Argentina is a country in mourning.
The ongoing search for their missing submarine, the San Juan, lost on Nov. 15 with 44 crew members, has riveted the country's attention. The fate of its crew dominates the national news, and an international effort to locate the San Juan has unfolded in the windswept waters of the South Atlantic. With Christmas looming ever closer, it's an especially somber moment for the family-oriented citizens of this South American country.
“Argentina's been operating submarines since 1933,” said Juan Parant, an Argentine naval officer. “And we've never lost one before. Our submarines operate in the quiet. Most people don't know they're even out here. But everyone in Argentina is talking about submarines now,” he said.
Parant, a dignified man with urbane manners and a lilting Spanish accent, would have been the next captain of the San Juan. He was ashore when he heard the news. He knew everyone aboard, and many were friends. He'd known his best friend since they were 18. They'd gone to school together, and had worked together ever since.
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“It's a small community,” said Parant. “Everyone knows everyone.”
The early urgency has given way to a grim recognition that what began as a rescue mission has now become a recovery operation. Lacking the resources to mount an extensive search, the Argentine Navy appealed to the international community for help. An armada of survey ships was assembled, and the search for the San Juan, though so far fruitless, continues without pause.
In Comodoro Rivadavia, the coastal city serving as the de facto base of search operations, the research vessel Atlantis spent nearly a week loading tons of specialized equipment.
At the local airport, a massive U.S. Air Force plane arrived from Dover Air Force Base. It carried a Navy-owned remotely operated vehicle (ROV) capable of descending 6,000 meters; its accompanying winches and drums wound with heavy cable; two large diesel generators; hydraulic A-Frame; command and control vans equipped with computers and monitors; and a crew of ROV personnel. It took several days to load it all aboard the Atlantis. Television crews filmed preparations daily.
Rescue equipment like a heavy-lift A-Frame, designed to raise a rescue pod from the seafloor, sat forlornly on the pier. After two weeks it was loaded onto a truck and hauled away. The rescue pod, designed to form a seal around a stricken sub's hatch for undersea transfer of personnel, was flown back to Dover. It was no longer needed.
The Search for the San Juan
The original search area encompassed more than 15,000 square miles. Though the size of the search area has been reduced, it remains vast, and for a variety of reasons the search is beset by difficulties.
Sonar information gathered both by planes and ships has proven inconclusive. Atlantis' sophisticated Seabeam swath system, for example, isn't designed to find a needle in a haystack. It's designed to map mountains and canyons, and it’s unable to definitively distinguish between a submarine, a shipwreck and a mound of coral. All appear onscreen as colored blotches.
To illustrate the difficulty of identifying individual sunken targets, commander Parant showed a cellphone picture. It was a sonar image of an unidentified vessel lying on the seafloor 1,000 meters deep. It was a red, oblong blob, submarine-shaped and 60 meters long — roughly the same length as the San Juan. Parant said his heart beat faster when he first saw it. Then he showed another picture, this one of the same vessel but taken at depth by cameras on the ROV. It wasn't the San Juan, rather it was the ghostly corpse of a sunken fishing trawler, one of many discovered.
On a separate occasion, the ROV dove to a position provided by an Argentine warship. After two hours of searching, it found nothing at all.
Complicating matters, each vessel relies on its own sonar or imaging systems, each calibrated according to its own GPS tracking devices and satellite position codes. Locations of interest shared among the armada commonly suffer from imprecision caused by this lack of standardization. Objects on the seafloor can be hundreds of meters away from their stated coordinates, said Atlantis' chief mate, PJ Leonard.
“It takes us time to narrow that down, and it just adds to the difficulty of it all,” he said.
Furthermore, the search for the San Juan is occurring at a position of 46 degrees southern latitude. Even in summer, high winds frequently rake the area. The waters are cold and prone to storms. A shallow coastal shelf off Argentina's east coast extends more than 200 miles. It ends at a cliff that plunges more than 1,000 meters off a continental shelf into the abyss. If the sub is laying on the shelf, it may still be intact. If it sank into deeper waters it may have been crushed, potentially reducing the sub to a debris field that would be difficult to identify.
Airplanes conducting the initial search reported no debris or life rafts, no emergency beacons or flares, and no oil slicks. The San Juan left no clues. It simply vanished.
The arrival of a Russian intelligence ship, the Yantar, has introduced yet another element into the search: rivalry.
Unlike the Atlantis and the other foreign vessels, the Russians won't allow Argentinian Naval observers like Parant aboard their ship. Their bridge is classified. They zealously monitor their designated search area, insisting that ships that venture too close leave the area.
Despite the challenges, the search for the San Juan continues without pause. How long it might take is unclear. The ocean is vast, almost beyond imagining. But with each day of the search, we see a little farther. We're moving forward through a process of elimination. Each false lead narrows our search. We are optimistic. We are trying.
Lance Wills serves as a deckhand aboard the oceanographic research vessel Atlantis, currently scouring the South Atlantic for the missing submarine San Juan.
How to help
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is an organization that conducts studies worldwide to help enrich the knowledge of the planet and ocean. For more information or to donate, visit https://giving.whoi.edu/