UNEXPLAINED

Episode Five:  What Lies Beneath

When we think of the great unknowns, it is often to the heavens that we have looked, gazing out into the deepness of space in wonder at what lies beyond. But what lies below the surface of our planet’s vast Oceans is perhaps almost equally mysterious.  And for some it is a world that will never be glimpsed in any way at all.

Since time immemorial, the ocean has held a powerful grip on the imagination of all cultures that have come into contact with it. Through the power of myth and folklore it is a raging manifestation of all that is unknown. For some it is the very embodiment of freedom, for others nothing less than the murky fluid of their darkest nightmares. 

In Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, it is to water that the famed psychologist turns to elabourate his ideas. Where at the surface we find the conscious mind, down below, deeply submerged, lies a shadowy world of all that is repressed.

And yet, for all the myths and stories that have sprung from the sea, fantastical tales of monsters and mermaids, there remain those that make no allusions to metaphor, whose place is not for the pages of the poet or the psychologists couch but exist merely as a matter of record.  Stories of hidden worlds and unknown creatures that may yet prove to be beyond our wildest imaginations…

The Sea Monster has been ever present in ocean folklore since men and women first gazed across the surface of the mysterious deep.

Many creatures of myth and legend have since been found to be nothing but misidentified aquatic mammals; Creatures such as the beautiful and beguiling manatee that gave rise to the sirens of Greek mythology.

But there are also stories equally abundant, of strange sightings of creatures that that don’t quite tally with the known biology. Sightings such as the one experienced by Lutheran missionary Hans Egede in July 1734.

Whilst travelling on a ship bound for the city of Nuuk in Greenland, Egede claims to have seen a staggering creature, resembling nothing he had seen before.  With a small head, elongated neck and short body it propelled itself through the water using giant fins. Later when the sailors also saw its tail, it was judged to have measured longer than the whole length of the ship…

In December 1872, The HMS Challenger, captained by George Nares, set sail on a pioneering circumnavigation of the globe. On board were a team of scientists led by famed Scottish Zoologist Charles Thomson. Their mission: to map the physical conditions of the deep sea. What they discovered was nothing less then astounding.

The expedition, widely accepted to have marked the birth of oceanography is perhaps best known for the discovery of an area known as Challenger Deep.

Located at the bottom of the South Pacific part way between Guam and Palau, Challenger Deep is to be found at the southern tip of the Mariana Trench and is thought to mark the deepest point of the ocean floor. Although initially measured at over 8000 meters it has since been calculated as measuring as being closer to 11,000 meters.

To put it into context, if Mount Everest were placed at the bottom, there would still be over a mile of Ocean above its peak.  The region located roughly a mile below the surface is known as Deep Sea. Comprising 80% of the entirety of the oceans, more people have travelled into space than have been known to travel there.

Indeed, the Voyager 1 probe alone has explored over 12 billion miles of space, and with the incredible workings of the Hubble Telescope we have never before been able to see so far with present distances estimated to be roughly 13.8 billion light years.

But when it comes to the area that comprises 99% of all living space on the planet, it is estimated that we have explored less than 10% of it. A fact all the more startling when you consider the Deep Sea contains 80% of the earth’s entire biosphere. So when you put it like that, it’s hard not to wonder just what exactly might remain undiscovered, lurking deep, in the shadows…

It is a thought that has haunted one Russian sea captain for 30 years. The mystery of what happened to Soviet Nuclear Submarine K-219 when it ventured into the region known as the Bermuda Triangle in the early hours of Friday October 3rd 1986 has never fully been accounted for. Considered by some one of the most controversial incidents of the cold war it is a mystery that remains to this day unexplained...

For many there can perhaps be no more frightening notion than to be trapped in a glorified tin can deep below the ocean surface for months on end. But for Captain Second Rank Igor Britanov of the Soviet Navy it was the nearest thing to home, albeit a home stocked with a substantial number of nuclear warheads. For this was the cold war and the stakes could not have been higher.

