An underwater city west of Cuba
Whatever happened to this story? Back in December 2001, the media were abuzz with claims that “explorers… have discovered what they think are the ruins of a submerged city built thousands of years ago”. It was a big claim that got attention from respectable sources, such as National Geographic, as well as the more woo-woo crowd, such as Linda Moulton Howe of cattle mutilating aliens conspiracy fame. The news was greeted with delight by those who believe Atlantis to have been a real place rather than a political fable by Plato. More specifically, it appealed to those who, following the supposed psychic medium Edgar Cayce (1877–1945), believe Bimini in the Bahamas to be a part of the sunken island.
What were the claims based on? In 2000, Paulina Zelitzki and Paul Weinzweig, owners of Advanced Digital Communications (a company that appears not to have a website), were one of four companies commissioned by the Cuban government to undertake sonar surveys off the Guanahacabibes Peninsula at the western tip of the island. Advanced Digital Communications had previously had success in locating the remains of the USS Maine, which sank under mysterious circumstances in Havana Harbour in 1898, during the Spanish-American war. It was hoped that they could locate further sunken ships. They were astonished to find in the survey off the Guanahacabibes Peninsula that some of the sonar images appeared to depict symmetrical features aligned to a grid. This prompted them to undertake a second survey, using a submersible robot. It was this second survey that returned data that seemed to show pyramids and other structures. Indeed, according to Paulina Zelitsky, the images suggested that the “city” was built from blocks of cut and polished granite.
Here, at last, was something that seemed to be good physical evidence for the existence of an advanced civilisation at a time when sea levels were much lower (the inference being that this would have been during the Pleistocene Ice Age). Some of the claims repeated on the web included the identification of a sphinx, a structure resmbling Stonehenge and a monument identical to the “Face on Mars”. All of this is under 600-750 m (2000-2500 feet) of water, a very long way down indeed. It was so deep that it caused problems for the Advanced Digital Communications team, who could not explore the site in the detail needed to confirm their ideas.
In order to get better data, Paulina Zelitsky began raising funds for a third expedition to the site. It was announced in October 2004, in a story that seems not to have been picked up by the world’s media (although various New Age and fringe type websites noted it), but “they could not complete the mission due to technical deficiencies of the submarine that rendered it unable to take images from the marine bottom”. One wonders why they went under-equipped when on the verge of so important a discovery. Nevertheless, Zelitsky announced that they would be returning in 2005, with funding from National Geographic Society. Since then, silence (apart from its inevitable appearance on Ancient Aliens).
Problems, of course
The depth of the alleged remains is the biggest problem of all: during the Pleistocene, sea levels dropped as water was locked up in the ice sheets that developed around the globe. At the maximum extent of the ice, the drop in level was around 100 m, which is very different from the 600-750 m depth of the alleged remains. At no point during the Ice Age would they have been above sea level unless, of course, the land on which they stand has sunk. This is the claim made for Atlantis: according to Plato’s account (the only primary source for it), it was destroyed σεισμῶν ἐξαισίων καὶ κατακλυσμῶν (“by violent earthquakes and floods”). However, if we take Plato at his word – as we must if we assume Atlantis to have been an historical place – the violence of its sinking makes it improbable that an entire city could have survived plunging more than 600 m into an abyss.
Remember that this was μιᾶς ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτὸς χαλεπῆς (“in one fearful day and night”); also recall that διὸ καὶ νῦν ἄπορον καὶ ἀδιερεύνητον γέγονεν τοὐκεῖ πέλαγος͵ πηλοῦ κάρτα βραχέος ἐμποδὼν ὄντος͵ ὃν ἡ νῆσος ἱζομένη παρέσχετο (“and this is why the sea in that are is to this day impassable to navigation, which is hindered by mud just below the surface, the remains of the sunken island”). Rapid sinking would devastate structures; the persistence of mud just below the surface suggests that the sinking was not to a depth of 600-740 m. Unless we are prepared to jettison Plato’s text – the sole source for the story of Atlantis – we cannot identify the features found by Paulina Zelitsky with Atlantis.
The next problem involves trying to understand what the sonar shows. All the fancy graphics showing pyramid-like structures are computer generated: they are not photographs of things seen under the sea. All the detail is limited to the resolution of the side-scan sonar, which is not good enough to determine whether the supposed structures exhibit 90° angles, let alone confirm the claims that some stones are covered in hieroglyphs. The initial images, which do not have the three-dimensional data provided by the side-scanning sonar, show rectilinear but not rigorously right-angled features, so I suspect that the angularity of the generated images is an artefact of the processing, much like many of the details claimed for the ‘Face on Mars’. We have some interesting sonar images that are basically like ink-blot tests: they need interpreting and the interpretation is entirely dependent upon the preconceptions an biases of those looking at them. Paulina Zeltisky was predisposed to see artificiality, because that is what she was being paid to do (even if the artificiality she was specifically interested in involved sunken ships). Others have seen geological formations.
So, what happened to the story?
Although some conspiracy theorists have suggested that either Paulina Zelitsky’s findings from 2004 or 2005 were suppressed by Teh Military or she was prevented from returning to the site, again by Teh Military, in reality, the story simply went cold. Despite initial enthusiasm in some quarters, including from the Cuban marine geologist Manuel Iturralde-Vinent, experts were not convinced that Paulina Zelitsky had really discovered a sunken city. Zelitsky continues to work as an oceanographic engineer based in Ontario (Canada) and has not announced any plans since 2004 to return to the site. Although some may see this as evidence that she has been warned off it, it is more likely that she has been unable to persuade anyone to finance an expedition in search of something that in all likelihood doesn’t exist.
The story was given a new lease of life thanks to its exposure in Ancient Aliens, but no new information about it has emerged. After the initial flurry of excitement, once scientists began to look critically at the data, especially the sonar images, the story could be seen to be nothing more than hype. For anyone outside the small band of “alternative researchers” and New Age true believers, the story simply died for lack of evidence. But when did a lack of evidence ever stop woo-woos making unsupported claims?