Turkey, often refuel in Algeria and circle this way to go to Russia."
But not all vessels are visible. As with air traffic, there are areas where radar and satellite images are not published. This is the case around Ukraine and the Black Sea. "Ships are visible once they cross the Bosphorus. And there we have colleagues who alert us: "Hey, such and such a ship is heading that way,'" says Sanchez, as he watches a commercial airliner that has just taken off from Gibraltar airport. He looks at the time and clarifies: "It's the one going to Heathrow. Sanchez lives to the Rock rhythm.
U.S. wars of yesterday and today
Besides what happens on his doorstep, the ex-policeman tracks the main players in conflicts, such as U.S. aircraft carriers.
It's back to the 1970s, when ships were getting too close to each other.
"On May 2, the (U.S. warship) Gerald R. Ford left Virginia for maneuvers in the North Sea. There, it encountered the Russians. It then moved on to the Mediterranean, because the U.S. always has an aircraft carrier stationed here. And then the Russians followed it again. We're back to the 1970s, when ships got too close to each other to 'Flying the flag' as we say. The problem is not that they are attacking each other. But if there is any mistake on either side, the consequences could be devastating," he said, without fuss.
A few meters from where we are sheltering from the wind, stands the great Ibrahim al-Ibrahim mosque, built by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia in 1997.
Sanchez recalls the U.S. heavy traffic during the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and, to a lesser extent, Iraq in 2003. "'That was crazy; it was non-stop,' he says.
Sanchez at Punta Europa, Gibraltar.
Risk of nuclear submarines
For years now, spotters have been letting each other know when they see, or hear, U.S. planes arriving from the navy base in Rota, Spain. They usually fly in zig zags for hours over windy, choppy waters. "When they're circling like that, we know they're trying to identify something underwater — like nuclear submarines."
When they are British, it is not uncommon for them to surface, like the HMS Audacious, which docked in the military port on March 3. The nuclear-powered British Navy submarine was returning from NATO surveillance and intelligence work in the eastern Mediterranean. The ship carries Tomahawk land attack missiles and Spearfish heavy torpedoes, according to Europa Sur.
The NGO Verdemar–Ecologists in Action has spent years condemning the United Kingdom's use of the military port of Gibraltar. By repairing nuclear submarines there, it "puts the population of the Strait of Gibraltar at risk," they argue.
Sanchez agrees that "Gibraltar specializes in the maintenance and provisioning of submarines," without going into the nuclear question.
Spy ships in a proxy Cold War
Sanchez returns to peering at the boat on the horizon through his binoculars. He is increasingly convinced that, from its silhouette and movement, it may be a spy ship. "The Soviet Union had many fishing boats that fished for whatever they could, not just mackerel. Now they still do, as do all other countries, often with merchant ships."
So we have a proxy right here — these two worst enemies stuck together, facing each other.
A few months ago, while using sites that track boats around the world, like Vesselfinder, he got a nagging feeling about a vessel that appeared to be a fishing boat. It had the same registration as another ship he identified a few weeks before, that was now in the North Sea. Cross-checking with other searchers, they concluded that it was a camouflaged Russian warship.
The Russians aren't the only ones — there are also Americans, Spaniards, Brits and Italians. And, American numbers have declined. "With the change from Obama to Trump, his administration was no longer so friendly to England, so we clearly saw a downturn in boats. But their big submarines do keep coming, especially those carrying ballistic missiles," he points out.
But there is something less visible that Sanchez is much more concerned about. "We are 180 miles from the Moroccan-Algerian border. All of Algeria's military equipment is supplied by China and Russia. Meanwhile, the United States supply Morocco. So we have a proxy right here — these two worst enemies stuck together, facing each other. Algeria has anti-ship missiles with a range of 400 kilometers. We are much closer than that, but there is no need to fire them at land. If it hits a merchant ship, the Strait of Gibraltar will be closed. The entire world economy would be affected because maritime traffic would have to go around Africa," he warns.
Gibraltar aerial view looking northwest
Power of controlling Gibraltar
Sanchez is a proud llanito (Gibraltarian) who celebrates the role played by Gibraltar in World War II. "The Strait was open. France and Italy went over to Hitler's side. If the Rock had fallen, the Mediterranean would have been closed and it would have been a big problem. So far, whoever has controlled the Strait has had the upper hand," he concludes. The Rock towers in the background, a military zone restricted to the British Army, punctured by kilometers of tunnels.
I met with Sanchez on Sunday, May 7, the day after the coronation of British King Charles III. Besides the abundant decoration deployed for the occasion by the local government, the llanitos added photographs of the monarch and Crown symbols to the British flags that usually decorate homes on the Rock. During the ceremony, the British Government sent one of its finest vessels, the HMS Scott, to Gibraltar to mark the occasion. It is the largest oceanographic observation vessel in Western Europe. Decorated with international maritime signal flags, it shows that Gibraltar’s relevance comes from controlling a place where the world's conflicts are best measured.