Although believed by some to have never ended, the war is generally regarded to have taken place between 1947 and 1991 between the Western Bloc powers of the United States and Nato and the Eastern Bloc, spearheaded by the Soviet Union. 

An intensely complicated period of proxy wars and nuclear threats, it is perhaps best summed up by the series of cat and mouse games played out by submarines of the Soviet and United States navies. 

In early September 1986, the Submarine K-219, captained by the experienced Igor Britanov set off from the port town of Ghadzyevo located in the north west of Russia. On board the vessel was a total of 115 crew and 42 nuclear missiles and torpedo warheads.

30 days into the mission, on October 3rd, the sub was patrolling a stretch of water roughly 680 miles north east of the British Territory of Bermuda.

At approximately 05:14 one of the crew’s engineers noticed something alarming in missile compartment no IV. Salt water appeared to be dripping from under the plug of one of the sub’s nuclear missiles. Their alarm turned to panic when an attempt at decompression turned the slowly dripping water into a full on gushing stream.  At 05:25 the engineer alerted Captain Britanov who immediately ordered the sub to the safer depth of 46 meters in an attempt to pump out the water from the missile silo. 

Minutes later a brown cloud of oxidant issued from the missile plug, the missile casing had split. A full-scale emergency was declared and all personnel were instantly evacuated from the area with the exception of nine crewmen who stayed behind to fix the problem.

But it was too late.

Moments later at 05:38 a huge explosion ripped through compartment number IV.  Two crewman were killed instantly by the blast and another died shortly after from toxic fume inhalation. Most alarmingly, for the remainder of the crew, the explosion had torn open the hull and the Submarine began rapidly taking on water.

The vessel made a sickening lurch before quickly plummeting deeper and deeper into the darkest depths of the ocean. Incredibly the crew managed to close off all compartments and eventually they were able to engage the sea-water pumps. As the submarine approached crush depth, it began to stabilise.

The crew, now wearing gas masks and safely positioned in the bow and stern of the vessel, breathed a collective sigh of relief. The worst appeared to be over.

But something was deeply wrong.  

In the event of major catastrophe, the nuclear reactors were programmed to shut down. But as the Chief Engineer carried out a check of the ship’s instruments, he noticed something odd. The temperature of the nuclear reactor was rising.  In short, the reactor was in imminent danger of a complete nuclear melt down.

The engineer scrambled to the control station in an attempt to initiate a remote shut down but the damage had been too great. It would have to be done manually.

Although all vessels were equipped with contamination suits, there was nothing on board capable of protection from the gamma and neutron radiation of the reactor’s core.  It was clear to all the men that any attempt at a manual shut down would be fatal. 

At this point a twenty-year-old sailor named Sergei Preminin. The son of an electrician and a factory worker, as a young boy, it had been Sergei’s dream to follow in the footsteps of his oldest brother Nicholas by becoming an engineer. A dream he took a step closer to achieving after graduating from engineering school in 1984. Shortly after however, Sergei was drafted into the Russian Navy.

Fully aware of the severity of the situation, Sergei volunteered to shut the reactor down. 

Together with Senior Reactor Officer Lt. Nikolay Belikov, he donned the regulation safety suit and full-face gas mark, and duly entered the burning reactor chamber.

After they managed to reinsert 3 out of the four displaced fuel rods, Nikolay Belikov succumbed to the 70-degree heat, just managing to evacuate the chamber before falling unconscious. In a monumental effort, Sergei completed the last part on his own, successfully engaging the fourth rod.

But when Sergei tried to reach his colleagues on the other side of the compartment, the chamber hatch would not budge. The rising temperature in the room had increased the pressure so much that it had become impossible to open. As his colleagues tried desperately to rescue him from the other side, Sergei too succumbed to the heat and soon after died. 

The young sailor’s actions had saved the rest of the crew and in so doing prevented a certain nuclear catastrophe. The consequences of such an event would have been on a scale comparable with the Chernobyl disaster that had occurred only 6 months previously.

