After three weeks of intensive efforts, the Argentine Navy continues to comb the area where the submarine ARA San Juan lost contact with its base on November 15th, with 44 people on board. Most of the 18 nations that participated in the search and rescue left the area of operations. Chile, the United States, and the United Kingdom continue to support the search for the vessel.
Ships already swept the 40-kilometer radius area—where an explosion was detected on November 15th—twice. The task, however, is daunting. “It’s like finding a six-centimeter cigarette on a 100-by-40-meter soccer field,” Captain Enrique Balbi, spokesperson for the Argentine Navy, said at a press conference on December 8th. “And on top of that, the [cigarette] is green,” the captain said, alluding to the black hull of the submarine to prevent underwater detection.
Capt. Balbi confirmed that the search would continue “until all available resources are exhausted,” explaining that no limit was set for partner nation support. “As of yet, no end date has been set for international assistance,” he reported. “What happens is that various ships, such as the Protector [from the United Kingdom], the Atlantis [from the United States], and the dispatch boat Puerto Argentino, leave the area of operations to resupply, and then rejoin the search effort. This international effort also includes the Chilean oceanographic research ship Cabo de Hornos.
“The Brazilian Navy reports that the Argentine Navy discharged the three Brazilian ships that participated in the search for the submarine ARA San Juan,” the Brazilian Navy’s Naval Operations Command told Diálogo. “The icebreaker and oceanographic research ship Almirante Maximiano and the frigate Rademaker ended their participation on November 27th, and the submarine rescue ship Felinto Perry on December 2nd.”
Search area to be widened
The objective now is to expand the search area while objects detected on the sea bottom are inspected. “For now, there are plans to expand the circular area with the greatest likelihood of finding something to the north, which is where the submarine would have gone on its direct course to Mar del Plata,” Capt. Balbi explained at the press conference.
“This afternoon [Friday, December 8th], the U.S. Navy research vessel Atlantis, which set sail yesterday from Comodoro Rivadavia with its ROV [remotely operated vehicle], rejoined the search,” Capt. Balbi said. “The Atlantis and the [Argentine Navy dispatch boat] Islas Malvinas [will operate] with their respective ROVs to inspect three different objects simultaneously.”
The dispatch boat Puerto Argentino joined the search on December 9th, using its U.S.-made side-scanning sonar, while the British HMS Protector also arrived in the area of operations. “Although [the Protector] lacks underwater viewing equipment, it has sensors to sweep the area,” Capt. Balbi added.
In recent days, search and rescue units detected two objects that were inspected and ruled out as small fishing vessels. Now, international teams examine objects detected at greater depths. For instance, the dispatch boat Islas Malvinas attempts to visualize an object at a depth of 830 meters, and the Atlantis will inspect an object at 770 meters. “Fortunately, weather conditions are favorable,” Capt. Balbi said.
End of rescue stage
On November 30th, despite the use of the most advanced search technology, Argentine authorities announced that hope to find the crew of the ARA San Juan alive were lost. “The Ministry of Defense and the Argentine Navy, as the enforcement authorities of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, report that today, Thursday, November 30th, at 16:20 hours, the SAR [search and rescue] case for the submarine ARA San Juan ended and shifted to the search phase,” the press release read.
The large-scale operation included 28 ships, nine aircraft, and 4,000 personnel from Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru, the United States, and 13 other nations. “Despite the scope of the efforts, locating the submarine was not possible,” Capt. Balbi said at the press conference. “The operation extended to more than twice the number of days estimated to rescue the crew.”
In all, 18 nations swept over 557,000 square nautical miles with visual search and 1,049,479 square nautical miles (almost equal to the size of Argentina) with radar search. The initial efforts were done in a 482,000-square-kilometer area (nearly the size of Spain), later focused on the 40-kilometer radius where the explosion was detected. Despite all efforts carried out to depths of 300 meters, rescuers have not come into contact with the submarine or its life rafts.