Second part of an interview with the legendary Commander of the Mir submersibles Anatoly Sagalevich
In Part One of my interview with Anatoly Sagalevich you read about his early career, the development of the Mir submersibles and expeditions to the Titanic. In Part Two the Hero of Russia, Technical Sciences Ph.D., Head of the Laboratory of Deep-Sea Manned Submersibles at the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Anatoly Mikhaylovich Sagalevich describes his dives to Hitler’s battleship the Bismarck, sunk in May 1941 by the British fleet; two lost Soviet nuclear submarines: the Komsomolets (K278) and the Kursk K-141; the Japanese Second World War submarine I-52, and a Spanish galleon.
Sagalevich is the only Russian to have won the 2002 Underwater Oscar at the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences at Hall of Fame in the Florida, USA, for his many years of underwater research.
For diving to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole, the Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded him by the Gold Star medal of the Hero of Russia.
These expeditions were very interesting. The Bismarck, with a displacement of 53,000 tons and a length of 251 meters, was one of the most powerful ships of the Second World War. She inspired total fear in the ocean; her eight 381-mm main calibre guns could fire a one-ton shell up to 30 kilometers. Because of her huge firepower, the designers called the Bismarck an "unsinkable cannon platform." The Bismarck sailed with a crew of 2206 seamen.
On May 24, 1941, in an artillery duel fought at a distance of about 16 kilometers, the Bismarck sank the flagship of the British fleet the battle cruiser Hood. One of the shells from Bismarck's seventh salvo pierced the Hood's armor, landing in the powder room of the aft turret in just the sixth minute of battle. The British battlecruiser exploded and only three sailors of the 1,419 crew survived.
The Bismarck’s heavy shells also severely damaged the wheelhouse, bridge and aft turrets of the British battleship the Prince of Wales, which, hiding behind a smoke screen, withdrew from the sea battle.
The Bismarck then headed for the shores of Nazi-occupied France, while her companion, the heavy cruiser Prince Eugen, headed south. The British rushed in pursuit.
First, the Bismarck was attacked by British torpedo bombers, who managed to hit the aft part of the German battleship. Then, on May 27, 1941 the approaching British battleships, cruisers and destroyers finished off their fierce enemy with heavy shells and torpedoes. In the last sea battle, about a thousand large and medium-calibre shells were fired at the Bismarck.
The Bismarck lurched to the port side, the stern went under the water, and the bow was raised 50 metres above the surface. Having turned over, the battleship went under the water.
On June 7, 1989, a team led by Robert Ballard, co-discoverer of the Titanic, was the first to locate and explore the wreck of the Bismarck. After that, no one worked in this area and deep-sea submersibles never visited it until our first expedition which took place from the research vessel Akademik Mstislav Keldysh in June 2001.
The Bismarck is much better preserved than the Titanic. Even the grey paint with greenish tint on the Bismarck's armoured hull is almost completely preserved. Only here and there does rust appear and there is no rust such as that which is found on the Titanic.
The deck and all horizontal surfaces of the battleship are covered with a light deposit of sediment, which immediately rises up with the slightest movement of the Mir submersible's engines.
When the Bismarck sank, she capsized and the turrets with main artillery battery guns, held by weight alone on toothed mountings, fell out. The turrets with their main guns lie nearby on the seabed, we could see them buried in silt near the Bismarck's hull.
When the hull landed it ploughed down in an arc for up to one kilometre before coming to rest on an even keel at a depth of 4660 meters. It is largely intact with the exception of a part of the stern approximately 10-15 meters long, that fell off during the sinking.
Evidently, a British torpedo, having exploded, not only damaged the steering mechanism, but also, the stern itself, leading to a crack in the hull. The main mast with the captain's bridge also fell off and lies at a distance of 500 meters from the battleship itself.
On one occasion we set down directly in the trench dug by the Bismarck and travelled along it, coming out at the battleship itself. I was greatly impressed by its appearance.
