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Sunken History

HMAS-AE1 in 1914
The HMAS-AE1 in Portsmouth, England, 1914. Photo courtesy the Australian War Memorial.

From almost the beginning of human history, humans have been fascinated with the water covering more than two-thirds of the globe – and what might lie beneath its surface.

People have explored and attempted to cross the oceans since the dawn of humanity. Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated, in his 20th century Kon-Tiki and Ra expeditions, that even the earliest people could, and probably did, take to the sea. Along the way countless ships and – according to legend – at least one island have been lost, never to be seen again. While no one has yet found the ruins of (the almost certainly fictional) Atlantis, modern scanning, mapping and robotics technology has allowed for a growing tide of discoveries of ancient and modern shipwrecks.

A recent example is the discovery of the wreck of the HMAS-AE1, Australia’s first submarine. The 800-ton vessel vanished in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, and while it and its 35-member crew were assumed lost shortly thereafter, no one knew what became of the AE1 until an unmanned vehicle discovered its final resting place 103 years later.

Various parties have seriously attempted searches for the first Allied submarine casualty of the war since as early as the 1970s. Even Jacques Cousteau tried his hand at finding the AE1. But it took technology as cutting-edge as the AE1 itself had been in 1914 to put an end to the mystery. The Hugin 1000, a robotic submarine which can operate autonomously or by remote control, comes equipped with a variety of instruments that allowed it to identify and, eventually, photograph the wreckage. Earlier efforts had been hampered by the undersea terrain, including uneven depths and large boulders that interrupted scans.

Though no one alive today personally knew the lost crew members, the Australian government is attempting to contact their descendants in order to give families a sense of closure. The discovery also answers lingering questions about the AE1’s fate; historians had long wondered whether it was sunk by the enemy or suffered an accident such as striking a reef. While the cause of the sinking remains uncertain, the new photographs have led military historians to suggest it sank as a result of an accidentally open hatch, flooding the submarine when it dove.

People search for lost ships for many reasons. I can think of at least four: glory, treasure, history and emotional closure.

Arguably the wreck that brought its finder the most acclaim in modern times was the Titanic, a wreck that caught the public’s imagination almost as soon as the ship went down in 1912. While many people might not know Robert Ballard’s name today, his discovery of the wreck in 1985 made headlines worldwide. It also fascinated filmmaker James Cameron, leading him to bookend his blockbuster 1997 epic with actual underwater footage of the wreck.

The Titanic wreck also illustrates another motivation for searching for shipwrecks: the recovery of valuable artifacts. Though Ballard himself has vocally opposed salvage operations, arguing that they are disrespectful to those who died in the sinking and that they have damaged the physical remains of the ship, his French collaborators founded an operation that has recovered more than 5,500 items since Titanic’s discovery.

While that salvage operation has not been a treasure hunt in the traditional sense, some wrecks are more overtly lucrative. A 2015 discovery off the Florida coast yielded gold artifacts valued at over $1 million, according to ABC News. Finding artifacts can be equally important to those with historical motivations, of course. A shipwreck recently discovered off the coast of Oman yielded what archaeologists believe to be the earliest example of an astrolabe, a common navigational tool for mariners. And a Chinese ship from about 700 years ago contained more than 100 articles, including oil lamps, mirrors and dragon figurines.

War wrecks like the AE1 hold special significance for historians, and searches of this kind have enjoyed increased success rates in the past few decades. In 2017, the WWII ship USS Indianapolis – well-known to war buffs and fans of “Jaws” alike – was found in the Philippine Sea. Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft, financed that search, as well as a 2015 expedition that found the wreck of Musashi, a Japanese battleship. In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Navy announced that they had found the long-missing USS Conestoga off the coast of California, 95 years after its unexplained disappearance. Some hugely historically significant finds have even been accidents; over the past few years, an international group of scientists conducting unrelated research discovered 60 shipwrecks in the Black Sea, including some over 2,500 years old.

The motivations of historical knowledge and emotional closure often overlap. The AE1’s discovery offered new insights to both historians and the family members of those lost in the sinking. Similarly, the discovery of the HMS Erebus a few years ago shed additional light on the tragic loss of its crew, as well as the particular circumstances that contributed to the disaster. For more recent wrecks, knowing what became of loved ones can be a powerful motivation to continue a search long after hope of rescue is gone. Kinship, science and money all play a role in the intermittent continuing effort to locate Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, believed to be somewhere at the bottom of the southern Indian Ocean.

There are still plenty of wrecks, including famous vessels like Columbus’ Santa Maria and Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, waiting to be discovered. There are also lost aircraft, notably the Lockheed Electra flown by Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan when they disappeared in 1937. When we learn more about what happened to long-ago mariners, aviators and travelers, we ultimately learn more about ourselves.

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