When Divers Swam Toward An Underwater Laboratory, All They Could Find Was A Severed Cable

Image: Research Dive Center of the CAU via The Sun

In a glacial bay on Germany’s northern coast, a strange mystery is playing out. For three years, an observatory deep beneath the surface has been delivering important data to environmental researchers. But now, the transmissions have stopped. And when divers reach the location of the facility, they find only a frayed cable in its place.

Image: University of Kiel Research Center via Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres

Since late 2016 the Boknis Eck observatory has been collecting information from the waters of Eckernförde Bay. And back on land, researchers have been using the data to develop their understanding of the Baltic Sea. But now, this vital connection has been severed – and nobody knows how or why.

Image: Boknis Eck

To the team at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, the data collected by Boknis Eck is of enormous importance. But now, thanks to the facility’s disappearance, their work hangs in the balance. So, just how did such a bulky piece of technology disappear from the bottom of the ocean? And where could it have gone?

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Located some 14 miles north of the German city of Kiel, Eckernförde Bay had a dramatic history even before these scientists arrived. Stretching for 10 miles along the coast of Schleswig-Holstein, it was formed by a glacier some 100,000 years ago. And many millennia later, during the Middle Ages, the region served as border territory separating the warring Danes and Saxons.

Image: Boknis Eck

Today, however, the location is mostly of interest to scientists keen to develop their understanding of the natural world. In fact, researchers began collecting data from these waters as far back as the 1950s. Those early missions were known as the Boknis Eck Time Series.

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For almost two decades, the research craft Alkor and Hermann Wattenberg plied the waters of the bay, taking measurements from the Baltic Sea. Then, in 1975 the Littorina took over – a research vessel that’s still in service today. And over the years, these missions have collected plenty of useful data about the region.

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Every few weeks, experts gathered information relating to salinity and temperature from a specific point in Eckernförde Bay. On top of that, they also measured the levels of oxygen, chlorophyll and various minerals, as well as gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. And with this information, they were able to build up a picture of the ecosystem present in the southwest Baltic Sea.

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Today, Boknis Eck is considered one of the planet’s oldest continually operating marine analysis sites. And in 2016 researchers decided to expand their horizons even further. That year, GEOMAR joined forces with the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht Center for Materials and Coastal Research to establish a permanent observatory beneath the waves in Eckernförde Bay.

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At the end of 2016 the Boknis Eck observatory was installed in an off-limits section of the bay. Located just over a mile from the German coast, it was fixed on the seabed some 70 feet below the surface. And once it was in place, researchers in Kiel and Geesthacht were able to learn even more about the world of the Baltic Sea.

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Image: University of Kiel Research Center via Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres

According to reports, the observatory consists of two components, each of roughly the same dimensions as a typical office desk. While one section contains all of the sensors necessary for collecting data, the other deals with the power source. Altogether, the equipment has a combined weight of almost 800 pounds.

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And most significant of all is the fact that the observatory is equipped with a fiber optic cord connecting the facility to the mainland. Via this, researchers are able to view data as soon as it is measured, which adds a vital new dimension to their work. Thanks to the new equipment, they’ve added even more information to their hoard of data from the Baltic Sea.

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According to GEOMAR, the latest version of the Boknis Eck observatory cost somewhere in the region of $330,000. But in a statement released in September 2019, project coordinator Dr. Hermann Bange explained that the observatory is far more valuable. “The data we collect is almost priceless,” he said. “[It helps] research to register changes in the Baltic Sea and take possible countermeasures.”

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From its location in Eckernförde Bay, the observatory forms part of the Coastal Observing System for Northern and Arctic Seas, or COSYNA. And through this network, it has also contributed to a wider understanding of the region’s waters as a whole. With this data, experts explain, authorities have been able to establish efficient safeguarding steps and also ready the area for any emergencies that might occur.

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According to Bange, the fact that the observatory is capable of delivering data in real time is crucial to its success. In an article published on the website of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres in January 2020, the project coordinator explained that “a continuous measurement system depends on continuous measurements.”

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And for three years, the Boknis Eck observatory performed its function, collecting valuable information before sending it back to researchers in Kiel and Geesthacht. Early on August 21, 2019, however, something went wrong. At 8:15 a.m., the transmissions from the underwater facility ceased unexpectedly.

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Image: GEOMAR

According to reports, though, there was nothing particularly unusual about the morning when transmissions stopped. Apparently, the weather was calm and the restricted section of Eckernförde Bay was free from boats or other disturbances. So when scientists first noticed the issue, they weren’t overly concerned.

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Image: GEOMAR

At the time, Bange – who’s served as the coordinator of the observatory from 2010 – suspected that a connector had come loose. Consequently, he reached out to the University of Kiel and requested that they sent a team of divers out to the location. The Littorina arrived seven days later.

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When they reached the coordinates of Boknis Eck, a team of divers embarked on what they believed would be a routine trip to conduct repairs. However, when they reached the ocean floor, they stumbled across a baffling sight. Somehow, the observatory had completely disappeared. And even though the divers scoured the site, they still couldn’t locate the equipment.

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Admittedly, the visibility at that depth was poor, with divers able to view just 8 inches or so ahead. But the more they explored, the more convinced they became that the observatory had somehow disappeared. “It’s not actually a problem with the connectors,” the University of Kiel’s Roland Friedrich explained to the Helmholtz Association. “The station is basically gone.”

