Mysteries Under The Surface
Amazingly, we have more detailed maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the Earth’s oceans. There are many things humanity has looked for under the surface, like pirates’ treasure or the lost city of Atlantis. Brandi Mueller found something on a dive in the Pacific that was so surprising, it caused controversy in America.
Introducing Brandi Mueller
Brandi Mueller is an accomplished marine adventurer and explorer. She’s been scuba diving since she was 15, and has been teaching others the art of diving for over ten years. Along with that, she is a boat captain. Most importantly, she is a photojournalist, who takes underwater pictures that illuminate the unknown world of the oceans, where it’s estimated most of life on earth exists. She’s been to the waters off the coasts of 50 countries, but what she saw in the Marshall Islands was unique- even to her.
Lights, Camera, Action
Underwater photography is one of the hardest versions of the art, as there are so many hurdles to achieving a good picture. But, the pictures that come out are so beautiful, it’s worth it. Brandi learned that lighting underwater is very hard, as the sun’s light doesn’t penetrate to deep depths. So she learned to use flash correctly, but even then, she got backscatter from reflections off plankton. Even with all her training, she’d never quite taken pictures like the ones she took in the Pacific in 2015.
Guts And Brains
The colorful photographs that Brandi took have won her multiple awards, including accolades from National Geographic and from The Smithsonian. Along with her adventurous spirit and aesthetic eye, she also knows exactly what she’s looking at. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in tropical medicine. We were lucky it was her who discovered the site near the Marshall Islands and not someone who would have jumped to conclusions about what he or she was seeing.
The Marshall Islands
Although most people have never heard of the Marshall Islands, it’s very tied to America- they use the US dollar, and is in “free association” with the United States. Geographically, it’s a tiny group of islands in the Pacific near the equator. It’s home to about 50,000 people, who speak Marshallese and English. The indigenous islanders used to build charts made of sticks to navigate the ocean. It’s an interesting blend of indigenous and American culture. Mueller went there to photograph the natural beauty of the remote location.
Taking Atoll Of The Beauty
The Marshall Islands are made up of atolls, which are circular structures of coral that surround a lagoon. The area has much natural beauty- a perfect place for Brandi to explore. There is a government-protected shark sanctuary in the area spanning over 750,000 square miles, which protects the 22 different kinds of Marshallese sharks. Three-hundred different species of fish inhabit the island area. The coral reefs there are also relatively untouched; they did not get bleached, unlike other reefs.
Scuba is actually an acronym that stands for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. It’s basically the gas tank that helps Brandi breathe underwater. Before any underwater breathing technology was available, people simply had to hold their breath. The world record is over 11 minutes! The one thing to be careful of when diving is the bends, which is a sickness that divers get when rising too quickly. Brandi ventured out one day into the water near the Pacific, with her scuba and camera gear.
The first stop on the tour was the waters surrounding the Kwajalein Atoll, or as it’s known in short, Kwaj. Brandi took pictures of beautiful animals, like parrotfish, wire coral shrimp, and other forms of life like bubble coral. As she swam around with her flashlights and gear, she couldn’t believe the marvelous colors. On land, she had met a lot of the locals, including a man who shredded on the guitar. But nothing beat the wonder she felt underwater. She swam towards something she couldn’t quite make out.
As Brandi swam closer to the mystery object, she readied her camera. She could hear herself breathing through the scuba gear, excited for this new find. However, when she got close, it wasn’t a fish at all. She looked, feeling disappointed, at what looked like something man-made. Quietly, with her goggles fogging with anger, she asked herself how humans could be so careless to litter in the ocean. As she re-focused on the moment, she noticed another glimmer in the distance, and decided to swim towards it.
Pollution In The Ocean
As Brandi swam along to the mystery object, she thought about the pollution in the ocean. There had been too many oil spills and algal blooms caused by humankind. Slowly but surely, it seemed that there was more human-made debris surrounding her. What was happening? Did a boat tip over? It didn’t make any sense, Brandi thought, as this area was supposed to be protected, and so far from the big corporations of the mainland. When she came over a ridge, she finally understood.
