They haven’t found the world’s most-famous missing airplane yet, but they have found a deep, dark, and awesome world beneath the Indian Ocean that nobody has seen before.
It turns out that the Australian-led search for the remains of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has brought scientific revelations way beyond its primary purpose—as well as encountering ghosts from another age of seafaring, the victims of storms that must have been as terrifying as any in the narratives of Joseph Conrad.
When the operation to find the Boeing 777 began nearly two years ago few could imagine how formidable the physical challenges would be.
By cruel chance, the fleet assigned to the search faced one of the most remote stretches of ocean in the world, 1,700 miles away from the nearest ports in western Australia, in a trench that was as much as 20,000 feet deep. Moreover, the ocean bed had never been mapped.
Now in their final months, and with about 16,000 square miles of ocean floor left to search, the pressure for a successful result is mounting on searchers. And as it does there are setbacks—like an event on Jan. 24 when a towfish, a torpedo-like sonar device being towed on a cable, collided with a gigantic mud-spewing volcano.
Nearly 15,000 feet of cable broke away as the towfish became trapped on a ridge of the volcano. To show the challenges they face, the Australians released a computer-generated three-dimensional image of the volcano—with the stranded towfish and cable lying across it.
For sure, this volcano is not something you would want to encounter above the water, let alone in the deep. At around 4,900 feet it’s higher than the most notorious volcano in history, Vesuvius (4,200 feet). Even then, its summit is more than 1.3 miles beneath the surface of the ocean.
Bear in mind, though, that those vivid computer-generated colors are there to clearly convey the contours, not the reality. All the images of the ocean floor used in the search are created by sonar, not by cameras with an eye. In reality this monster would be virtually invisible in the dense and scummy darkness of the deep. This science is sightless.
There are more monsters from where this one came.
“Geoscience Australia have identified over 220 individual volcanoes of varying size up to 1,500 meters high and 15 kilometers in diameter,” Dan O’Malley, the spokesman for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, told The Daily Beast.
Before the area believed to be the final resting place of Flight 370 could be searched by submersibles, it was mapped by bathymetric sonar, using scanners mounted on a ship’s hull. When the whole 46,000 square mile search field was revealed in relief for the first time the picture was of something that even a movie special effects artist would have thought far-fetched.
At the northern end of the search area was a subterranean mountain range like the Alps that extends far west into the Indian Ocean. In the heart of the search area, as well as the volcanoes, there are deep rift valleys with very steep gradients. Although large parts of the seafloor are relatively flat, they are covered in a deep layer of silt that shifts around in currents.
“Conditions on the sea floor can make piloting the towfish a complex and difficult task,” says O’Malley.
The operators in the vessels above have to judge when to raise or lower the towfish to avoid colliding with the terrain. Normally, when they feel the conditions are too challenging for the towfish they call in an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). Because it is not attached to a cable it is able to maneuver more nimbly in difficult spaces. But the loss of the towfish on the volcano shows how difficult it is for the operators to “read” the terrain.
At the end of February the three ships in the search will be joined by a fourth, sent by China and equipped with an American-made towfish and operated by the American company Phoenix International. This replaces a vessel that was pulled out of the search last summer when Malaysia stopped funding it; China has so far contributed $20 million to the search.
However, it was not the weird world beneath the waves that turned these waters into a maritime graveyard. A mighty force of nature was at work above in what the Australians came to call the Great Southern Ocean.
Between latitudes 40 and 50 degrees air drawn down from the equator toward the Antarctic converges with the effects of the Earth’s rotation, producing powerful prevailing westerly winds. Centuries ago sailors called them the Roaring Forties.
They were like a kiss from the devil: on one hand they provided a rocket-like boost for sailing ships on the main southern route between Europe and Asia; on the other they could smash and sink a crippled or mishandled vessel. (In those seas a lost or damaged rudder could mean disaster.) And the Southern Hemisphere winters were hell, adding tropical cyclones to the violence.
Over the centuries hundreds of ships foundered and were lost. Two of them have been found in the search for Flight 370.
Last March the wreck of a 19th century cargo ship was found and then, in December, sonar on a towfish located a larger object on the seafloor. Two weeks later, when an AUV reached the site, at a depth of 12,800 feet, it turned out to be the wreck of another cargo ship, 260 feet long, built some time in the late 19th or early 20th century.
The sonar image of the wreck was clear enough for Ross Anderson, a maritime archaeologist from the Shipwreck Galleries of the Western Australian Museum, to be able to describe its death throes:
“It is sitting upright and very intact,” he said. “It appears it is collapsing in typical iron ship fashion with the bow and stern upright and intact and the side plating collapsing out to starboard.”
There was no chance of identifying the ship, he added.
Although the search for Flight 370 attempts to keep going 24/7, the last Southern Hemisphere winter caused frequent delays. For example, the AUV that found the latest shipwreck had only just returned to the search because the conditions had been too bad for it to operate safely, including a cyclone that generated 50-foot waves. On two occasions, ships had to make urgent returns to their home port of Fremantle with injured or sick crew members because they were too far out of range to be reached by medivac helicopters.
All this has served to remind us that in many ways what lies beneath the nearly three quarters of the Earth’s surface covered by the oceans is less well known (and far less easily seen) than the planets of the solar system.
There seems to be something innately disturbing about the underwater vastness of our planet that discourages exploration. (That is unless you have the resources and curiosity of James Cameron—the director of Titanic became so drawn to the deep that he designed his own machine to explore its extremes. His Deepsea Challenger went nearly seven miles down into the terrifying wormhole of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific.)
I have always felt that part of the human fear of the deep is that it involves going down, not up. The sensation of sinking or drowning certainly arouses in me a primal horror. In contrast, we can readily accept the idea of “reaching for the stars” as the ultimate call to our imagination and even, perhaps, our soul—taking us on what is perceived as a spiritual as well as physical journey to the origins of the universe and of life itself.
“Reaching for the deep” just doesn’t have the same allure. It suggests a whole lot of risks that chill the spine, together with a menagerie of strange creatures that has evolved to survive at depths that humans cannot.
That’s why you won’t find deep-pocket dreamers like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos pushing to a new frontier beneath the sea rather than planning colonies on Mars. Also, of course, there is a new industry to be created in space, and money to be made. Mars may be a far away and inhospitable place but when it comes to scaring the bejesus out of us it cannot rival the fearsome Mariana Trench.