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Back on land, Bange and his team were stumped as to how the hefty piece of equipment – which was also attached to the seabed – could have vanished. Nevertheless, the divers provided photographic evidence to prove that this was indeed the case. In fact, a single severed cable was the sole thing that had been left behind.

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For the researchers dependent on the data collected at Boknis Eck, it was a terrible turn of events. In the article for the Helmholtz Association, Bange explained, “We quickly realized what the loss of the observatory meant to us.” Moreover, he observed that many academic papers would also be affected by the station’s sudden disappearance.

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Bange realized that the work conducted by COSYNA would be affected by the loss as well. In fact, without the continuous stream of data provided by the observatory, the entire system would be disrupted. According to Bange, the measurements recorded at Boknis Eck are used internationally – so the repercussions of the incident would be felt around the world.

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So what had happened to Boknis Eck observatory? At first, some suggested that a storm might have been responsible for tearing the equipment from the seabed. However, the weather on the day that transmissions ceased had been tranquil. Moreover, the station had held firm throughout extreme weather conditions in the past.

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Might an unusually strong current have carried the observatory away? Again, there’s no evidence to suggest that this could have been the case. Similarly, it seems unlikely that the disappearance could have been the result of interference from marine life. After all, even the lightest section weighed more than 200 pounds.

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Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, the team at GEOMAR continued to hunt for the missing observatory. But their efforts were in vain. In their statement, Bange explained, “We first tried to find the devices again with our own research and diving operations. So far without success.”

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Image: Research Diving Center CAU via GEOMAR

As a result, suspicious arose that the observatory could have been stolen, so the researchers turned to the water police for assistance. And when a criminal investigation was launched, the team appealed for any potential witnesses to come forwards. Perhaps someone had found parts of the expensive equipment washed up on the neighboring coast?

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Image: Ostseebad Eckernfoerde

Or, the team reasoned, perhaps somebody had observed any kind of unusual activity on the day that the transmissions ceased? After all, there was a popular campsite located just over a mile from the facility. Moreover, boats didn’t usually sail in the area due to the zone being restricted. So if there had been unusual marine traffic that day, then wouldn’t someone have noticed?

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However, no witnesses came forward to report seeing anything strange. And as the investigators continued to draw a blank, a number of theories emerged online. In the article for the Helmholtz Association, for example, author Isabell Spilker speculated that an accidental collision with a German sea-craft might have been to blame.

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Apparently, the bay is also home to a torpedo range operated by the German Navy. And according to Spilker, the facility acts as a base for military submarines as well as a number of other vessels. Could one of these have collided with the underwater observatory, inadvertently carrying it to another location?

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German Navy officials have ruled out these explanations as well, however. According to Maria Hagemann, a navy senior chief petty officer, there were no vessels or submarines present in the bay at the time of the disappearance. In fact, monitoring data shows a complete absence of any activity in the area on the morning that the transmissions stopped.

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According to Spilker, though, the situation might not be quite so clear cut. Apparently, boats have the option to turn off their trackers should they wish to travel incognito. And if they do so, their ships pass by without being picked up on detection systems. So, might such a covert mission have been behind the observatory’s disappearance?

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In her article for the Helmholtz Association, Spilker proposed a seemingly plausible theory, which blamed the mystery on the unlawful fishing trade. Could a trawler have sneaked into the area and unwittingly captured the observatory in one of its nets? Given that this equipment is sometimes a mile in length, it’s definitely possible that such an incident might have slipped under the radar initially.

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However, others have considered a different, more nefarious, explanation for the observatory’s disappearance. Might the vital piece of technology have been taken by thieves? According to GEOMAR, the equipment would have required “great force” to shift – perhaps suggesting that it was intentionally removed. But who could have committed such a strange crime?

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Although some have hypothesized that a foreign government might have been behind the incident, there’s little evidence to support such claims. However, a clue to the culprit could be found in another mystery that’s been plaguing the world’s oceans for years. Apparently, since at least 2016, shipwrecks have been suddenly vanishing from their watery graves.

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For example, in 2016 officials in the Netherlands confirmed that two World War Two wrecks had vanished in the Java Sea. Then, the following year, a similar phenomenon was observed near the coast of Borneo. There, three Japanese shipwrecks, also from WWII, disappeared in similarly sudden circumstances.

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Today, experts believe that the shipwrecks likely fell victim to illegal salvage operations. Near Borneo, for example, witnesses reported having seen a large dredger pulling the Japanese vessels to the surface. There, it’s believed that they were broken up so that they could be stripped of sellable materials.

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So, might Boknis Eck observatory have met a similar fate? Although it’s possible, the value of its specialist equipment is not as obvious as that of, say, brass or steel. And while the activities of looters cannot be ruled out as an explanation, there’s nonetheless currently little evidence to support this theory.

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Despite this speculation, then, the team at GEOMAR was no closer to finding out what had happened to the missing observatory. Was it a bizarre accident or an intentional plot to rob the institution of vital equipment? In an attempt to uncover the truth, the University of Kiel launched another mission to track down the elusive facility.

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Onboard a research craft, the university group used sonar to map the seabed in high resolution. Amazingly, they uncovered evidence that the observatory had been dragged for more than 1,000 feet across the ocean floor. And with this data, researchers were able to estimate the locations that the facility might have ended up in.

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Currently, the team is planning additional dives to these sites in the hope that some answers might finally be uncovered. In the meantime, Bange has expressed his concern that the facility will take at least 12 months to reconstruct. As he told the Helmholtz Association, “The effort involved in laying the cable again is enormous… We can only hope that the insurance covers a large part of the costs.”

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