She couldn’t believe it. The unmistakable silhouette of an airplane. No chance it could be a funnily shaped coral reef. In total shock, she flew to the small plane, which looked like it could hold one or two people maximum. The surface was decorated with pieces of coral and seaweed; fish swam in and out of the crevasses of the aircraft. In disbelief, she shone her flashlights all over and examined the seaweed-covered gauges. Another shiny glint caught her eye, and she gasped through the scuba gear.
As You Can Planely See
There were hundreds of them. Brandi’s heart was racing. Hundreds of these small planes, which looked, upon closer inspection, like warplanes, littered the ocean floor, about 130 feet under the water. They were in every which orientation, including vertical, looking like they were about to crash into the ground. What were these planes? Were they American made? Why were they here? Brandi was in total awe of what she was seeing, but at the same time, was excited to get back on land to do some research on these planes.
Back on land, Brandi sat down to do some research. During World War II, the US and allies had fought Japan in the Pacific. The allies used a strategy called “island hopping” to make their way to Japan. Were the planes American or Japanese? She figured out from her pictures that the planes down there were allied forces planes. From the markings on the planes and their shapes, she was able to figure out they were Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers, TBF/TBM Avengers, and F4U Corsair series planes.
World War II
During World War II, the Marshall Islands were fought over in operations codenamed “Flintlock” and “Catchpole.” The Japanese Empire put up defenses like pillboxes, but the US troops use of the Air Force to bombard their bases and the shelling of the island by the Navy made it relatively easy for the US to overtake the islands. One battle had ten times as many Japanese casualties as American. Even though the Japanese had strengthened the islands for 20 years, in 20 days, the US armed forces were in control.
Something also confusing to Brandi was that after World War II, The Marshall Island’s Bikini Atoll was used to test nuclear bombs. During the Cold War, America was trying to build more bombs than the Soviet Union, and detonated 23 of them in the Marshall Islands. One, Castle Bravo, was way bigger than expected, and residents couldn’t go back to their homes because of radioactivity. Were planes involved in the tests? Perhaps, but these small planes probably couldn’t carry bombs. These sunken planes were probably not related, she thought.
Something Weird About The Planes
Something was off about these planes, so she decided to try and figure it out. She sat on a small boat, in her wetsuit, with her goggles on her forehead, deep in thought. The sound of the motor faded to the background. At the dive site, she perched herself on the edge of the boat, and leaned backwards until she splashed underwater. All she could hear now was her own breathing. As she swam closer to the field of planes, she took notice of a couple of things.
Reminds Me Of Something
Brandi was not an amateur- she has explored the waters of over 50 countries. The planes gave her a surreal feeling, as they were in the undulating deep blue of the ocean rather than the crisp blue of the sky, soaring above the clouds. Some were covered with sand on the ocean floor, and looked almost like a shark, but with the tail fin sticking out of the sand rather than the water. She thought back to her other explorations. She had seen something like this before.
Brandi had seen ships sunken in the same Atoll, and she thought about what she saw there. Ships- both shipping and military vessels- had been damaged heavily by US air strikes, leading to the demise of the Japanese-made ships. Now, nature has taken to using these wrecks as homes. On Asakaze Maru, one of the most well-known wrecks, a green sea turtle has made itself a home in the kingposts. Another ship, the Akibasan Maru now hosts a school of barracuda.
The Akibasan Maru, beyond the ray-finned fish inside, has scars from being directly struck by fire and sunk in minutes. Brandi examined the holes, and moved on to swim to the Asakazi Maru, a ship that was so wrecked by US gunfire that it is almost just a mound of metal. Inside the ships, there are bottles of sake that must have been saved for the Japanese victory over the Americans that never came. Suddenly, in a eureka moment, she understood what was off about the planes!
Brandi finally understood her gut feeling about the planes. They were all basically intact! Yes, she thought, a bit of the scaffolding underneath the metal was showing, but that must have been from strong ocean currents. The planes had no bullet holes, no twisted metal from a hot hail of bullets, and no deformed fuselages. The planes were basically intact. How did they fall out of the sky? How did the Japanese manage to hit these American-made planes and leave no trace?
