Did an Optical Illusion sink the Titanic?

Back in 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean, taking over 1,500 lives in the process. But how did this happen?

Did an Optical Illusion sink the Titanic?

Recently, we wrote about how lunar tides may have caused the iceberg to end up in the Titanic’s path. However, this doesn’t explain how the crew managed to miss it. One intriguing possibility is that the lookouts were thrown off by an optical illusion. According to British historian Tim Maltin, the iceberg may have been shielded by a phenomenon known as super refraction. In other words, a thermal inversion caused light waves to bend in strange ways, effectively creating a false horizon from the Titanic’s point of view. Here’s more on whether or not an optical illusion sunk the Titanic from Popsci:

The Titanic may have struck an iceberg and sank helplessly because of a strange atmosphere-caused optical illusion, a new book argues. British historian Tim Maltin says super refraction, an extraordinary bending of light that causes mirages, prevented the Titanic’s crew from seeing the fateful iceberg…

…This abnormal bending of light waves would have created a false horizon, and the iceberg lay beneath it, out of view of the ship’s lookouts…

(See Popsci for more on whether or not an optical illusion sunk the Titanic)

Did Lunar Tides Sink the Titanic?

On April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean, taking 1,517 people to a watery grave. But how did it happen?

Did Lunar Tides Sink the Titanic?

The fate of the Titanic is well known. In 1912, it crashed into an iceberg and sank sank in the North Atlantic Ocean. Over 1,500 people died in the process. But how did that particular iceberg enter the Titanic’s shipping lane in the first place?

According to modern astronomers, the answer might lie in the tides…the lunar tides. Here’s more on the Titanic and lunar tides from The Daily Mail:

‘The event January 4 was the closest approach of the Moon to the Earth in more than 1,400 years, and it maximized the Moon’s tide-raising forces on Earth’s oceans. That’s remarkable,’ said Texas State physics faculty member Donald Olson…

All these factors contributed to abnormally high sea levels which helped dislodge grounded icebergs and send them into the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic, it is claimed…

‘That could explain the abundant icebergs in the spring of 1912. We don’t claim to know exactly where the Titanic iceberg was in January 1912 – nobody can know that – but this is a plausible scenario.’

(See The Daily Mail for more on the Titanic and lunar tides)

How much Treasure lies Underwater?

Don’t worry shipwreck hunters…according to some estimates, as much as $60 billion in sunken treasure still lies beneath the ocean’s surface.

How much Treasure still lies Underwater?

No one knows for sure how much treasure lies underwater, waiting to be discovered. But according to recent estimates, as much as $60 billion in sunken treasure still awaits the intrepid treasure hunter. Here’s more on underwater treasure estimates from Popular Mechanics:

It’s been a busy month for shipwreck headlines and shipwreck hunters. The team that announced the discovery of the Port Nicholson, a World War II–era British merchant ship found 50 miles off the coast of Maine, says it bore 71 tons of platinum ingots worth about $3 billion. Other shipwreck hunters turned up the HMS Victory, which sank in the English Channel in 1744 with a “secret” cargo of gold valued at $1 billion. And, in an episode that shows the high stakes of shipwreck salvaging, Spain is currently recovering the estimated $500 million haul of gold and silver from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes that sank in 1804; an American company found the ship but lost court cases to Spain over the rights to the treasure.

All this undersea treasure hunting got us wondering: Just how much money is out there buried at sea? We put the question to marine archeologists, a historian, and a shipwreck hunter. Their answers ranged from “Who knows?” to “$60 billion”—and each was instructive…

(See What’s the Total Value of the World’s Sunken Treasure? for the rest)

The Black Swan Heist?

On May 18, 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration flew 17 tons of salvaged gold and silver coins to a secure facility in Florida. Now, five years later, U.S. courts have forced Odyssey to hand over this treasure to the Spanish government. What is the Black Swan Heist?

Odyssey & the Mysterious Black Swan Project?

Odyssey is a publicly-held marine salvage company. In other words, it’s a treasure hunting firm. Back in 2007, Odyssey completed a top-secret salvage expedition known as the Black Swan Project, uncovering some 17 tons of coins and other artifacts in the process. The operation is believed to have cost two million dollars and taken numerous years to complete.

