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Underwater world: Man's doing or nature's?

Published Sep. 4, 2005

Paulina Zelitsky remembers the hot July day two summers ago and the sudden, unpleasant feeling that she had stumbled into a place she was not supposed to be.

The research vessel Ulises sailed in the Yucatan Channel just off the west coast of Cuba that day, hired by the Castro government to look for undersea oil and gas _ old treasure ships, too, if they could be found.

More than 2,000 feet beneath the surface, in total blackness, the vessel towed a boombox-sized sonar on an electronic tether. Pulsing sound waves, the sonar sketched a picture of the sea bottom on a computer screen aboard Ulises far above.

As Zelitsky and her husband, Paul Weinzweig, watched the screen, the empty plain of sea bed suddenly gave way to images of massive geometric shapes, apparently cut from stone. As more shapes came into view, some appeared to be arranged in patterns over a large area about 20-kilometers square.

Some stone appeared to be cut into blocks, and some blocks seemed perfectly aligned. They appeared to form corridors and the outlines of rooms, the two scientists said. There were round stones and pyramid-shaped ones, too.

The sea bottom in that area is an undulating sand plain, Zelitsky said. What they were seeing should not have been there.

"We were shocked, and frankly we were a little frightened," said Zelitsky. "It was as though we should not be seeing what we were seeing. Our first thought was maybe we found some kind of secret military installation."

Finding a military installation on the bottom of the sea might unnerve anybody, and for the next six months the two researchers stayed busy with their work for the Cuban government and said little about their discovery. "But I tried to identify what we had seen," Zelitsky said. "Then one day, in our office, I looked up and saw pictures of ancient Mexican ruins on a calendar, and I made a mental connection."

Zelitsky and Weinzweig, officers in a Havana-based Canadian company called Advanced Digital Communication (ADC), believe they might have found the remnants of a lost civilization perhaps 6,000 years old.

This site, perhaps built by a culture that far pre-dates the famous Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, might have been the victim of a vast, mysterious cataclysm that somehow dropped it 2,000 feet beneath the surface of the sea.

"Nothing is known for certain now," Weinzweig said, "but oral tradition in early Mexico speaks of an advanced civilization of tall white people who came from the East, and of an island that sank in a great natural disaster." In the ancient language of some early Central American Indians, he said, "the word Atlanticu means "our good father,' or, "the place where our good father rests.' "

Then again, maybe not.

Maybe the intriguing shapes found by the sonar are just that _ intriguing shapes, carved over the centuries by whimsical Mother Nature.

Zelitsky and Weinzweig don't think so, though, and plan to visit the site again with a manned submersible equipped with cameras and powerful lights _ when they have the money.

Others have interest in such a project, but haven't committed to it.

"They are interesting anomalies, but that's as much as anyone can say right now," said John Echave, senior editor of National Geographic Magazine, who traveled to Cuba to study the sonar images.

"But I'm no expert on sonar," he said, "and until we are able to actually go down there and see, it will difficult to characterize them."

Echave pointed out that hard-to-explain undersea geologic formations have cropped up elsewhere in the world, too, in places such as Japan and nearby in the Bahamas.

In the Bahamas, pilots and divers wondered for years about the so-called "Atlantis Road,' a long row of seemingly connected stone blocks in about 15 feet of water. Gene Shinn of the St. Petersburg office of the U.S. Geological Survey became fascinated by the story and investigated in 1978. His conclusion: The blocks are natural, caused by a combination of sea level rise and erosion.

Nevertheless, Echave said, "we are talking to Advanced Digital and we have an interest in their project. We have to get the protocols in motion, but at this point we have not dotted the i's and crossed the t's." Echave said since any project undertaken would be scientific, he did not expect problems with the Cuban or U.S. governments.

Dr. Robert Ballard is explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society and is founder and president of the Institute For Exploration at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. He is best known, however, for the 1985 discovery of the passenger liner Titanic deep in the North Atlantic.

Ballard said he has heard of the formations in the Yucatan Channel but is not convinced they are the work of humans.

"That's too deep," he said of the 2,000-foot site. "I'd be surprised if it was human. You have to ask yourself, how did it get there?

"I've looked at a lot of sonar images in my life," Ballard said, "and it can be sort of like looking at an an ink blot _ people can sometimes see what they want to see. I'll just wait for a bit more data."

Zelitsky and Weinzweig say that's what they want, too: more data.

In July 2001, the summer after the discovery, they returned to the site with geologist Manuel Iturralde, senior researcher of Cuba's Natural History Museum. They sent down a Remotely Operated Vehicle to examine and videotape the structures. Images sent back by the ROV confirmed the presence of large blocks of stone _ about 8 feet by 10 feet _ some circular, some rectangular, some in the shape of pyramids. Some blocks appeared deliberately stacked atop one another, others appeared isolated from the rest.

"Large structures in the middle of a desert," Zelitsky called them.