With the reactor sufficiently secured, Submarine K-219 returned to the surface of the Atlantic. But when the conning tower hatch was opened, something extraordinary caught the attention of the crew. 

As Senior Assistant Captain Sergey Vladinova recounts, all the way along the left side just above the missile silos, was what looked like two huge scratch marks.  The gouge extended from the edge of the damaged missile section right across to the port side of the vessel.

Clearly something big had collided with the submarine.  

A few days later, a Soviet freighter duly arrived to tow the damaged vessel back to port.  Despite repeated efforts to salvage the vessel a series of gas leaks prompted Captain Britanov, to order an immediate evacuation of the vessel.

At 1100 hours on October 6th Captain Igor Britanov became the last living man to exit submarine K-219. 3 minutes later, the vessel, along with the body of Sergei Preminin sank to a depth of roughly 6000 meters, where it remains to this day. The heroic Preminin was posthumously awarded the Order of the Red Star for his bravery.

Shortly after retuning home, all the surviving members of the crew were required to take part in what became a year-long investigation into the precise cause of the explosion.  However, the full results of the investigation have never come to light and nor are they likely to, since all the men were ordered to sign non-disclosure agreements prior to the investigation.

However, after a series of simulations and careful analysis the Soviet Navy were satisfied that the disaster had not been the fault of the crew but was indeed due to the impact of external factors; The most likely culprit being a submarine belonging to the United States.

On the other side of the world attention soon focused on reports of a US vessel that had been damaged at some point in the early part of October.  The submarine US Augusta had been taken to the Port of New London Connecticut to repair damage caused by an apparent collision.  It is believed that the Augusta had been patrolling the same area of ocean as K-219.

And yet Soviet intelligence at the time indicated not a single NATO submarine had in fact been repaired around the time of the incident.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US Navy denied all involvement despite the Soviet Navy’s insistence that the boat was indeed rammed.

Had this in fact been a cover-up of the US Navy it is strange that over 30 years later this stance is still strongly maintained by the American Government. What is even more surprising however is that Captain Britanov himself has also denied the allegations, claiming unequivocally that he did not collide with an American submarine.

In 2010 a Soviet Captain of the first rank called Nikolai Tushin, gave an extraordinary interview to the Russian news website Pravda.ru. Tushin, the former deputy commander of a brigade of nuclear submarines, appeared convinced that although K-219 had collided with something, whatever it was, was not man made. Instead, he believed the vessel had been brought down by a mysterious unidentified underwater object known in maritime circles as a ‘Quacker.’

The oddly named ‘Quacker' gets its name from a mysterious sound frequently picked up by submarine audio equipment. Resembling something between the quack of a duck and the croak of a frog it is thought by many submariner crew to belong to an unknown creature of the deep or perhaps even something somewhat more alien.

The phenomenon is thought to have first come to our attention due to the advances in sonar equipment necessitated by the arms race of the Cold War.  And when you take into account the extreme hyper vigilance of the operatives of the Soviet and US navies at the time, it is quite probable that these sounds had just not been noticed before.

In a particularly striking story, one submarine sailor recounts picking up the fabled 'Quackery' sound while out on a routine operation. His readings suggested something of significant size that appeared to be circling the vessel, in what he believed was a benign attempt to make contact.

Incidentally, in 2009 the Russian Government released a number of previously classified documents.  The reports were taken from a Soviet Navy group specifically established to document unexplained incidents reported by naval vessels. 

Former navy officer Vladimir Azhazha points to one incident in particular, where a complete submarine system malfunction occurred as an unidentified object was recorded close by, travelling at the seemingly impossible speed of 250 miles per hour. 

In another report, one navy intelligence veteran noting that the strange UFOs were most prone to appear in the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, specifically the Bermuda Triangle.