Almost immediately, the Spanish government filed a claim on the treasure, arguing that the Black Swan was actually a Spanish vessel known as the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank in 1804. Five years of court battles and drama followed. At one point, WikiLeaks even got involved. A secret cable revealed the American ambassador to Spain offered to help the Spanish government recover the treasure from Odyssey. In exchange, Spain was asked to compel a museum in Madrid to return a $20 million painting to a California family that claimed it had been stolen by the Nazis.

The Black Swan Heist?

In September 2011, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Odyssey in a highly questionable decision. In February 2012, Justice Clarence Thomas, acting on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court, declined to hear the case. As a result, Odyssey is being forced to hand over the Black Swan treasure to the nearly-broke Spanish government. And in a slap to the face, the firm won’t receive any compensation for its work (leading many treasure hunters to suggest Odyssey return the Black Swan treasure to the ocean and make the Spanish government pay for its own recovery).

I don’t want to get into the minutia of the case here. The international laws governing shipwreck salvaging are murky and highly tilted toward governments over individuals. Suffice it to say the Black Swan wreck was never conclusively proven to be the Mercedes. And even if it was the Mercedes, that means that the vast majority of the coins were owned by merchants and not the Spanish government. Spain claims it had reimbursed the merchants back in the early 1800s and thus, was entitled to the treasure (interestingly enough, it has yet to provide any proof of this compensation).

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

From my point of view, this is a short-sighted decision that will have long-term ramifications (something I discuss in my novel Chaos). Going forward, treasure hunters will have little to no incentive to report their findings to the world. The black market for antiquities will grow. The treasure hunting field will attract a greater number of reckless and unskilled individuals. Thus, salvage work will be done with more haste and less care.

As I see it, the Black Swan treasure falls under the homesteading principle. There are three possible owners of the Black Swan wreck. The dead (or their descendants), the “community” (supposedly represented by the Spanish government), or Odyssey. First, the dead merchants can no longer claim ownership. In addition, the merchants basically stole the metal for the coins from the Incas making it extremely unlikely the original owners can ever be traced (although some Peruvians are making their own claim). Second, the Spanish Culture Ministry has no legitimate claim to the treasure. Governments cannot legitimately own private property, since everything they have (including tax dollars) has been, in effect, taken at the point of a gun.

Overall, I would argue no one owned the Black Swan wreck prior to discovery. Odyssey, on the other hand, is the rightful owner of its own labor. By salvaging the Black Swan, the company added its labor to the treasure and thus, became its rightful owner.

I’m a treasure hunter. Yet I also consider myself an amateur archaeologist. As such, I’m very sympathetic to the concept of “historical preservation.” However, I don’t think that “stealing” artifacts from the treasure hunters who recover them is the best way to achieve that goal. Instead, I tend to favor the idea of privatizing archaeology.

“In other words, if “archaeological entrepreneurs” were able to sell their wares freely, they would have greater incentive to do better work in order to fulfill the demands of their customers (i.e. museums). Also, in the absence of antiquities laws, private owners would be more likely to share their artifacts with researchers, especially since subsequent research might increase the value of the artifact in question.” – David Meyer, Is Treasure Hunting Immoral

I realize I’m in the minority on this issue. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Freedom has vastly improved the lot of mankind over time. I believe it could do the same thing for the field of archaeology.

The $3 Billion Shipwreck?

In 1942, the S.S. Port Nicholson sank somewhere off the shore of Cape Cod. Now, a treasure hunter by the name of Greg Brooks claims to have found the sunken shipwreck. But that’s not all…not by a long shot.

The $3 Billion Shipwreck?

According to Brooks, the S.S. Port Nicholson was carrying 71 tons of platinum which was supposed to be a payment from the Soviet Union to the U.S. for war supplies. At ~$1,500 an ounce, that means the S.S. Port Nicholson shipwreck is worth roughly $3 billion. Not too shabby! Here’s more on the $3 billion shipwreck from the Huffington Post:

A treasure hunter said Wednesday he has located the wreck of a British merchant ship that was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Cape Cod during World War II while carrying what he claims was a load of platinum bars now worth more than $3 billion. If the claim proves true, it could be one of the richest sunken treasures ever discovered.

But an attorney for the British government expressed doubt the vessel was carrying platinum. And if it was, in fact, laden with precious metals, who owns the hoard could become a matter of international dispute.