The battleship appeared menacing, bristling with numerous cannon. The guns, more than half a century later still stand frozen in the same positions as when the Bismarck faced its last battle. The barrels of the anti-aircraft guns are raised up, as if guarding the peace of the sunken battleship.
On the deck we see four huge round holes with a diameter of eight metres which where where the four turrets with eight main guns fell out as the ship capsized. Part of the mast, shot down by the British shell, lies on the edge of one of these openings. I also saw many holes from shell hits.
I raise the Mir deep manned submersible to the stern artillery post. There is one turret with two 37-mm anti-aircraft guns on the wings of the aft bridge. The upper part of the superstructure was completely demolished by the British shells. There are no lifeboats: apparently, they were completely destroyed by the British heavy artillery fire.
We counted three two-gun turrets with 150-mm guns, four 105-mm guns on each side of the battleship. They are all intact. Of the six turrets with 37-mm anti-aircraft guns, four remained intact. Two turrets with 37-mm anti-aircraft cannons were destroyed by the British shells together with the tower, on which the main artillery fire control post was located. There is a gaping hole where the fire control periscope once stood: apparently, it was blown away by a shell hit.
I see the surviving part of the hangar and the catapult for the onboard reconnaissance aircraft.
The tower with the main artillery fire control post was destroyed, only a part of the bridge with service premises remains.
I pass the holes from the bow turrets of the main calibre guns and go to the two anchor winches. Only the right winch still contain chain.
I see the huge fascist swastika on the wooden deck, which was painted so that the battleship would not be bombed by their own Luftwaffe (German Air Force) planes. After sixty years, the salt water and microorganisms have rendered it barely visible, but I am surprised, how well the wooden planks on the deck are preserved. The deck is completely intact, plank to plank. They were probably impregnated with something.
I pass over the Bismarck's stempost with rusty icicles hanging from it. There is an abundance of anemones, gorgonian corals on the prow of the battleship. A huge white starfish is attached at the right anchor hawser of the Bismarck. In general, the prow, like the hull of the battleship, has not lost its powerful appearance.
The starboard hull of the Bismarck is about two-thirds firmly buried into the seabed, while the port side is largely clear of the sediment.
The entire bottom is strewn with various objects: pieces of iron, boots, life jackets, clothing. I saw the clothes where a Bismarck sailor lay: boots, trousers, jacket, but I did not see his remains or bones, apparently, they have been eaten away. We did not pick anything up from the bottom.
Robert Ballard was the first to find the Bismarck, but I was the first to see the battleship Bismarck in person, when it had been there on the bottom for 60 years, directly through the windows of the Mir deep manned submersible.
Having risen to the surface of the ocean and exited the Mir, we were interviewed by the journalists from two German TV companies, who had accompanied the expedition.
Over the next four days, we conducted three more pairs of dives to the Bismarck. We examined the superstructure, cannon, deck, and the hull in detail. Many photographs and high-resolution videos were filmed by a National Geographic Society team and film, directed by Stephen Low in Imax format.
We also took on our board with us two German veterans of the Bismarck - the mechanic Heinrich Kunt and the electrician Heinz Stig. They told us stories about the raid, the sinking of the British battle cruiser Hood, how the Bismarck went down, and then how the British rescued the few surviving Bismarck crew members, dropping ropes and lifting the German sailors aboard. They recalled the sinking of the Bismarck battleship as being a terrible nightmare. Of the entire crew, only 116 sailors were rescued by the British. At the time our expedition 27 Bismarck sailors were still alive.
The Germans were grateful to the British sailors for the rescue operation, but then the captain of one of three British cruisers heard the noise of a suspected German U-boat.
The British stopped their rescue operation immediately and left the area, leaving many Bismarck sailors still in the water.
One of our expeditions was attended by James Cameron, who shot film at the Bismarck. We launched a small remote-controlled vehicle towards the Bismarck. A lot of unique shots were taken. Jim then released an interesting two-part film about the Bismarck on the Discovery Channel which was shown all over the world.
