Argentina: concern grows for missing submarine after two false alarms

Sounds picked up by search vessels did not come from the missing ARA San Juan, say navy officials

(Photo: Sky News)
(Photo: Sky News)

Argentina's navy said it will take advantage of improved weather conditions to further its search for the submarine which vanished last Wednesday in the Atlantic Ocean.

Strong winds and high waves have hampered the search for the ARA San Juan and its 44 crew members in the past few days.

On Monday, navy officials said that sounds picked up by two search vessels did not come from the submarine vessel, dashing relatives' hopes for a speedy rescue. This came as the second false alarm.

A US Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft was brought to the area to record an acoustic footprint of the sound, but analysis of the file determined the sounds were not from the missing vessel, said Argentine navy spokesman Enrique Balbi said.

The sounds could have been from the ocean or marine life, he added.

Two vessels searching for the submarine heard a “noise” at a depth of around 656 feet, said Balbi earlier on Monday.

The location of the noise coincided with the route the submarine would have taken on the way to its home port in Mar del Plata.

The sonar systems of two ships detected noises, which sounded like tools being banged against the hull of a vessel, according to a senior US navy official. He said that when in distress, the crews would bang on the vessel’s hull in order to alert passing ships.

The ARA San Juan was heading from a base in southern Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago to Mar del Plata and was scheduled to arrive on Sunday.


What happened to ARA San Juan?

The vessel’s captain reported a “failure” in the vessel’s battery system shortly before it disappeared last week, said Navy spokesman Gabriel Galeazzi.

After this report, the submarine experienced a “short circuit” and he was told to “change course and return to Mar del Plata”.

The Argentine navy had one more interaction with the captain before the submarine went missing, said Galeazzi. The navy did not give any additional details of the content of that interaction however.

(Photo: BBC)
(Photo: BBC)

On Saturday, seven reported communication attempts were initially believed to originate from San Juan, but on Monday, officials confirmed that the radio calls were not coming from the missing vessel.

The last confirmed contact with the submarine was on Wednesday, according to the Argentine navy.

The waters of the Atlantic ocean, where the sounds were said to originate from, said the US official, are extremely deep.

The Argentine military has also been working with a US company, which specialises in satellite communication to determine the location of the submarine.

The search area, off the Pantagonia coast, is well-known for it’s strong storms.


Worst-case scenario

According to Balbi, the “worst-case scenario” is that the missing vessel could run out of oxygen in two days.

Under normal circumstances, the submarine has sufficient fuel, water, oil and oxygen to operate for 90 days without external help, said Balbi.

The vessel could also “snorkel” - raise a tube to the surface – to “charge batteries and draw fresh air for the crew”.

If the submarine is bobbing adrift on the surface and the hatch is open, it will have enough available air supply and food for around 30 days, he said.

If the vessel is immersed, however, and cannot raise a snorkel, oxygen may last about seven days.

When the vessel made contact on Wednesday, five days ago, it was immersed.

"This phase of search and rescue is critical," Balbi said. "This is why we are deploying all resources with high-tech sensors. We welcome the help we have received to find them."

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