Treasure hunter Greg Brooks of Sub Sea Research in Gorham, Maine, announced that a wreck found sitting in 700 feet of water 50 miles offshore is that of the S.S. Port Nicholson, sunk in 1942…

(See the rest on the $3 billion shipwreck at the Huffington Post)

Is Treasure Hunting Immoral?

On June 8, 2007 author Robert Kurson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, arguing the merits of treasure hunting. It was the latest salvo in a war that stretches back for decades. Was Kurson right? Or are his critics correct that treasure hunting is immoral and that it, along with the black market antiquities trade, should be criminalized?

The Chaos Book Club

Today marks Day 4 of the Chaos book club. Chaos is an adventure thriller along the lines of Indiana Jones or books written by Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, or Steve Berry. If you haven’t already done so, please consider picking up a copy at one of the following locations:

Kindle * Nook * Kobo * iBooks * Smashwords * Paperback

Treasure Hunting versus Archaeology

Now, Robert Kurson is a legendary figure in the shipwreck world. He spent seven years of his life researching and excavating the mysterious U-869, a Nazi U-boat which sank about sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey. In a 2007 op-ed for the New York Times, he gave a decent overview of both sides of the debate in question. First, the archaeological side…

“[Archaeologists] claim that because the professional treasure hunter’s first priority is to sell what he finds, artifacts will be rushed from shipwreck to market without being carefully preserved or photographed and cataloged to record their historic value. They charge that even if the treasure hunter cared to preserve and catalog his discoveries, he couldn’t, because he is not properly trained to do such subtle and delicate work.” ~ Robert Kurson

And then the treasure hunter side…

“The treasure hunter’s livelihood depends on keeping his discoveries in pristine condition. He knows that coins and gold and pottery must be handled with exquisite care in order to bring the highest possible price. He must use a surgeon’s touch with every artifact, because even that last lonely vase has value if it is deftly handled. The roughest and toughest of these treasure hunters have some of the gentlest hands in the world.” ~ Robert Kurson

Is Treasure Hunting Immoral?

The Archaeology vs. Treasure Hunting debate is a bitter one. A cursory search on the internet reveals scores of articles (mostly written by archaeologists) on the topic. A particularly stinging attack on treasure hunters is offered by Texas A&M’s Ship Reconstruction Laboratory. Here’s a sample…

“1. Can treasure hunters do archaeology with high standards?

No. The aim of treasure hunting is profit and treasure hunting companies depend on investor’s money. In a normal competitive environment investors prefer companies that yield better returns on their investments. It is an indisputable fact that careful excavations are more expensive than the quick salvage of artifacts with market value, and companies that try to follow good archaeological standards will not survive long in any informed market.”

The above argument seems powerful at first. But upon closer inspection, it’s shown to be fatally flawed. I don’t doubt that “careful excavations” are more expensive than treasure hunts. But this doesn’t necessarily imply they produce better work. In general, non-profit operations pay far less attention to the cost side of the equation than profit-seeking ones. So, this might really be nothing more than better cost management on the treasure hunting side.

Another popular argument levied by archaeologists is that they are working for the public good. They believe that artifacts should be analyzed for historical purposes and stored in museums rather than sold off to wealthy collectors. While it sounds noble, this is hardly the case in real life. For example, a 2001 BBC article discusses a strange situation at the Crimean Eastern Institute:

“The cramped offices of the Crimea’s Eastern Institute are crammed with the archaeologists’ legal finds – each item painstakingly cleaned and catalogued. Bizarrely, the precious gold and silver belt buckles and jewellery are stored in cigarette packets or old medicine boxes. There is no money here for anything else, even though the antiquities themselves are worth tens of thousands of dollars.” ~ Battle to Save Crimea’s Treasures – BBC News

These artifacts aren’t being researched nor are they being put on public display. And this isn’t unique to Crimea. Similar scenarios take place across the globe.

Still, the archaeological position remains consistent. Treasure hunting is an immoral activity and should be treated as such. Thus, archaeologists have sought the assistance of governments in order to quell the activities of hunters.

Privatizing Archaeology?

Is there a way to solve this endless debate? One particularly innovative suggestion comes courtesy of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. In his article, “In Defense of Tomb Robbing,” Adam Young suggests that one solution is to, in essence, “privatize archaeology.” He argues that this would force today’s treasure hunters to acquire greater excavation skills in order to sell artifacts to “museums, universities, and private collectors.” In other words, if “archaeological entrepreneurs” were able to sell their wares freely, they would have greater incentive to do better work in order to fulfill the demands of their customers (i.e. museums). Also, in the absence of antiquities laws, private owners would be more likely to share their artifacts with researchers, especially since subsequent research might increase the value of the artifact in question.