Another weird thing Brandi just realized as she treaded water: there are no remains of soldiers in the planes. There weren’t any skeletons, or even loose bones of the pilots. Although she didn’t expect it to be like the movies, where a skeleton of a fully dressed pirate, eyepatch and all, cradling a treasure chest under the water, she expected something. Maybe the many sharks in the area ate the pilots, but still, bones would have been left behind. She headed to land with answers, but also more questions.
Do Some Research
That evening, Brandi sat at her laptop uploading the pictures from that day. She organized the pictures, thinking long and hard about why the planes were in such pristine condition. She wondered about the fate of the poor souls who died in the battles on the Marshall Islands. Where were these heroic pilots? Looking online for some information about World War II, she got to some interesting passages about the Pacific Theatre and the end of the war. What she read answered her question.
The Jewel Voice Broadcast
Feeling like she was back in graduate school, Brandi read about the end of the war. The Japanese leader, Emperor Hirohito got on the radio to deliver the now famous Jewel Voice Broadcast, which was the declaration of surrender of the Japanese to the Allied Forces. The US celebrated victory as treaties were signed. The troops were on their way home. But before they left, they started something called Operation Rollup. Brandi leaned in closer to her computer, as this looked like it would give some insight.
Operation Rollup was the Navy’s way to trying to deal with all the war vehicles like tanks, planes, and jeeps that were brought to remote islands in the Pacific Ocean. How would they get them back home? Surprisingly, the strategy sometimes was to simply dump the tanks and planes into the Pacific, due to the high cost of shipping it all back! This was the reason that the planes were in such good shape- they were never used! The Japanese never shot them down. It also happened in Vanuatu.
Million Dollar Waste
During World War II, the Navy was also present in Vanuatu, an island in the Pacific near Fiji. After the war, the Navy took a ramp, and simply drove jeeps, forklifts, and other vehicles directly into the ocean. The coral-covered metal heap is now called Million Dollar Point, for the huge amount of waste that must have resulted. The local people thought that the Americans had lost their minds when they saw them driving their cars directly into the abyss of the water.
Why Not Donate?
Brandi was annoyed with the waste: “[the planes] should have flown more, lived longer, but they were sunk in perfect condition.” They could have used the vehicles or at least sold the pieces for scrap metal. After all, the Marshall Islands is a poor area- they would not survive without US aid. In fact, one of their biggest tuna factories closed in 2005. Brandi read though, that part of Operation Rollup actually did call for saving some of the vehicles, and they were used later in the Korean War.
Costs Of War
Wars can be extremely costly. The United States spent $341 billion in 1945, which is equivalent to more than 10 times that in today’s dollars! Dumping the planes in the ocean made those tax dollars spent even less worth it. For comparison’s sake, the 2003-2010 War in Iraq cost $1 trillion. Now, the main way the dumped vehicles are used is as tourist attractions for scuba divers. Since Brandi publicized the “Airplane Graveyard,” many have visited. But there are more valuable things underwater than the remnants of war.
Galleon San Jose Treasure
Three-hundred long years ago, a Spanish ship, a type of sail-driven ship called a Galleon, was sailing near Colombia with a booty of gold, silver, and precious stones. The ship was lost, and hope of finding it had almost been totally extinguished. In 2015, the government of Colombia said they found the wreckage of the ship, which contains an estimated $17 billion of treasure! However, the government is currently in a dispute with an American company who says they found the gold first.
Modern Day Pirates
Today, pirates generally don’t have eye patches and parrots on their shoulders, but piracy itself is alive and well. In recent years, pirates off the coast of Somalia have attacked cruise ships, shooting the passenger ships with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. These ships are not carrying treasure. So what the pirates do is hold the ships hostage, and demand ransom money. The ships hire private security companies to spray the pirates with water cannons, sound cannons, or even live ammunition.
A Unique Experience
After a whirlwind of surreal beauty, confusion, and finally, answers, Brandi remarked that overall, “seeing planes underwater is strange, planes don’t belong in the water, they belong in the sky, so it [felt] weird to dive on them … these planes didn’t sink because of the war [so] they are special.” She sat on the bouncing, humming motorboat, covered in a warm towel, as it headed back to shore. She looked out wistfully over the sea, wondering what other treasures she could photograph in the Earth’s final frontier.