What has been your strongest impression from your expeditions to sunken ships?
Each such object on the ocean floor is a human tragedy... We worked on the Soviet / Russian nuclear submarines: the Komsomolets, which sank on April 7, 1989, and K-141 Kursk, which sank on August 12, 2000.
I can remember the bright April Sun over the Atlantic, an unusually blue sky, and the mirror-like surface of the ocean, when the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh research vessel was en-route across the Atlantic to study a hydrothermal field when suddenly, we received an urgent telegram to change course to the Norwegian Sea, where the Soviet nuclear submarine the Komsomolets had sunk. 42 Soviet submariners died, and 19 survived. We conducted 8 expeditions on the Komsomolets submarine.
I headed the expedition for scientific research and technical work. We examined the submarine and monitored radiation levels. At first, there were proposals to raise the submarine, and our initial task was to clarify the extent of the destruction. With the submarine lying at a depth of 1,700 meters it was calculated that it could cost about $200 million to salvage it.
First, we found a flat silty seabed, occasionally fish swim by, and lonely starfish lie on the bottom. Suddenly, the flat surface of the sediment is disturbed by separate outcrops of disturbed soil, in front there is a ridge about a meter high, reminiscent of the edge of a furrow, as if formed by a bulldozer's knife. Three or four meters of disturbed soil, as if thrown to the surface by a strong blast wave, and then a sharp drop, and our Mir submersible reaches the wreck.
The fragile hull from prow to stern was destroyed on impact with the bottom. We see pipelines, cables, fittings in the gaps between the light and durable titanium hulls.
There is significant damage on the deck from impact on the bottom. The covers of the torpedo tubes have been dislodged by the shock wave.
We approach the conning tower and see the opening, where the 27-ton rescue capsule was located. I see the hatch through which the last of its seamen, led by the submarine commander, left the boat.
We found the rescue capsule 800 meters from the submarine, which, having undocked from the submarine, and shortly before reaching the surface became filled with water and sank too. Only two sailors of five, who were inside the capsule managed to get to the surface (and only one of them survived).
The submarine commander, Captain 1st Rank E.A. Vanin died in the rescue capsule which now lies a little buried in the sediment. There is no external damage. We see the open top hatch.
The stern of the Komsomolets looks as good as new, I can't even believe that the submarine is on the bottom.
On the starboard side of the seventh compartment, where a fire broke out, the rubber, that sheathed the light hull, turned white, swollen and distorted.
Perhaps the hull had burned out, and the water was boiling between the two thin pressure hulls.
A special sarcophagus shelter was installed on the prow of the Komsomolets submarine to protect the environment, since in addition to its nuclear reactor, two nuclear warheads remain on board.
This expedition was interesting, but it would have been better if it hadn't been necessary, and the unique one-hundred-meter submarine still survived. It was the outstanding and most capable submarine in the world: with a dive depth of 1000 meters, made possible by its titanium hull.
What can you say about the tragedy of the K-141 “Kursk” Russian nuclear submarine under commandership of G.P. Lyachin on August 12, 2000?
The Kursk submarine sank while we were working with James Cameron on the Titanic on the documentary film Ghosts of the Deep.
We used remotely-operated vehicles, that we sent inside the Titanic, where they took many unique shots.
In August 2000, we had to go to Bermuda for scientific research but the Director of the “Rubin” Central Design Bureau of Marine Engineering, General Designer, Academician Igor Spassky called on the satellite phone and said: “Stop doing this nonsense! You must go to the “Kursk”. Our president Vladimir Putin had called and given this order!"
We had been contracted by a foreign company, and risked a large penalty by breaking the contract. But our partner realized that there was a great misfortune in our country so we were permitted to interrupt our deep-sea work and went to the Barents Sea.
We arrived in the area in September, took on board Navy representatives and made five dives within five days from September 25 to 30.