Young further points out that governmental action may be having the opposite of its intended effect. By criminalizing ownership of certain artifacts and employing police to chase down treasure hunters, governments “have attracted exactly those individuals who are the most reckless and unskilled and who concentrate on those artifacts that are the most valuable — to the detriment of historical and scientific research.”

Interestingly enough, his points can be seen today. Shipwreck hunting is, in most cases, legal. This has given rise to companies like Odyssey Marine Exploration, a for-profit corporation that salvages deep sea wrecks. Unlike black market treasure hunters, Odyssey is a highly professional organization. It employs distinguished archaeologists, performs meticulous studies, and even publishes books and reports on its findings.

Some archaeologists say this is not enough. They point to Filipe Castro, who excavated a merchant ship off the coast of Portugal. Castro has “published two scientific books and 26 articles on the wreck, and has completed six archaeological reports.” Perhaps they are right (or perhaps Castro is guilty of severe over-analysis). But regardless, Odyssey has clearly found value in conducting its own scientific research.

Treasure Hunting, Archaeology, & Chaos

The Treasure Hunting vs. Archaeology debate is one I doubt will ever end. Although Odyssey does more scholarly work than any treasure hunting company in history, they are still scorned by the vast majority of archaeologists. Personally, I find the debate fascinating and it served as inspiration for the creation of my hero, Cy Reed.

“I looked at Diane. The rows of seats were like a gulf between us, a gulf that grew with every word she said to the audience. She stood on the respectable side of exploration, shoulder-to-shoulder with archaeologists, scientists and other academics. I used to stand with her. But these days, I increasingly found myself on the other side, in solidarity with the treasure hunters, the smugglers, and the black market dealers.” ~ David Meyer, Chaos

Chaos by David Meyer

Cy Reed is a former urban archaeologist who used to work in Manhattan. Due to a terrible tragedy, he decided to uproot his life and becomes a nomad, working as a treasure hunter. At the beginning of the book, he returns to Manhattan in order to search for a missing friend. He is forced to attempt to reconcile the two sides of his soul: the archaeologist and the treasure hunter. Needless to say, this inner conflict drives much of his actions.

That’s it for today. Make sure you come back tomorrow when we’ll delve into a piece of strange history…namely, a highly controversial Allied World War II project known as Operation Paperclip. I hope to see you then!


Chaos Book Club

The Silver Shipwreck?

In 1941, the SS Gairsoppa was heading from India to Britain. Suddenly, a Nazi U-Boat appeared on the horizon. It fired on the Gairsoppa, sending the massive cargo ship to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. Now, that ship is on the verge of being recovered. But it’s no ordinary cargo ship. Its holds are believed to contain a treasure…one of the largest treasures in maritime history.

The Sinking of the SS Gairsoppa?

In 1941, the Gairsoppa left India with silver ingots, pig iron, and tea which it intended to bring back to Britain. It was initially part of a convoy. However, with coal running low and winds running high, the vessel split off on its own and headed for Ireland’s Galway Harbor. On February 17, the U-101 spotted the Gairsoppa and subsequently torpedoed her. She sank in less than twenty minutes, leaving only a handful of survivors.

The vessel sank in 15,400 feet of water, taking with it nearly 80 crewmen…and a priceless treasure. It was believed to be carrying ~240 tons of silver, which amounts to a staggering ~$243 million. Earlier this week, the famed treasure hunting / salvage firm Odyssey Marine Exploration announced that it had discovered the shipwreck.

Odyssey Marine Exploration plans to Salvage the SS Gairsoppa?

Next spring, Odyssey will attempt to recover the treasure in what is already being called the “deepest and largest ever retrieval of a precious cargo.” According to its contract with the United Kingdom, Odyssey will keep 80% of the silver lode. The rest will go to the government, which as you might expect is “desperately looking for new sources of income.” In fact, Odyssey is being encouraged to find more valuable shipwrecks for the UK government.

But first, Odyssey will focus on completing its salvage of the Gairsoppa. It will be a difficult task due to the extreme depth of the wreck. But Odyssey doesn’t seem too worried.

