Story behind deep sea explorer's eerie underwater discovery

A crew of deep-sea explorers and historians looking for lost World War II warships in the Pacific have found a second Japanese aircraft carrier that went down in the historic Battle of Midway.

Vulcan Inc’s director of undersea operations, Rob Kraft, and Naval History and Heritage Command historian, Frank Thompson, reviewed high frequency sonar images of the warship on Sunday and said that its dimensions and location mean it must be the carrier Akagi.

The Akagi was found in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument resting in nearly 5,490 meters of water more than 2,090 kilometres northwest of Pearl Harbour.

A high frequency sonar photo of the flagship Japanese aircraft carrier in a golden image.
A high frequency sonar image of the flagship Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi. Source: AP/Caleb Jones

The researchers used an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, equipped with sonar to find the ship. The vehicle had been out overnight collecting data, and the image of a warship appeared in the first set of readings on Sunday morning.

The first scan used low-resolution sonar, so the crew sent their AUV back to get higher-quality images.

“I’m sure of what we’re seeing here, the dimensions that we’re able to derive from this image (are) conclusive,” Mr Kraft said. “It can be none other than Akagi.”

A yellow autonomous underwater vehicle on the back of a larger boat.
An autonomous underwater vehicle used to make the discovery. Source: AP/Caleb Jones

The vessel is sitting among a pile of debris and the ground around the warship was clearly disturbed by the impact of it hitting the seafloor.

“She’s sitting upright on her keel, we can see the bow, we can see the stern clearly, you can see some of the gun emplacements on there, you can see that some of the flight deck is also torn up and missing so you can actually look right into where the flight deck would be,” Mr Kraft said.

Files of sonar images showing the ship on sea floor.
Sonar scans of the warship from the World War II Battle of Midway. Source: AP/Caleb Jones

The find comes after the discovery of another Japanese carrier, the Kaga, last week.

“We read about the battles, we know what happened. But when you see these wrecks on the bottom of the ocean and everything, you kind of get a feel for what the real price is for war,” said Frank Thompson who is onboard the Petrel.

“You see the damage these things took, and it’s humbling to watch some of the video of these vessels because they’re war graves.”

Until now, only one of the seven ships that went down in the June 1942 air and sea battle — five Japanese vessels and two American — had been located.

Old photos of ships fighting during WWII.
US and Japanese warships battle it out in 1942 during the Battle of Midway. Source: AP

The crew of the research vessel Petrel is hoping to find and survey all lost ships from the 1942 Battle of Midway, which historians consider a pivotal victory for the US in the Pacific during WWII.

The battle was fought between American and Japanese aircraft carriers and warplanes about 320 kilometres off Midway Atoll, a former military installation that the Japanese hoped to capture in a surprise attack.

US military forces, however, intercepted Japanese communications about the strike and were waiting when they arrived. More than 2,000 Japanese and 300 Americans died.

The expedition is an effort started by the late Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft. For years, the crew of the 250-foot (76-metre) Petrel has worked with the US Navy and other officials around the world to locate and document sunken ships. It has found more than 30 vessels so far.

A man seen looking at images of the sunken vessel on a computer screen.
Rob Kraft, director of undersea operations at Vulcan Inc., reviews sonar scans. Source: AP/Caleb Jones

Kraft said the crew’s mission started with Mr Allen’s desire to honour his father’s military service. Allen died last year.

“It really extends beyond that at this time,” Mr Kraft said. “We’re honouring today’s service members, it’s about education and, you know, bringing history back to life for future generations.”

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