An undersea explorer reflects on the vision, focus, planning, technology, and teamwork that go into finding long-lost and long-sought shipwrecks.
In a rapid succession of successes, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and his team on board the research vessel R/V Petrel over the past year have found one after another of World War II’s most iconic lost warships in the depths of the Pacific. The images they have released have been stunning, poignant, and powerful reminders of service and sacrifice.
They include ships sunk in the naval battles of Savo Island, Guadalcanal, Kula Gulf, and Tassafaronga: the USS Astoria (CA-34), Atlanta (CL-51), Helena (CL-50), Juneau (CL-52), Northampton (CA-26), Quincy (CA-39), and Vincennes (CA-44) and HMAS Canberra. He also has found a trio of Japanese battleships sunk during the Battle of Leyte Gulf—the Fuso, Yamashiro, and Musashi—and the USS Ward (DD-139), which fired the first shot of the Pacific war off Pearl Harbor in the early hours of 7 December 1941, only to succumb later off the Philippines.
But perhaps the most stunning finds have been two very deep, long-sought losses—the veteran carrier USS Lexington (CV-2), lost in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), torpedoed and lost in one of the great tragedies of modern naval history when she was sunk after delivering atomic bomb components to Tinian near the end of the war.
The images from the depths have been powerful and poignant, depicting damage and destruction but also preservation. To see not only hull numbers, but also a well-preserved box of spare parts from the Indianapolis, and the squadron designations and kills painted on TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers and F4F-3 Wildcat fighters that lie scattered around the Lexington has been a stunning reminder of how well the deep ocean’s environment can preserve that which falls into its embrace. Seeing these ships and planes also reconnects families, and the rest of us, with the people who served on and died with them.
The work of Paul Allen and his team deserves the recognition and appreciation that has followed these announcements. I am certain there will be more, because as a colleague in the larger family of ocean explorers and scientists, I know that the Allen team is adhering to tenets that will be no surprise to a military-savvy audience. Without seeing any documents, it is clear from the track record that the team has a united vision and is focused on achieving results, and that each mission is following a strategic plan. The tactical execution of that plan, honed by experience and the right tools, relies on a well-trained team.
Allen’s plan may exist on a virtual whiteboard as an evolving, strategically driven document, or it may be a white paper locked in a safe on board the R/V Petrel. Having a historical perspective on the evolution of deep-ocean exploration, especially for shipwrecks, I know there is an inherent risk in announcing a “search” for a specific wreck. That is not because the wreck may not be found; it is the principle of too many cooks in the kitchen. That is why I am a fan of doing surveys, not searches.
The vision driving Allen’s plan seems to be finding the remaining undiscovered lost warships, not just from the United States, but also from allies and former adversaries. He has noted that his team seeks “impressive and historically significant WWII-era ships.” The emphasis now is in the Pacific, but it has included the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Among finds in those waters are the Italian warships Artigliere and Roma.
The vision, however, is more than rediscovery. From his comments when each find is made, Allen has made it clear that this is not an exercise in which another shipwreck is added to a scoreboard. It is recognizing and remembering service and sacrifice by bringing these ships and their crews back to the world through the act of discovery and exploration, thanks to modern technology. It also is clear that this is a man driven to look beyond the horizon in a variety of areas, with earth’s final frontier being but one of them.
There is an innate curiosity in Allen, I suspect, and an understanding of how the smart use of technology can answer questions. That curiosity and use of technology comes through in an Allen-sponsored mission to study coelacanth, a rare fish, in their natural, deep-water habitat. These “living fossils,” survivors from the distant past, have fascinated many since they were first discovered in a fisherman’s catch off West Africa in 1938. On another mission, Allen sponsored a study of deep-sea corals off Bikini Atoll, in part to assess questions of nuclear contamination.
The centerpiece of Allen’s vision is Vulcan, Inc., the self-described “engine” behind his “network of organizations and initiatives” that seek to improve the planet “through catalytic philanthropy, inspirational experiences, and scientific and technological breakthroughs.” Based in Seattle, Vulcan has many facets, one of which is subsea operations. That team is led in the field by Robert Kraft, who is Allen’s director of subsea operations. I sense a collaborative working relationship, in which Kraft is empowered and given the tools with which to work to help achieve the vision. A 23-year veteran in the field, Kraft has held his current position since January 2015.
I believe the execution of the plan involves using some of Paul Allen’s net worth of $21.1 billion to bring together the resources required to find the wrecks. This combination of the right ship, the right technology, and a well-trained, experienced crew united in vision and purpose is emerging as the leader in the small community of deep-ocean exploration and discovery. As Kraft has explained, the team is multidisciplinary, formed of explorers, researchers, and engineers. They perform the “back-of-house” hard work that most people do not see in a discovery’s announcement. That represents long hours in archives, collating, and connecting the dots in after-action reports, logs, and personal accounts.