We examined the submarine and the area around it, measured the radiation levels, and filmed 30 hours of video.
Initially, there was a suggestion that there may have been a collision with a US submarine nearby but we did not find any trace on the K-141 hull or on the bottom to support the theory. It was later concluded that an experimental torpedo had exploded inside the K-141 “Kursk” submarine.
We recovered more than 30 artefacts from the bottom and then it was decided to cut off the prow of the submarine and raise it.
Can you describe any other notable incidents from your expeditions?
A US businessman contracted us to dive on the Japanese submarine I-52, which sank in the central Atlantic Ocean during the Second World War at a depth of 5470 meters.
This submarine left Japan in May 1944 on its last raid. According to some archival documents, two tons of gold were loaded on board during refuelling in Singapore, which was then occupied by Japanese troops. I-52 then crossed the Indian Ocean, circled the southern tip of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope and reached the Atlantic. I-52 also carried the latest sonar equipment intended for German U-boats, as well as rubber, tin ingots, molybdenum and uranium ore, and opium. During the Second World War, Germany and Japan used submarines to exchange and deliver the most valuable cargo, strategic raw materials and advanced equipment.
The I-52 was due to arrive at Lorient in the western France, where a German naval base was located during the Nazi occupation. I-52 met the German submarine U-530 in the open ocean, and the Germans gave to the Japanese the latest underwater locator and three installation specialists. Shortly after, on June 24, 1944, I-52 was attacked by the US torpedo bomber Avenger from the aircraft carrier Bogue. US pilot Jess Taylor dropped sonar buoys with radio transmitters onto the ocean surface, and then dropped a sonar torpedo.
The sonar buoy recorded a torpedo hit, but, although hit on the prow, the submarine did not reduce speed, as evidenced by the noise of rotating propellers. A second Avenger torpedo bomber flew in commanded by pilot Bill Gordon. He attacked the I-52 with another torpedo. Gordon heard a strong explosion in his headphones, relayed by the sonar buoys. The noise of the propellers stopped and oil stains appeared on the surface. The entire crew of I-52 (112 sailors) was killed.
Its length was 107 meters, and its displacement was 5000 tons. For the Second World War time, it was a giant submarine.
We found this submarine. Its prow and stern were badly damaged, the propellers had been torn off. We tried to find the I-52 propellers on the bottom, but we didn't find them.
Our expedition was attended by representatives of the US National Geographic and Imax, who shot a very good large-format film.
The US airmen who sank the I-52, joined us aboard the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh research vessel: Bill Gordon (who dropped the second torpedo) and two crew members of the first torpedo bomber, piloted by Jess Taylor – the radio operator John Gambell and gunner Bill Yarington. All three of them spoke about the events of 1944 with tears in their eyes ...
Interestingly, I-52 conning tower is completely intact and completely sealed, hatches are battened down on both sides.
It is impossible to look inside there even with the help of a remote controlled vehicle. If there is gold there, then it is in the conning tower.
The entire space in front of the conning tower is like a melon ripped open with a knife: both starboard and port side lie on the bottom, and between them are twisted, scattered pipes and broken cables. The prow 15-18 meters long seems to be cut off. We found the wreckage of the prow compartment at the bottom 50 meters from the submarine.
The cannons have been preserved in the conning tower and on the stern.
The hull of the submarine lies on its port side at a 30-degree angle. I saw the inscription I-52 on the starboard side.
After the discovery of the submarine, we made six double dives over 10 days, we filmed the hull and separate parts of the I-52 for the National Geographic and Imax films, and we examined the debris field around the wreck.
Lead boxes were scattered around there which, apparently, carried opium or tungsten and uranium ore (they were listed in the submarine cargo manifest). But it was all washed away with high pressure water, and the boxes were empty.
Interestingly, there were many large tin bars on the bottom. We raised the shapeless iron fragments of a submarine, ingots of tin, small empty lead boxes containing either ore or opium on board the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh research vessel.
