In 1914, the Royal Australian Navy launched the HMAS AE1 as the navy’s first submarine. Over 180 feet long and large enough to hold 34 men, the submarine was a world-class piece of machinery for its time.
It had only been in operation for seven months, though, when it vanished without a trace during what was expected to have been a routine patrol of Cape Gazelle during the First World War. And after having earned a key win for Australia during the war just earlier that very week, the iconic submarine was lost with all hands on deck on Sept. 14, 1914.
Blast from the Past – HMAS AE1 c1914 #AusNavy
The Australian Navy never saw the submarine return at any point, and in 1976, a member of the Royal Australian Navy named John Foster persuaded the military branch to open a formal search for the wreckage. It appeared as if nothing would come of the searches until December of 2017, a full 103 years after the sub officially disappeared—when the wreckage was finally, at long last, officially located. It had been lying off the coast of the Duke of York Islands for a century, not all that far from the coast of New Britain where it had been patrolling when it first vanished.
It seems incredible to believe that the wreckage avoided detection for over 100 years, especially with coordinated efforts to locate the massive submarine starting in the 1970s.
Royal Australian Navy Minehunter HMAS Yarra is conducting an underwater search off Papua New Guinea for HMAS AE1, the…
In reality, though, the region under the waves that the HMAS AE1 had sunk boasted dozens of contributing elements that made it difficult for the navy to discover its very first submarine. The bottom of the ocean in that region has high volcanic activity; that not only creates a volatile topography that can mask shipwrecks, but can change topography to hide wrecks and even partially bury them. The volcanic activity itself can disrupt local magnetic fields to throw off even sophisticated equipment sent underwater to detect the wreckage, and the area frequently plays host to dozens of sharks that make dives incredibly difficult.
Over the course of the following year, though, researchers were finally able to slowly dig away at what had caused the first-ever Australian Naval submarine to sink. A valve had been left open during a practice dive, causing the submarine to take on water and plummet too deep for the submarine’s metal body to withstand. The massive piece of machinery ultimately imploded, crushing everyone on board instantly and sinking to its current resting place.
The volcanic activity and harsh waters of Papua New Guinea have started to erode at the still-intact hull of the submarine, but the Australian government has formally named the wreckage a war grave. Papuans are being trained by the Australian navy to guard the wreckage, protecting it from “unauthorized salvage attempts” now and in the future.
For now, it remains unbothered and whole as it commemorates the 35 naval sailors on board when the submarine sank down to the bottom of the ocean—and for the scientific community, it remains a marvel as a wreckage that managed to avoid detection for a full century’s worth of technological advancements and sporadic search efforts.
Australia’s oldest naval mystery solved with the discovery of the wreck of Australia’s first submarine, HMAS AE1, which sunk 103 years ago.
HMAS AE1 located this month in waters off coast of Duke of York Islands in Papua New Guinea.
— Defence Australia (@DeptDefence) December 21, 2017