It also is the work it takes to design equipment capable of working in the deep ocean, subjected to the cold and pressure of inner space, and two things that never should be mixed—electronics and saltwater. In addition to the discovery crew working the technology and analyzing the data as surveys at depth use robotics and sonar to “mow the lawn” in repetitive search patterns, there also is the ship’s crew, who work around the clock as equal partners to the engineers, scientists, and technicians on board. I have been at sea with crews who have restored dynamic positioning with a multimillion-dollar robot dangling at the end of miles of fiber-optic cable, flawlessly executed search grids, or worked in the teeth of a typhoon for a day and a night
Training and experience have built Allen’s team. That began with work on Allen’s 414-foot yacht, the motor vessel M/V Octopus, which deployed to its first significant ocean expedition in 2004 to dive on and explore HMS Ark Royal, lost to a U-boat attack near Gibraltar. Lying in 1,000 meters of water, the broken wreck was documented by the Octopus team, who brought with them some of the last remaining Ark Royal veterans to once again see their ship and share it with the world. That was the beginning of a series of missions and discoveries, as Kraft has noted, that “knit together the narrative of a generation defined by bravery, loss and sacrifice.”
Another significant early Octopus mission was the difficult, twice-attempted, and ultimately successful recovery of the bell of HMS Hood from that ship’s deep-sea grave in the North Atlantic in 2015. The Octopus also was deployed to find the Italian battleship Roma, sunk off Sardinia on 9 September 1943 by the Luftwaffe in an aerial assault as it prepared to surrender to the Allies.
In addition to the high-profile missions, the Octopus team has discovered and documented a deep-water 19th-century steamship wreck, and with France’s national underwater archaeology team (DRASSM), a 2,000-year-old wreck off Corsica.
Using the Octopus, Allen followed a model used by other philanthropists with a commitment to ocean exploration and science such as Ted Waitt and his Plan B, Ray Dalio’s Alucia, and Steve and Wendy Schmidt’s Falkor. Where Allen shifted was in adding a second, dedicated research vessel, the Petrel. Formerly the offshore service vessel Seven Petrel, built in 2003, she was owned and operated by SubSea Seven, an engineering, construction, and services company. Purchased from SubSea Seven in 2016, the Petrel was refitted for its new role and entered service in 2017.
The 250-foot-long, 1,506-ton deadweight Petrel carries a crew of 20 and can accommodate up to ten project crew. She also carries an array of technology for surveying, discovering, and documenting deep-ocean shipwrecks. Mapping the seabed with high-resolution, multibeam, and side-scan sonar with hull-mounted and towed arrays is how most surveys are done. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) or unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs), are force multipliers. Larger, long-range, extreme-depth-capable UUVs/AUVs systematically “mow the lawn” after being deployed and return for a download of their data.
We used a Remus 6000 AUV, capable of operating at 6,000 meters, to survey and map the many square miles of wreckage from RMS Titanic in 2010, varying altitude and gaining higher resolution with repeat deployments. The Petrel also carries the only privately owned Remus 6000. This AUV makes possible missions such as finding the Indianapolis or Lexington. Both of these wrecks are very deep and lie in rugged terrain. Surface-mounted surveys would not have found either one.
The other key technology employed by the Petrel is its robust remotely operated vehicle (ROV), an Argus 6000 BXL ROV. The number refers to its working depth capacity. Essentially a workhorse vehicle, an ROV like the Argus system or Bob Ballard’s Ocean Exploration Trust’s Hercules systems can be fitted with an array of sensors, manipulators, sampling devices, lights, and high-definition cameras. The Petrel’s ROV is the instrument by which images stream live from the bottom of the sea, through a long fiber-optic cable to the control room on board the ship. From there, they can be streamed via satellite to other researchers, broadcast live, as Allen’s team did with its tour of the Indianapolis.
I was part of a team that was working to find the Lexington, and we were close to deploying to the Coral Sea when the Petrel team found the wreck. I know from planning that exercise that a vast area of seabed, none of it smooth, needed to be surveyed. If you think finding something as big as an aircraft carrier roughly the same size as the Titanic is easy, imagine searching for it in pieces in a terrain that resembles the Grand Canyon. That is the genius of Allen, Kraft, and their team. Their combined vision, focus, planning, technology, and teamwork have led to this winning season. There is more to follow, as we have seen in the rapid succession of finds announced after the Lexington.
As for the Petrel finding her first, I have nothing but a heartfelt congratulations. For all of us who do this work, the goal is finding the ships and their people. None of us in the exploration community “owns” these ships or their stories. We simply are privileged to work in the ongoing quest to discover them.
What finding these ships suggests to me is that we in the community need to spend some time together comparing notes, pooling resources when needed, and defining approaches and goals. Mine with the Lexington was not only to discover the wreck, but also to use it as the starting point for what would be a UUV/AUV mission to map the entire battlefield of the Coral Sea, from lost ships to downed aircraft. As the Petrel’s images have shown us, they lie in remarkable states of preservation, and in their silence tell us about the men who flew them.
The Petrel’s find has only increased my desire to map this battlefield, augmenting Allen’s work, as exemplified in the adage that lighthouses do not compete with one another. That coordination has happened, as Allen’s team’s work with the Ark Royal, Hood, and Roma show, and it continues to happen. The Petrel team is closely working with the Naval History and Heritage Command, the National Museum of the Philippines, and the Western Australian Museum and the Royal Australian Navy in a survey of the World War II–lost AE1, Australia’s first submarine, which vanished on a wartime deployment in the Duke of York Islands in Papua New Guinea.
It is time for more of us to come together, quietly share, and figure out the synergy and multiple tasks, as there is much to do. It is a big ocean. It also is an ocean full of lost ships, stories, and a frontier that remains more than 90 percent unexplored.