“We were fortunate to find the shipwreck sitting upright, with the holds open and easily accessible. This should enable us to unload cargo through the hatches as would happen with a floating ship alongside a cargo terminal.” ~ Greg Stemm, Odyssey CEO

Will the Gairsoppa turn out to be the richest shipwreck of all time? Probably not. The mysterious “Black Swan,” which was also salvaged by Odyssey, is rumored to have been carrying treasure worth ~$500 million in today’s dollars. But the bigger question is what will happen to the Gairsoppa’s treasure once its recovered.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

After secretly salvaging the Black Swan, Spain cried foul and demanded that the wreck be handed over to it. This happened regardless of the fact that the Spanish government’s ownership of the wreck was questionable at best and that Spain had spent none of its own time, money, or effort to recover it. Surprisingly, numerous U.S. courts sided with Spain and ruled that Odyssey must turn the Black Swan over to its government.

But those judgments have come under scrutiny and deservedly so. Documents provided by Wikileaks showed that the U.S. government attempted to conspire with Spain in the matter. More specifically, it offered to help Spain retrieve the Black Swan. In exchange, it requested that a painting by Camille Pissarro, which was stolen by the Nazis and now hangs in Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, be returned to an American citizen named Claude Cassirer.

“The possibility that someone in the U.S. government came up with this perfidious offer to sacrifice Odyssey, its thousands of shareholders, and the many jobs created by the company in exchange for the return of one painting to one individual is hard to believe.” ~ Odyssey Marine Exploration

Will the cash-starved British government, despite its agreement with Odyssey, attempt to seize the bulk of the treasure for itself? Let’s hope not. But until then, we can only wait and wonder.

Shipwreck Located with…Psychology?

In November 1941, Australia’s HMAS Sydney engaged Germany’s HSK Kormoran. The ensuing battle sent both ships plummeting to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. After decades of fruitless searching, two unlikely scholars stepped into the picture. How did cognitive psychologists unravel one of the great unsolved mysteries of World War II?

Where did the HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran Sink?

None of the 645 Australians serving aboard the HMAS Sydney survived the battle. In contrast, 317 Germans managed to stay afloat until they were picked up by other Australian ships. The Australian military, eager to locate the wrecks, began questioning the captives about the HMAS Sydney. But the Germans seemed confused as to exactly where the two ships had sank.

“…About 70 Germans did come up with a location. But those locations, taken together, didn’t make much sense – the positions were spread out, smeared over hundreds of miles. One survivor even placed the sinking almost halfway to Antarctica.” ~ Alix Spiegel, How Psychology Solved a WWII Shipwreck Mystery, NPR

The Australian military assumed that the captives were lying. Thus, most of the testimony was ignored. Decades of searching would follow, with nothing to show for it.

Using Psychology to find a Shipwreck?

In the 1990s, cognitive psychologists Kim Kirsner and John Dunn decided to throw their collective hat into the ring. After reviewing the testimony, they realized that the German accounts contained more truth than most realized.

“We wanted to make the case – show that the characteristics of these reports were the right kind of characteristics. That is, that the inconsistencies in the reports were precisely the kind of inconsistencies that occur naturally from failures of memory and the vagaries of transmitting information from person to person.” ~ John Dunn

Experiments performed during the 1930s by psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett showed that people have a tendency to make consistent, predictable mistakes when recalling the past or passing on stories. For example, they will recall a confusing story differently so that it makes more sense to them.

Kirsner and Dunn subjected the German accounts to pattern analysis and found that they looked quite similar to Bartlett’s experimental data. This discovery indicated that the Germans were telling the truth. Most likely, only a few surviving officers knew the ship’s exact location at the time of the sinking. That information “probably spread to the other surviving crew members during and after their rescue,” leading to the confusing data set.

Next, Kirsner and Dunn used the various accounts to suggest a probable location for the two shipwrecks. By 2004, they handed over their findings – along with their guess at the location – to the “Finding Sydney Foundation. So, how close did they come to pinpointing the shipwrecks?

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

In 2008, David Mearns used his own methodology to locate the shipwreck of the HSK Kormoran. Amazingly enough, it was just 2.7 nautical miles from Kirsner’s and Dunn’s predicted location. The HMAS Sydney was discovered a short distance away.

