The Spanish research ship involved in a string of tense incursions over the weekend appeared to cut short its work yesterday, sailing from Gibraltar waters just after midday under stormy skies and amid a brewing diplomatic row.
As the vessel sailed out into the Alboran Sea in heavy rain and rough seas, diplomats worked to analyse the sequence of events that sparked the first spat between London and Madrid since Spain’s new Foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis Quecedo, took office earlier this month.
Both governments said they would file diplomatic protests over the events at sea, with UK MPs insisting that Britain should take a firm stance over the incursion.
Tory MP Bob Neill, the vice chairman of the Gibraltar group in the House of Commons, tweeted that the “strongest possible protest by [the] FCO [is] required.”
“Clearly [the] change of Spanish Foreign Minister has changed nothing.”
Strongest possible protest by FCO required – Cleary change of Spanish Foreign Minister has changed nothing https://t.co/VV04aEsSxY
— Bob Neill (@neill_bob) November 20, 2016
The Angeles Alvariño, which is operated by Spain’s state Oceanographic Institute, had been scheduled to be surveying an underwater canyon in the Bay of Gibraltar through to Friday.
But the Spanish vessel entered British waters several times without permission since last Friday, prompting the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron to challenge it repeatedly to cease operations.
On Sunday, the navy patrol boat fired three flares at different times of the day to warn the Spanish ship to leave the area.
A navy rigid-hull inflatable speedboat also manoeuvred close to the Spanish ship to prevent it from deploying a sonar buoy in British waters.
— Víctor Díaz-del-Río (@v_diazdelrio) November 20, 2016
Yesterday the Royal Navy research vessel HMS Scott sailed close to the Spanish ship as it left the Rock after a short refit at GibDock. The British ship spent much of the day yesterday to the east of Gibraltar.
“There have been a number of unlawful incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters by the Spanish state research vessel, the Angeles Alvariño, since Friday 18 November,” a Foreign Office spokesman said.
“The UK is protesting against the incursion directly to the Spanish authorities at a senior level, making clear that such violations of the UK’s sovereignty are unacceptable.”
“The UK continues to take very seriously any attempt by Spain to exercise jurisdiction or control within British Gibraltar Territorial Waters. Incursions are a violation of sovereignty.”
“They do not weaken or undermine the international legal basis for UK sovereignty over British Gibraltar Territorial Waters.”
The Spanish Government also indicated that it would file a counter protest.
A spokesman at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Madrid said Spain would complain about the Royal Navy’s “interference” with the scientific vessel.
According to the Madrid ministry, the Angeles Alvariño was conducting routine work in waters which “are Spanish”.
The Gibraltar Government was closely following developments on land and at sea.
Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said he had been in regular contact with the Commander British Forces, Commodore Mike Walliker, throughout the weekend while the incursions unfolded.
“I have discussed all the tactical decisions taken and am satisfied that they have been designed to demonstrate untrammelled sovereignty jurisdiction and control over British Gibraltar territorial waters,” he said.
“I congratulate the Royal Navy for the work they have undertaken so far in very challenging circumstances in light of the reckless disregard for safety displayed by the official Spanish vessels involved.”
Reflecting on an unrelated minor collision between two merchant vessels – one entering Algeciras, the other leaving – on Saturday, Mr Picardo added: “Given the accident last night in the Spanish side of the Bay of Gibraltar, Spain should know better than to play useless games of cat and mouse in our waters that endanger life and create risk for all mariners in the area.” “Diplomatic and political action must now support the excellent work undertaken by the navy personnel with limited resources.”
The Angeles Alvariño was conducting research into the Gibraltar Canyon – Spanish oceanographers call it the Algecias Canyon – as part of a study on tsunami risks, taking samples from the underwater trench that runs from the Strait of Gibraltar deep into the Bay of Gibraltar.
According to the Spanish Oceanographic Institute, the ship was to have spent seven days in the area taking seabed samples and recording the canyon’s geological features.
But yesterday, after a morning spent on the edge of British waters shadowed by the Royal Navy, the ship sailed to the east side of the Rock and out into the Alboran Sea.
On board, scientists took to Twitter to say they had completed their data collection and – tongue in cheek – bade farewell to the Royal Navy.
— Geociencias Marinas (@gemar_ieo) November 21, 2016
The number of incursions by Spanish state vessels has increased over the past year to the end of October 2016 compared to the preceding 12 months.
But tensions out at sea have in fact eased significantly during that time and most of the incursions are relatively minor when compared to some of the more serious incidents recorded last year.