Australia's first submarine found after vanishing in WWI

The AE1 was the first World War I submarine loss for both the Allied forces and for the Royal Australian Navy. Used in the operation to capture German New Guinea in 1914, the sub mysteriously vanished three years later.

A 103-year-old Australian maritime mystery finally drew to a close on Thursday after officials announced that the country's first submarine, which vanished on September 14, 1917, had been located in waters off the coast of the Duke of York Islands, part of Papua New Guinea.

Science | 21.12.2017

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HMAS AE1 was the first Allied submarine loss in World War I (WWI), as well as the first wartime loss for the Royal Australian Navy. It was used in the 1914 takeover of German New Guinea, the northeastern part of the island that had been part of the German colonial empire.

"After 103 years, Australia's oldest naval mystery has been solved," Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne said on Sunday, calling the submarine's discovery "one of the most significant discoveries in Australia's naval maritime history."

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She described the sub's watery disappearance as "a tragedy for our then fledgling nation." All 35 crew members, hailing from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, lost their lives when the submarine sank.

A statement from the Department of Defense said that a commemorative service was held on board the discovery vessel immediately after the submarine was found to honor those who lost their lives. The Australian government will work with Papa New Guinean government "to consider a lasting commemoration … and to preserve the site."

Australia's Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett added that he hoped the vessel's discovery would bring closure to descendants of the deceased.

The 13th time is the charm

A range of technologies was used to locate the sunken sub, Barrett said, including remotely operated vehicles, a deep-drop camera and a magnetometer that measures magnetic disturbances.

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"Each time that we searched for AE1, the progression of technology has allowed for us to learn a little bit more," he said.

AE1 was found at a depth of more than 300 meters (984 feet) after an expedition to search for her — the 13th of its kind — was launched last week. The search ship was Fugro Equator, which was also used to hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370

Survey data from the Department of Defense shows the AE1 lying on the sea floor of the coast of the Duke of York islands

While the mystery of the vanished sub has been solved, the question will now turn to the reason for the sinking of the AE1.

According to a statement from Rear Admiral Peter Briggs in local newspaper The Australian, a diving accident is the most probable cause. 

The submarine was found without oil, bodies or wreckage, indicating that it most likely sank intact. Enemy action has been considered unlikely as the cause, since there were no known German ships in the area at the time the AE1 went down.

The AE1 was commissioned in Portsmouth, England in early 1914. She arrived in Sydney along with her submarine sister AE2 in May. Outfitted with torpedoes but no guns, the AE1 had a length of 55 meters (181 feet) and could reach speeds of 15 knots (17 miles per hour/27 kilometers per hour) on the surface and 10 underwater.

The search for Argentina's missing submarine

Where is the ARA San Juan?

Argentina's ARA San Juan went missing in the South Atlantic last week with dozens of crew members on board. The German-built diesel-electric submarine was commissioned in 1985, but was refitted in 2014 — leading to some concerns that a mistake was made during the renovation.

The search for Argentina's missing submarine

Missing at sea

The submarine departed from the extreme southern port of Ushuaia on November 8 after it took part in a training exercise. Argentina says it lost contact with the submarine on November 15.

The search for Argentina's missing submarine

Who is on board?

There are 44 crew members on board the submarine, including Argentina's first female navy submarine officer. Eliana Maria Krawczyk, 35, joined the navy in 2004 and rose to become the master-at-arms on board the ARA San Juan.

The search for Argentina's missing submarine

What could have gone wrong?

Authorities do not yet know what happened on the missing submarine, but it's possible there was a technical issue. The submarine's captain reported that one of the ship's batteries had failed before communication was lost. There was speculation that an "unusual" noise transmitted just hours after the sub's last contact could have been the sound of an explosion.

The search for Argentina's missing submarine

International search

Argentina is leading a massive search for the missing submarine along with the help of several other countries including: Brazil, Britain, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Peru, the United States and Uruguay. Britain's HMS Clyde (pictured above) also joined in the search as it was returning from a patrol.

The search for Argentina's missing submarine

Scanning the skies

Several aircraft were also used in the search, but rescue efforts have been hampered by bad weather. Search teams are combing an area of around 185,000 square miles (480,000 square kilometers) — roughly the size of Spain.

The search for Argentina's missing submarine

Searching with sonar

On November 18, search units largely relied on information gathered by British polar exploration vessel, the HMS Protector (pictured above). The ship is equipped with underwater sonar technology and was following the lost submarine's path.

The search for Argentina's missing submarine

False alarms

Relatives have had to endure days of false hope however, after underwater sounds were determined to have originated from sea creatures and satellite signals turned out to be false alarms. Flares and a life raft were also found in the search area, but neither came from the missing submarine.

The search for Argentina's missing submarine

President prays with relatives

The disappearance of the submarine has gripped the nation. Argentina's President Mauricio Macri (L) has been praying with the family members of crew members and coordinating with naval leaders.

The search for Argentina's missing submarine

Families clinging to hope

"Argentina, be strong. In God we trust, we wait for you," reads a flag outside a navy base in Mar Del Plata. Worried relatives gathered at the base to await news of their loved ones. "We can make up a thousand movies with happy and sad endings, but the reality is that the days pass by and not knowing anything kills you," said Carlos Mendoza, the brother one of the crew members.