[Transmission begins 07:34GMT; Professor Robert Cushnel, PhD. speaking:]
Hey, Cap’n Bob here, inside the ExoDeep 21, bringing you our latest live stream from the S. S. Amphitrite expedition as we explore the mysteries of Ato Oti, or “the dead atoll” as the Samoans and South Sea Islanders called it.
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For those of you joining us for the first time, a quick recap. On the night of January 17, 1942, two destroyers — the Japanese Ushio and the American U.S.S. Alwin — encountered each other inside the Ato Oti atoll.
The ships were near evenly matched, and although both sailed under radio silence, each managed to get off one brief warning message to their respective headquarters before communication was cut off.
Search planes from both sides found no ships, no survivors, only stray bits of floating debris and oil slicks. It’s been long presumed that the Alwin — sent to Ato Oti to see if the Japanese were attempting to set up a base — and the Ushio — sent to see how viable such a base could be — stumbled on each other and everything else being pretty much equal, sank one another in a brief but intense fight.
Due to other battles in the South Pacific, attention shifted from Ato Oti. As the Allies pushed the Japanese threat back, America sent a PBY sea plane to search the atoll in the summer of 1943. They found nothing but a few bits of debris along the atoll, such as a single life ring from the Ushio found wedged in a rock.
Before I go on, let me answer a question from Jason on the chat line. If you haven’t done so already, sign on to our group chat. You can send me questions about the battle of Ato Oti and our expedition and I’ll try to answer them as they lower me in the ExoDeep 21.
Anyway, Jason asks: “Why is Ato Oti called the dead atoll?” Well, Jason, that’s because there’s nothing alive here, and there’s no evidence anything ever lived here. Ever.
The Samoans and Polynesians and other South Sea islanders knew of Ato Oti and avoided it because it was nothing but a barren spit of rock and sand. No fish, no sea life in the lagoon, no vegetation or insects — much less any other form of animal life — on the sand bars and reefs that make up the atoll.
In 1769 Captain Cook and the H.M.S. Endeavour arrived to claim the atoll for the crown. Cook’s report is quite dismal, noting the lack of life, of fresh water, or any signs of human habitation.
He also noted while sounding the depth of the lagoon they found a large sinkhole much like the legendary Great Blue Hole off Belize in the Caribbean. The Endeavour never plumbed bottom, and Cook speculated the atoll actually sat atop of a dormant volcano, with the sinkhole being a crater leading down to the earth’s depths.
That’s what I’m doing today. I’m in the Amphitrite’s bathysphere, the ExoDeep 21, and I’m going as deep as I can in Ato Oti’s infamous sinkhole.
I won’t be going all the way to the bottom, of course, since that exceeds the ExoDeep 21’s crush depth, but I will be going deeper than any living human before me.
Anyway, back to the battle of Ato Oti. After the war a few sporadic expeditions visited Ato Oti, two by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1956 and 1959, one by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in 1964, two by the United States in 1972 and 1984.
The Japanese located and charted several debris fields in the atoll, including the stern of the Ushio which was found near the outer reef. The reef, by the way, is volcanic rock, not coral. As I said, nothing grows anywhere near Ato Oti.
The American expeditions mapped the debris fields in more detail, and the second one came to the conclusion that the U.S.S. Alwin entered the Ato Oti lagoon through one of two channel openings deep enough to admit destroyers. The small island that dominates the atoll sits just high enough above sea level to hide the Alwin from the approaching Ushio and vice versa.
The American expedition presumed the Ushio effectively trapped the Alwin and themselves since the lagoon isn’t wide enough for both destroyers to turn and retreat to the open sea.
The battle began immediately and ended very quickly. The last messages from the Alwin and the Ushio arrived only 26 minutes apart. It’s presumed the Alwin fired off a last torpedo at the Ushio and struck her magazine, blowing the ship in half.
If there were any survivors, they did not make it to the single island in the atoll, nor did they survive exposure to the sea. As I said earlier, when search planes were finally deployed, they found no trace of the ships beyond a few bits of floating debris and oil slicks.
A question from Tom on live chat: “Why is the Ushio stern so far from the other debris fields? Why are no other debris found near it?”
Good question, Tom, and I believe the answer is the Ushio’s stern managed to stay afloat for an hour or two until tides and ocean currents carried it to the edge of the reef.
Let’s take a look at some video footage I shot when we first arrived. You can see the stern of the Ushio took quite a beating, the rear gun turret and almost all of the deck fittings appear to be torn off.
Question from Sam: “Based on computer simulations, ocean currents and tides would not have carried the stern of the Ushio in a northeast but rather a southern direction. Why is it so far away from the other debris fields?”
Sam, a good question, and I’ll have to say we just don’t know. The Ushio may have been attempting to flee the lagoon and was retreating at top speed when the torpedo struck. After the bow was blown off the ship’s forward momentum may have carried it in a northeasterly direction until it sank. We just don’t know.
Another question, this one from Dana. “If the magazine exploded, why are undetonated shells scattered around the debris field? Wouldn’t they have gone up, too?”
