"Atlantis In America: Navigators of the Ancient World".

 

The article was written by Kevin Sullivan, of the Washington Post Foreign Service.


The images appear slowly on the video screen, like ghosts from the ocean floor. The videotape, made by an unmanned submarine, shows massive stones in oddly symmetrical square and pyramid shapes in the deep-sea darkness.


Sonar images taken from a research ship 2,000 feet above are even more puzzling. They show that the smooth, white stones are laid out in a geometric pattern. The images look like fragments of a city, in a place where nothing man-made should exist, spanning nearly eight square miles of a deep-ocean plain off Cuba's western tip.


"What we have here is a mystery," said Paul Weinsweig, of Advanced Digital Communications (ADC), a Canadian company that is mapping the ocean bottom of Cuba's territorial waters under contract with the government of President Fidel Castro.


"Nature couldn't have built anything so symmetrical," Weinzweig said, running his finger over sonar printouts aboard his ship, tied up at a wharf in Havana harbor. "This isn't natural, but we don't know what it is."


The company's main mission is to hunt for shipwrecks filled with gold and jewels, and to locate potentially lucrative oil and natural gas reserves in deep water that Cuba does not have the means to explore.


Treasure hunting has become a growth industry in recent years as technology has improved, allowing more precise exploration and easier recovery from deeper ocean sites. Advanced Digital operates from the Ulises, a 260-foot trawler that was converted to a research vessel for Castro's government by the late French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.


Since they began exploration three years ago with sophisticated side-scan sonar and computerized global-positioning equipment, Weinzweig said they have mapped several large oil and gas deposits and about 20 shipwrecks sitting beneath ancient shipping lanes where hundreds of old wrecks are believed to be resting.


The most historically important so far has been the USS Maine, which exploded and sank in Havana harbor in 1898, an event that ignited the Spanish-American War. In 1912, the ship was raised from the harbor floor by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and towed out into deeper water four miles from the Cuban shore, where it was scuttled. Strong currents carried the Maine away from the site, and its precise location remained unknown until Ulises's sonar spotted it two years ago.


Then, by sheer serendipity, on a summer day in 2000, as the Ulises was towing its sonar back and forth across the ocean like someone mowing a lawn, the unexpected rock formations appeared on the sonar readouts. That startled Weinzweig and his partner and wife,Paulina Zelitsky, a Russian-born engineer who has designed submarine bases for the Soviet military.


"We have looked at enormous amounts of ocean bottom, and we have never seen anything like this," Weinzweig said.


The discovery immediately sparked speculation about Atlantis, the fabled lost city first described by Plato in 360 B.C. Weinzweig and Zelitsky were careful not to use the A-word and said that much more study was needed before such a conclusion could be reached.


That has not stopped a boomlet of speculation, most of it on the Internet. Atlantis hunters have long argued their competing theories that the lost city was off Cuba, off the Greek island of Crete, off Gibraltar or elsewhere. Several Websites have touted the ADC images as a possible first sighting.


Among those who suspect the site may be Atlantis is George Erikson, a California anthropologist who co-authored a book in which he predicted that the lost city would be found offshore in the tropical Americas.


"I have always disagreed with all the archaeologists who dismiss myth," said Erikson, who said he had been shunned by many scientists since publishing his book about Atlantis. He said the story has too many historical roots to be dismissed as sheer fantasy and that if the Cuban site proves to be Atlantis, he hopes "to be the first to say, 'I told you so.' "


Manuel Iturralde, one of Cuba's leading geologists, said it was too soon to know what the images prove. He has examined the evidence and concluded that, "It's strange, it's weird; we've never seen something like this before, and we don't have an explanation for it."


Iturralde said volcanic rocks recovered at the site strongly suggest that the undersea plain was once above water, despite its extreme depth. He said the existence of those rocks was difficult to explain, especially because there are no volcanoes in Cuba.


He also said that if the symmetrical stones are determined to be the ruins of buildings, it could have taken 50,000 years or more for tectonic shifting to carry them so deep into the ocean. The ancient Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt is only about 5,000 years old, which means the Cuba site "wouldn't fit with what we know about human architectural evolution," he said.


"It's an amazing question that we would like to solve," he said.


Iturralde stressed that the evidence is inconclusive. He said that no first-hand exploration in a mini-submarine had been conducted, which would provide a much more comprehensive assessment. He said a remote-operated video camera provides only a limited perspective, like someone looking at a close-up image of an elephant's toe and trying to describe the whole animal.


The National Geographic Society has expressed interest and is considering an expedition in manned submarines next summer, according to Sylvia Earl, a famed American oceanographer and explorer-in-residence at the society.


"It's intriguing," Earl said in an interview from her Oakland, Calif., home. "It is so compelling that I think we need to go check it out."


Earl said a planned expedition this past summer was canceled because of funding problems, but she said National Geographic hopes to explore the site next summer as part of its Sustainable Seas research program.


Earl has visited Cuba and described the preliminary evidence as "fantastic" and "extraordinary;" but she stressed that as a "skeptical scientist," she would assume that the unusual stones were formed naturally until scientific evidence proved otherwise. "There is so much speculation about ancient civilizations," she said. "I'm in tune with the reality and the science, not the myths or stories or fantasies."


As they search for answers, Weinzweig and Zelitsky have suddenly become involved in a new mystery -- the discovery of a potential blockbuster shipwreck. They said that on Aug. 15, their remotely operated vehicle came across what appears to be a 500-year-old Spanish galleon for which they had been searching.


They declined to name the ship, fearful of other treasure hunters, but they said it carried a priceless cargo of emeralds, diamonds and ancient artifacts. By contract, they said they can keep 40 percent of the value of whatever they recover. They said the value of findings at the newly discovered wreck could far exceed the nearly $4 million that their private backers have so far invested in their operations.


Weinzweig said a closer examination is needed to prove the ship's identity. He said that in treasure hunting, as in the search for Atlantis, there is no substitute for science.


"One thing is legend," he said, sitting on Ulises's bridge. "Another is the hard evidence you find on the ocean floor."

 


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