We also found the soles of shoes. Upon the request of the US historian Paul Tidwell, we raised them to the surface, and he took them to Japan, where they were buried in the I-52 crew cenotaph, a symbolic grave.
We also picked up some tin bars.
I told the Americans a famous funny story about the quest for gold in weights from the popular Soviet comic novel The Golden Calf.
I said: “The Japanese are very cunning. They may have hidden the gold inside the tin bars."
The Americans took the hacksaws and began to saw the ingots.
Then all the members of our expedition received small souvenirs from this tin with the stamped date of the sinking of the submarine - June 1944, depth - 5470 meters, the date of the expedition - December 1998.
But we did not find gold either on the submarine or on the large debris area of the seabed around it.
Some foreign participants, who invested in our expedition, were rather disappointed. But at that time they reassured themselves: "It was not our last million, but we still have a lot of them".
How many dives have you done in your career, and what is the greatest depth you have reached?
I have made more than 500 deep dives, spent more than 2000 hours at great depths. I dived to a maximum depth of 6170 meters during the Mir-1 deep manned submersible test on December 11, 1987 in the Atlantic.
What dive do you consider has been the most dangerous?
We have been working with two Mir submersibles for over 30 years. We have never had dangerous dives, emergency underwater accidents. We never had to interrupt our dives. We also have a very careful attitude to the Mir submersibles and all our equipment. Work experience is very important.
Having such a unique deep-sea equipment and technique as Mir submersibles, we can find and lift many interesting and valuable items from the bottom.
What was the most challenging time for Russian science?
When we had a large state, the USSR, we had a planned economic system, we had big, stable budget, money was allocated for scientific research. The first expeditions (seven scientific and one special to the wreck of the Komsomolets nuclear submarine) were very interesting and successful. We also obtained very interesting scientific results in the first expeditions to the hydrothermal fields of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
In that period, unlike in subsequent years, scientists themselves chose the areas of research work. The situation changed dramatically after 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up. At first, funding of the expeditions was reduced, and then completely cancelled. Employee salaries dropped sharply. Under the Yeltsin presidency, Russian science was dying and tried to survive. Several submariners left our institute. There was no funding for our institute. Our future and science were on the brink so we were forced to look for sources of funding abroad.
However, we, the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh research vessel and the two Mir submersibles were in great demand, so we received various offers from foreign organizations to continue our deep water work.
Our collaboration with the US National Geographic Society, NOAA (US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Hollywood, the Canadian film company Imax and various universities and institutes of the US and other countries have brought worldwide fame to the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh research vessel and the two Mir submersibles.
For the first time in the history of world cinema, full-scale deep-sea shooting appeared in films. With James Cameron, we surveyed all the hydrothermal fields of the Atlantic and, in part, the Pacific Ocean. On the basis of this filming, he made a brilliant film about unusual animals as if from another planet Aliens of the Deep.
What is the positions of Russia in the world today in the sphere of ocean exploration?
Russia, in comparison with the Soviet Union, has largely lost its positions in science. The USSR had the most important tool - a powerful research fleet.
Since 1991, Russia has not built a single research vessel.
Today we carry out absolutely all our research on ships and equipment, which was created by the Soviet Union. We have no new research ships, and no new submersibles.
Thank God, we managed to keep the Mir submersibles in the best possible condition. We have improved their measuring instruments, data processing equipment, navigation systems, etc.
Since the commissioning of the submersibles, the software has been completely replaced, photographic and video equipment, external lighting has been replaced, new sonar devices have been installed, small-sized remote-controlled modules equipped with video cameras and underwater lighting have been developed.
These modules are designed to survey the interior of sunken objects from the two Mir submersibles, they are controlled by cable from the submersibles and can go to a distance of 60 metres.
Our deep-sea equipment must continue to develop. We have ideas to build new submersibles. And, of course, we need new research ships.