Now, of course, Kirsner and Dunn didn’t actually find the ship nor was their expertise used to locate it. Mearns and his team deserve all the credit in that respect. However, he did benefit from a similar methodology in which a study of primary sources led him to the conclusion that the Germans had been telling the truth.

Regardless, this example shows that cognitive psychology can be a powerful tool to weed through disparate memories and conflicting stories. Maybe, someday soon, it can be used to answer other unsolved mysteries of history.

The Lost Nuclear Sub?

On July 4, 1974, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a deep-sea drillship vessel, dropped anchor in the Pacific Ocean. Its stated purpose was to mine the sea floor for manganese nodules. However, that was just a cover. Its real purpose was far more ambitious…nothing less than the salvage of a lost Soviet nuclear submarine known as K-129.

Disaster Strikes the K-129

Six years earlier, on March 8, 1968, the Soviet submarine K-129 sank in deep waters 1,560 nautical miles northwest of Oahu. 98 crewmen perished in the process. The loss wasn’t realized until the K-129 missed its second consecutive radio check-in during mid-March. About a week later, the Soviet Union launched a gigantic search and rescue effort to find the lost submarine.

The effort failed. However, it was noticed by U.S. intelligence who guessed the mission’s true nature. After checking archived acoustic records, the U.S. Navy discovered an unexplained event had occurred on March 8, 1968. After triangulating the signals, the Navy generated a search grid and initiated Operation Sand Dollar to find and photograph the Soviet sub. The U.S. submarine USS Halibut was sent to the vicinity and after just three weeks of searching, managed to locate the wreck at 16,500 feet below sea level.

The K-129 represented an exciting opportunity. It was believed to contain Soviet nuclear missile technology as well as cryptographic machines and a code book. As such, the United States decided to secretly recover the wreckage. Tasked with this responsibility, the CIA formulated Project Azorian in 1970.

Project Azorian & the Hughes Glomar Explorer: Salvage of the Lost Nuclear Submarine?

The CIA hired Global Marine Development to build a deepwater drillship vessel. The famous industrialist Howard Hughes lent his name to the project and claimed that the ship’s purpose was to mine for manganese nodules. On June 20, 1974, the newly-christened Hughes Glomar Explorer set sail from Long Beach, California. It was equipped with a large mechanical claw dubbed Clementine by the crew. The plan was simple, at least on paper. The claw would deploy to the ocean floor, wrap around part of the submarine, and then lift that part into the Hughes Glomar Explorer’s hold.

The salvage effort began on July 4, 1974 and lasted for over a month. Since the whole process took place underwater, it proved impossible for the Soviets to detect. The details of Project Azorian remain classified to this day so it’s uncertain what exactly was recovered from the wreckage. Officially, the operation was a failure (you can see one of the heavily redacted files here). Supposedly, Clementine broke down during the salvage, forcing the Hughes Glomar Explorer to abandon two-thirds of the K-129. But since the CIA is known for being extra secretive, many researchers have questioned the official account. Thus, there is speculation that Project Azorian was a major intelligence coup, leading to the capture of Soviet submarine technology, nuclear torpedoes, code books, and other items.

What caused the K-129 to Sink?

But how did the K-129 sink in the first place? The Soviet Navy believed that the sub simply sank too low and failed to handle the situation due to mechanical or crew failure. Other theories include the lead-acid batteries exploding while being recharged or an accidental missile detonation. A more controversial theory (and one privately believed by many Soviet officers) is that the sub sank after an accidental collision with the USS Swordfish.

But the most controversial theory by far was put forth by Kenneth Sewell in Red Star Rogue: The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine’s Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S. Sewell postulated that the K-129 was captured by Soviet hard-liners. They planned to launch a nuclear missile on Pearl Harbor that would appear to have been fired by a Chinese submarine. The purpose was to bring about war between the U.S. and China. However, a fail safe device caused the missile to explode instead.

Sewell’s theory was bolstered by Dr. John Crane’s The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea. According to Crane, the real purpose of Project Azorian was not to recover the submarine but to find out why it sank in a part of the sea where it shouldn’t have been in the first place.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Until the CIA releases more information, the true intent of K-129 as well as the strategic success of Project Azorian remain matters of speculation. However, from at least one vantage point, the Hughes Glomar Explorer had a tremendous impact. Prior to that time, the deepest successful salvage of a submarine was at 245 feet. At 16,500 feet, Project Azorian shattered that record and in the process set a new one that, as far as I know, continues to remain to this day.

