The arrival of two giant structures in Aberdeen is the most visible sign yet of progress on the £350 million harbour expansion.
A total of 22 huge concrete blocks, or caissons, will be filled with water and sunk into the North Sea to form the foundations of the new Castlegate and Dunnottar quays.
These two quays will add more than 3,000ft of quayside and be used by larger vessels associated with sectors such as decommissioning, as well as cruise ships.
Weighing in at 6,000 tonnes and measuring 164x49x53ft, the first caisson arrived in the new south harbour during the early hours of Thursday February 28, in a milestone moment for the port’s overall expansion project.
It had left the Cromarty Firth three days earlier to travel the 180-nautical miles – at a safe speed of just two nautical miles per hour – to Aberdeen, escorted by a towage vessel, The Strathdon.
A second caisson arrived on Wednesday March 27.
Each one is named after a family member of someone closely involved with the harbour expansion.
Construction for the mammoth development got under way two years ago and much of the work to date has taken place below the waterline.
This includes the removal of nearly 50 million cubic feet of material during a dredging process which will continue throughout 2019, bringing the water depth down to the levels required to allow the port to accommodate larger vessels.
Work has started on the south breakwater, again below the waterline, which will emerge above water as 2019 progresses.
The north breakwater, is already visible above the waterline and will be completed later this year.
About 1,200 concrete armour units, or accropodes have also been placed on the north breakwater, protecting the harbour from storms. In total, 9,000 accropodes will be placed along the north and south breakwaters.
Harbour engineering director Keith Young said: “The arrival of the caissons is a logistical feat. We are thrilled that the quaysides are taking shape and providing an indication of their scale.
“The design of these units allows for incredibly strong quaysides which, in turn, allows us to create significant heavy-lift capacities over large areas.
“This is vital for our customers, who require more port-side capabilities for their projects.”
The remaining caissons are in the Cromarty Firth for quality checks and inspection after delivery from their Spanish manufacturing site.
They will be individually towed to the south harbour, when required, as construction progresses.
Piling work on Balmoral Quay started in 2018 and this will also continue throughout this year, forming the open quay section of the harbour.
Open quay sections allow energy from wave action to be absorbed, meaning calmer waters within the port.
Mr Young added: “There is a lot of work for Aberdeen harbour and our contractors, Dragados UK, to complete this year, but we are confident in our good working relationship and talented people working on the project.
“The combined “new Aberdeen harbour” that will emerge in the next two years will be truly unique; a distinct combination of scale, location and connectivity.
“We are all looking forward to achieving more major milestones this year, ahead of our mid-2020 opening.”
With the £1 billion-plus Aberdeen city byass road completed, the harbour expansion and new TECA (The Event Complex Aberdeen) development are among the biggest current construction projects in Scotland.
The work to expand the harbour into Nigg Bay is expected to help existing port users diversify and grow their businesses, while attracting many new customers and markets.
Aberdeen Harbour Board (AHB) is, for example, targeting a bigger share of the growing Scottish cruise ship industry.
The development also coincides with a major diversification push in the north-east, with key people in both the public and private sectors keen to reduce the region’s long standing reliance on the oil and gas industry.
The harbour has had a leading role in the local economy since long before oil exploration got under way.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is the oldest existing business in Britain due to a history spanning nearly 900 years.
First established as a business in 1136 by King David I of Scotland, the harbour has been a major hub of fishing, shipbuilding, textiles and the global transportation of stone from the city’s famous quarries, as well as for oil and gas.
It even once played host to the world’s best-known escapologist, Harry Houdini, who dived into the chilly North Sea in chains and handcuffs before emerging unscathed back in 1909.
The harbour has a section on its website – Our Unique Moment – encapsulating its past, present and future.
It says: “For almost 900 years, the existence of a safe harbour at the site where the Denburn and the Dee meet the North Sea has caused a whole city to develop and flourish around it.
“The harbour is at the very heart of Aberdeen creating prosperity for generations of Aberdonians for hundreds of years.
“We want to ensure that this not only continues for current and future generations, but that we play an increasing role in the economy of the north-east of Scotland, and of Scotland as a whole.”
AHB’s project to equip the harbour for the 21st Century and beyond will add thousands of feet of new quayside, with a water depth of up to 35ft, and create an additional 410,105sq ft of lay-down area.
Spanish-owned Dragados UK started work on the project in April 2017 after six years of consultation and lobbying by AHB among a wide range of stakeholders.
New breakwaters, access road improvements, parking, paths, lighting, signage and a project visitor centre are all part of the scheme, which is due for completion in the summer of 2020.
Harbour bosses sanctioned the development in December 2016, having already ploughed several hundred million pounds into improvements to the existing harbour facilities during recent decades.
An independent study commissioned by Scottish Enterprise estimated the project would generate an additional £1bn per annum to the country’s economy by 2035, while also creating an additional 7,000 full-time equivalent jobs.
Funding for the development has included a £200m loan from the European Investment Bank, plus £36m from the Aberdeen City and Region Deal and councils for improving nearby roads.