The Akademik Mstislav Keldysh was built in 1980. This is a great age for a ship. The Akademik Keldysh is a very good vessel, but she no longer meets modern requirements.
Did you ever search for treasure?
Yes, but we were driven not by the thirst for enrichment, but by the desire to survive: with Yeltsin coming to power, deprived of stable funding, we looked for the use of the Mir submersibles in order to preserve the unique deep-sea equipment and the team of professional submariners that had operated successfully for decades.
In January 1993, under a contract with the head of the Mexican TV company Televisa, Mr. Ascorage, one of the richest people in the world, we participated in the search for the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora del Juncal, which sank in a storm in the Gulf of Mexico with a large load of gold in the 16th century.
Archive information on the wreck's location was very rough. The search went on for 3 months, but we did not manage to find either the galleon or the treasure.
We earned money and we carried out dock repairs of our research ship, bought a new motor-boat in England for towing of the Mir submersibles (our boat, which had been on the ship since the time of construction, was already falling apart from operations in stormy weather), updated the equipment on the submersibles, saved the staff of submariners and the crew of the ship.
In summer 2001, we discovered and surveyed the deepest wooden vessel in the history of the world. A schooner about 25 meters long that sank near the Bahamas at a depth of 4,700 meters. This is the first wooden vessel found at such great depths. The bottom here had a very complex relief with high ridges of sedimentary rocks.
The wood sheathing was partially missing, but the frames and part of the deck remained.
During three pair dives of two Mir submersibles we found and raised to the surface two sextants, a telescope, two ancient pistols, an hourglass, plates, mugs and bottles, many Spanish and Portuguese coins, a small box with gold coins, a well-preserved newspaper page, as well as other household items of that time. The coins were dated to the beginning of the 19th century. We gave the coins to the US archaeologists for conservation at a museum in Bermuda. Unfortunately, there was no treasure on the ship. The identity of this sailing-ship, its home country and the year of its construction are unknown. But the entire deck of the ship was littered with coconuts, which at that time were transported by merchants to Europe. We raised several coconuts from the bottom for biological and geochemical analysis.
So, in fact, we were not looking for treasures, but we simply survived, saving our research ship and our submersibles from the sad fate that befell the scientific achievements of our country in other areas under the Yeltsin presidency.
What does the ocean mean to you? Is there a secret of the oceans for you?
The Ocean Is My Whole Life! But, certainly, I am not an amphibian man. I devoted more than 50 years of my life to the ocean exploration. In 1965 I came to the Institute of Oceanology (I was 27 years old).
But many mysteries remain.
What area of the world's oceans have human eyes actually seen?
We shot a lot of films and took many photos. But it is no more than one percent of the world's ocean floor.
The feeling of depth is always with me.
Therefore, new dives and discoveries follow, bringing not only great satisfaction, but also the novelty of sensations given by this capacious word - "depth".
I have very interesting job and I am really the happiest person in our planet!
About what sea expeditions do you dream today?
In 2007 I had a very interesting expedition to the North Pole in the Arctic Ocean. It was my dream that we had been preparing since 1998. After 9 years, we achieved it.
Today I dream a about circumnavigation, a voyage around-the-world on board our Akademik Mstislav Keldysh together with the two Mir submersibles.
I am sure, there are many scientific discoveries to come.
Did you have any mysterious phenomena in the ocean during your expeditions?
Debris and wreckage at the site of shipwrecks are not the most interesting in the ocean. The most interesting thing in the ocean is life. To me the most amazing, stunning and mesmerizing are the hydrothermal vents outpouring on the ocean bottom.
A new earth's crust is born there, completely unpredictable, different and amazing geological structures in their beauty, which you will not see on the Earth.
There is a very diverse and stunningly beautiful fauna in the ocean under the water. This is the most interesting thing in the ocean.
There are still a lot of discoveries in the ocean in the future. Therefore, I believe that we still have everything to look forward to.
Photos by Yury Plutenko and from photo archives of Anatoliy Sagalevich