Blackbeard’s Ship…Or Not?

In 1718, Blackbeard the pirate ran his ship Queen Anne’s Revenge aground at Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. In 1996, a shipwreck was discovered in the area. Is this Blackbeard’s fabled frigate?

Blackbeard & Queen Anne’s Revenge?

Blackbeard, whose real name was probably Edward Thatch, is perhaps the most famous pirate of all time. After the War of Spanish Succession, he joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold. On November 28, 1717, Captain Hornigold captured the La Concorde which at that time was a slave ship. He turned it over to Blackbeard. Blackbeard renamed the ship Queen Anne’s Revenge, which may be an indication of his allegiance to the Stuarts. He mounted 22 guns on the ship and began a reign of terror unmatched in pirate history.

In 1718, he staged an incredible blockade of Charleston, South Carolina, in which he ransacked about nine ships as they attempted to leave the port. Shortly afterward, he mysteriously ran the Queen Anne’s Revenge aground and took off for North Carolina in a smaller vessel named the Adventure. Some historians believe this was a deliberate move by Blackbeard to disperse his crew and secure a greater share of the spoils for him and his friends.

A Mysterious Shipwreck?

For more than two centuries, the ship remained lost. Then, in 1996, Intersal discovered a shipwreck in the area. Since that time, extensive excavations have uncovered more than 16,000 artifacts. While the ship is generally believed to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources has always been cautious in its statements…until now.

On August 29, National Geographic reported that the shipwreck “has been confirmed as that of the infamous 18th-century pirate Blackbeard.”

“There was not one aha moment. There was a collection of moments and a deduction based on the evidence.” ~ Claire Aubel, North Carolina Maritime Museums, Public Relations Coordinator

According to the article, the main evidence used in the identification was “the sheer size of the wreck and the many weapons that were found in the rubble.” The rest of the evidence is even more circumstantial. For example, apothecary weights found on the wreck could belong to the ship’s original surgeon when it was still in French hands. Some traces of gold found among lead shot could have been concealed by a French sailor trying to hide it from Blackbeard. On the bright side, artifact dates appear to be in the right ballpark. Underwater archaeologists found “a bell engraved with the date 1705.” Previously announced discoveries include a brass coin weight cast sometime between 1702-1714 as well as a wine glass made to commemorate the 1714 coronation of King George I.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Still, I have to admit that I find this “confirmation” strange. There remains no real hard evidence to link this shipwreck to Blackbeard. And over the years, some researchers have called into question the so-called mountain of circumstantial evidence. For example…

Rodgers, Richards and Lusardi challenged the assumption that the many guns indicated a heavily armed pirate ship. All ships during the period were similarly armed, they said, and the number and and caliber of the guns suggest that the wreck was probably a merchant ship. They said only 14 guns were probably mounted on the Beaufort shipwreck, while the others were too small to damage a ship or were stowed in the hold as ballast. The number of those mounted is what would be expected on an average merchant vessel during peacetime in the first half of the 18th century, they said. Varying historical accounts say the Queen Anne’s Revenge carried 22, 36 and up to 40 guns. In addition, the archaeologists said, one cannon bears a rough mark they interpreted as 1730 or possibly 1737. If that is the date of the cannon’s manufacture, they said, it would eliminate the wreck as the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Now, that article is a couple of years old, but I imagine at least some of it is still relevant today. Furthermore, the timing of this announcement raises awkward questions. According to David Moore, curator of nautical archaeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, there were two reasons behind it. First, the museum didn’t want to entitle its new exhibit something along the lines of “Artifacts From the Purported Queen Anne’s Revenge.” Second and more disturbing, the confirmation will “help the museum secure private funding to continue excavating the wreck.”

The shipwreck in question may or may not be the Queen Anne’s Revenge. It seems to fit the profile and time period. And I understand that identifying the wreck is an extremely difficult task. Hard evidence may not even exist, although I’m holding out hope that divers will recover an engraved bell or something along those lines. Regardless, based on the obvious conflict of interest here, this confirmation seems meaningless to me. A better exhibit title? Additional funding to make up for state budget cuts? Good lord.Supposedly, there are 750,000 remaining artifacts aboard the wreck. Recovering them all could take an additional 15 years. Let’s hope one of those artifacts serves as “the smoking gun.” Because at this point, I’m just not convinced.