Found in the perpetual darkness of the deep, not MH370, but a forgotten shipwreck

As southern winter conditions compromise southern Indian Ocean searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 a mystery shipwreck has been found on the sea bed.

The Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) says the wreck is previously uncharted and the imagery will be provided to expert marine archaeologists for possible identification.

The high definition scans made by the heavy duty autonomous underwater vehicle or AUV show an anchor, a chest like object, and what appear to be lumps of coal and white sea stars on the sea floor at a depth of 3900 metres.

This is how the JACC and ATSB describe the discovery.

Fugro Equator’s deep tow system detected a cluster of small sonar contacts in the southern part of the search area, 12 nautical miles to the east of the 7th arc. The sonar data was carefully analysed and categorised as Class 2 – “of potential interest but unlikely to be related to MH370.” It could not, however, be ruled out.

“We were cautious about this,” said the ATSB’s Peter Foley, Director of the Operational Search for MH370. “There were characteristics of the contact that made it unlikely to be MH370, but there were also aspects that generated interest, multiple small bright reflections in a relatively small area of otherwise featureless seabed. All the sonar data we gather goes through a detailed analysis and an exhaustive review process to ascertain its quality, coverage and most importantly any sonar contacts of interest. The analysis starts with the mission crew on board the search vessels, data is then reviewed again ashore by sonar analysts at Fugro’s office in Perth and then it is independently reviewed by the sonar experts in the ATSB’s Operational Search team. The process is methodical, meticulous and it is designed to ensure that nothing is missed. In this case we  planned to resurvey the contact in more detail when the opportunity arose.”

Therefore Fugro Supporter was tasked to divert on its passage between two search areas and further investigate the contact.  A high-resolution sonar scan was performed using the AUV. The high-resolution data revealed a large number of sonar contacts lying very close to the seafloor, at a depth of around 3900 metres. The majority of the contacts were comparatively small – around the size of a cricket ball – interspersed with a few larger items, the biggest being box shaped and approximately 6 metres in its longest dimension.  The debris field appeared to be of man-made origin but once again it did not exhibit all the characteristics of a typical aircraft debris field.

An additional AUV low-altitude mission was then undertaken using the underwater camera to gather images of the field.  Poor weather conditions, however, prevented the safe launching of the AUV for several days. 

Analysis of the images this week revealed that the debris was indeed man-made, but indicated that it was actually the wreck of a ship.  This wreck is previously uncharted and the imagery will be provided to expert marine archaeologists for possible identification.    

“It’s a fascinating find,” said Foley, “but it’s not what we’re looking for. We’re not pausing in the search for MH370, in fact the vessels have already moved on to continue the mission. Obviously, we’re disappointed that it wasn’t the aircraft, but we were always realistic about the likelihood. And this event has really demonstrated that the systems, people and the equipment involved in the search are working well. It’s shown that if there’s a debris field in the search area, we’ll find it.”

More information, images and diagrams can be found here.

As reported last week, Fugro Supporter has been withdrawn from the search fleet. However the AUV, for which it was the operating ship, is being stored for the duration of the adverse winter sea conditions in the area, making it available at short notice if it needs to cast its sharp sonar side scanning eyes over further objects of interest.

What further unexpected discoveries like in wait in this wild place?

Only one jet airliner has disappeared without trace in the southern Indian Ocean, but legions of seafarers and their ships have vanished in its vastness in recent centuries, lying scattered over the perpetually dark mountains, abyssal plains and canyons that lie hidden in its depths.

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