In 1957 a team of Soviet explorers led by Aleksei Treshnikov set off from research station on the coast of Antarctica in search of the geomagnetic south pole. After a hellish journey suffering intense storms and extreme cold, the team arrived at their destination on 16th December. A research centre was quickly established, it has since become known as Vostok station.  Temperature readings taken from the area have confirmed the region as the coldest known place on earth.

However, 80 million years ago, the frozen desert we now know as Antarctica was an equatorial region making up part of the supercontinent known as Gondwanaland.  Home to dinosaurs and a number of other creatures, the land was a thick mass of ferns and other tropical vegetation.

At some point the land began to fragment and split apart with the bit we now call the Antarctic eventually settling millions of years later over the South-Pole. Over time the vegetation changed to be replaced by thick forests of deciduous trees. It became home to a colourful array of birds, reptiles and mammals. Rivers and streams teamed with life as the ecosystem adjusted to a post dinosaur world.

But then, things began to change.

A radical drop in greenhouse gas levels led to a deep freeze that engulfed the continent. As the temperature plummeted the ecosystem was irreversibly altered resulting in the extinction of all the terrestrial animals.  The lakes and rivers frosted over until eventually they were locked under sheets of ice thousands of meters thick. 

In 1975 a team of British scientists were conducting a seismic survey of the area when they discovered something extraordinary. Trapped deep below the ice was what appeared to be a huge freshwater lake. Now known as Lake Vostok, satellite images taken in 1996 depict the mass of water as being similar in size to Lake Ontario.

Even more incredibly, despite being trapped for hundreds of thousands of years, the lake was found to be teaming with life from single cell bacteria, to molluscs and worms and even fairly complex arthropods.

Is it completely inconceivable that such undiscovered ecosystems may exist in other parts of the planet, perhaps fostering the life of creatures once thought extinct or that may not yet have even been discovered? 

For anyone doubting the likelihood of such an occurrence it is worth bearing in mind the mythic tales of the mighty Kraken. The great aquatic monster of Norwegian folklore is thought likely to have been based on sailors’ reports of the Giant Squid, a creature that was itself once thought to be a myth.

In fact, despite extensive efforts to capture footage of the creature in their natural habitat, it wasn’t until 2004 that a team of Japanese scientists were finally successful in doing so.

The great aquatic monsters such as the Kraken may of course prove to be nothing but figments of our imagination, embodiments of the many subconscious fears that we might one day defeat.

But perhaps for a moment consider the so called monsters hidden from view deep below the waves. Maybe they are hiding for a reason.    For you can be certain what fate might await them if they were ever foolish enough to show themselves.

It makes you wonder, just what would they make of us?

 

© Richard MacLean Smith

 

Sources

1.    Aurora, V. (2001) Freudian Metaphor and Surrealist Metalanguage in Michel Leiris' Failles: The Unconscious and the Sea, Columbia University, http://litte.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/litte/article/download/29737/27325

2.    Mikhailov, A. (2013), The death of K-219 sub and Quakers, Pravda, http://www.pravdareport.com/society/stories/15-02-2013/123803-submarine_quakers-0/

3.    Mikhailov, A. (2010), K-219 death: Strategic nuclear mystery of Bermuda Triangle, Pravda, http://www.pravdareport.com/history/06-10-2010/115239-bermuda_triangle-0/

4.    Wikipedia entry on K-219 Submarine Incident, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_submarine_K-219

5.    Russian Navy UFO records say aliens love oceans (2009), RT, https://www.rt.com/news/russian-navy-ufo-records-say-aliens-love-oceans/

6.    Kilian. M, (1997), For Nuclear Subs And Their Crews, The Cold War Is Far From Over, The Chicago Tribune, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1997-07-23/features/9707230242_1_submarine-russian-navy-nuclear/2

7.    Website measuring the current location of the Voyager Space Probe: http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/where/

8.    Al-Khalili, J. & McFadden (2014), Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology, UK: Bantam Press

9.    Tennyson, A. L. (1830), The Kraken, Poets.org, https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/kraken