Hmm, good point. Maybe two or more torpedoes struck the Ushio and blew the bow off without actually detonating the magazine.
Hey, let’s not get snarky in the chat. I don’t know what happened, I’m just trying to make a good guess.
Here’s a question from Claire: “There seem to be a lot of spent anti-aircraft casings on the bed of the lagoon. Were any aircraft involved in the battle of Ato Oti?”
I see what you’re getting at. Spent anti-aircraft casings and some spent deck gun shells, but also a lot of undamaged intact shells. Yes, I concede it looks as if the Ushio’s magazine did not explode but was dumped into the sea.
But as I said, Claire, only two destroyers fought, there were no military or civilian aircraft in the area at the time.
Follow up question from Claire: “Why would the Japanese be firing their anti-aircraft guns? Wouldn’t that expose the sailors on deck to American shell fire?”
True, Claire, but remember the Japanese were fanatical warriors willing to die for their emperor.
Sheila from Australia: “I researched the battle of Ato Oti. The Alwin exhausted its torpedoes in a previous encounter and had not yet re-armed its tubes by January 17.” Well, no sarcasm, but I think it’s more likely they did re-arm and the paperwork didn’t get properly filed —
Okay, hold down the snark or I’ll block the chat function.
A lot of you are supporting Claire’s contention that both ships were firing all their guns but not at each other. That makes no sense whatsoever. They were trapped in this tiny little lagoon — what else could they be shooting at?
Question from Gerard: “Could exploding shells have triggered volcanic activity from the sinkhole?”
That’s a good question, Gerard, and I’m going to be exploring that — quite literally! — in a little bit.
No, the shells would not have been powerful enough to trigger a volcanic event. There is no record of seismic or volcanic activity in this region.
Follow up question: “What about releasing explosive gas such as methane, etc.?”
Hmm, interesting idea. The geology of Ato Oti is not fully understood. It is possible that methane gas or methane hydrates could occasionally seep out from the crust of the earth, poisoning the atoll and the waters around it. If the shell fire triggered a release of explosive gas or methane hydrates, that might account for the near simultaneous sinking of both ships.
Okay, I’m blocking Yoki. Keep your chat comments polite. Look, we’re here to try to figure out what happened, okay? We haven’t got any hard and fast answers, that’s what we’re looking for, right? Just bear with us and be patient.
Some of you have been asking about the wreckage of the U.S.S. Alwin, why no significant portion of the ship was ever found. Take a look at this map of the lagoon. With the exception of the Ushio’s stern, most of the other debris fields are fairly close to the deep sinkhole in the center. The presumption is the Dewey was unfortunately directly above the hole when it was hit, and went straight down —
Okay, I’m blocking Mitch…and Brian…and Debby. I’m here to answer your questions but I’m not putting up with your insults.
For those of you who were wondering the same thing, again: We don’t know. The Alwin may have been hit first, its hull breached, and went straight down while the Ushio tried fleeing. It got off one or more last torpedoes, then sank.
We don’t know. We just don’t know.
But…we’re here to find out.
Take a look on your screens. This is a live image from outside the ExoDeep 21 as I descend into the sinkhole beneath Ato Oti lagoon.
Wow…incredible…almost perfectly circular. And look at those deep vertical grooves on the side. No idea what caused them, but I can talk about that in our follow up live stream.
Remember, be sure to sign up for future updates.
As I said earlier, the full depth of the Ato Oti sinkhole has never been fully plumbed. I’m as close to crush depth as possible, so let me turn on the ExoDeep 21’s sonar.
Take a look at those readings. Man, that’s deep. No…that can’t be right. This sinkhole can’t be that deep. Sonar says it’s deeper than the Marianas Trench.
Okay, some unknown phenomenon is obviously monkeying with the readings. The bottom of the hole seems to be constantly shifting and moving…almost pulsating.
It’s too deep for me to go further, and the ExoDeep 21’s searchlight can only penetrate so far, but we anticipated this. Watch.
That was an underwater flare we rigged to the underside of the ExoDeep 21. When I ignited the flare, it burned through the thin cable holding it. It’s dropping now, deeper and deeper into the depths. It should burn for another ten minutes and give us some idea of how far down the bottom is.
Wow…it’s just a pinpoint now. I’m triangulating on it…that can’t be right, this hole can’t be that deep…
Yes, I see what you’re seeing, too! No, they can’t be eyes — there’s to many of them and they’re the wrong shape and their size — no, can’t be. Impossibly huge. Must be some underwater gas leak —
They’re rising fast — too fast! Can’t be gas…what’s that in the middle? Looks like a beak —
[Transmission terminates 08:22GMT]
Buzz Dixon writes oddball TV / movies / games / comics / novels, putting words in the mouths of Superman, Batman, Optimus Prime, Scrooge McDuck, plus more G.I. Joes and My Little Ponies than you can shake a stick at. His short fiction appears in Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine, the Pan Book Of Horror Stories, National Lampoon, Analog, and numerous original and “best of” anthologies.