Because of their white appearance underwater, Zelitsky said the structures appear to be granite _ a good building stone but one foreign to that part of the world.

"There is no granite in Cuba orthe Yucatan," Zelitsky said. "That area features limestone." Granite is found in Central Mexico, however, and was used by ancient people such as the Maya and an older civilization, the Olmec, in their construction of cities and buildings.

The second visit to the underwater site proved only marginally revealing, however. Currents in the area are strong, Weinzweig said, and heavy sediment in the water made videotaping difficult.

"We've done about as much as we can do with the technology we have," Weinzweig said. "The next step will be to go down there with a manned submersible, so we can move from place to place without a tether holding us back."

The new submersible will need powerful lights and better cameras, he said, and a drill to bore into the stone to confirm they are made of granite.

Large stone pieces used by ancient civilizations in construction are called megaliths. With this in mind, Zelitsky and Weinzweig have dubbed their discovery "Mega."

Predictably, as word got around, others quickly gave it another name: The Lost City of Atlantis.

A land bridge

from Mexico to Cuba?

The Lost City of Atlantis has warmed romantic hearts for thousands of years.

The Greek philosopher Plato, who died in 347 B.C., called it a utopia destroyed by an earthquake, and people have been trying to find it since.

They have looked from the Aegean to Antarctica, from Europe to the Bahamas, without success.

In his book Gateway to Atlantis, Andrew Collins speculated the Caribbean might turn out to be the site of Atlantis and proposed that it might have been destroyed by a comet impact that devastated the eastern coastline with mammoth tsunamis or tidal waves.

Zelitsky and Weinzweig dismiss the Atlantis talk.

The story is myth, said Zelitsky, a Russian-trained engineer. "What we have found is more likely remnants of a local culture," once located on a 100-mile "land bridge" that joined Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula with Cuba.

This local culture, however, might be every bit as remarkable as Atlantis.

The Maya, for example, developed a magnificent civilization on the Yucatan Peninsula beginning about A.D. 250 and peaking about A.D. 900. Spain finally completed its conquest of the Maya about 1500.

The Maya produced advanced architecture, painting, pottery and sculpture, and their grasp of mathematics and astronomy was remarkable for its time. They might have developed the first calendar, and were among the first to make paper and books of tree bark. They cut large stone blocks and made buildings, courtyards and pyramids, many for worship of numerous gods.

But Zelitsky thinks the Mega site pre-dates even the ancient Maya _ by a lot.

Recently excavated sculptures by the Olmec and Totonec peoples, also of the Yucatan and Central America, are about 4,500 to 6,000 years old, she said.

"The Mayan nation came to the Yucatan at much later times and learned the arts and sciences of civilization from earlier nations." We know little of these nations, she said, "thanks to the Spanish church, who burned all archives."

Today Mexico and Cuba are separated only by the 100-mile width of the Yucatan Channel, and geologists have speculated for years that a "land bridge" once joined the two. According to this theory, underwater faults eventually parted and destroyed the bridge, swallowing the land above.

But 2,000 feet? If the megaliths are indeed ruins, how did they get so deep?

Zelitsky answers that large-scale underground movement of Earth's tectonic plates is usually accompanied by volcanos and earthquakes.

"It's a very powerful event,' she said, and the sinking of an island "could have happened very quickly." While some megaliths on the sea bottom appear organized, she said, others do not. "Over about 20 square kilometers there are a large number of structures that appear jumbled, disorganized," she said.

Cuban geologist Iturralde, she said, "has clearly identified on the ocean bottom the coastal structures of a separated island." Also, she said, the sea bottom at the site is covered with volcanic glass "which could be generated only on the oxygenated surface."

Everyone should keep an open mind, said geologist Iturralde.

"These are extremely peculiar structures, and they have captured our imagination," he said. "If I had to explain this geologically, I would have a hard time."

But, he added, just because no natural explanation for the so-called ruins is immediately apparent, it doesn't mean there isn't one. "Nature is able to create some really unimaginable structures," he said.

He also raised a third possibility. The megaliths might be natural structures, he said, "but transformed or adapted by intelligent beings for dwelling or religious purposes."

What next?

For now, nothing

ADC operates from the Ulises, a 260-foot trawler that was converted to a research vessel for the Cuban government by the late French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.

The company made headlines a year ago with its discovery in nearby waters of the U.S. Navy battleship Maine, which was sunk under mysterious circumstances in 1898, touching off the Spanish-American War. (The ship had been sunk in Havana Harbor. In 1911 it was taken offshore and sunk again, honorably, with a U.S. flag flying from its bow. Its exact location was unknown until it was found by Weinzweig and Zelitsky.)

In finding the Maine and the Mega site, Advanced Digital has made use of two major improvements in underwater exploration. One is side-scan sonar, which allows a wider sweep of ocean bottom than earlier sonar equipment, and the other is the satellite-based Global Positioning System, or GPS.

GPS allows a surface vessel to fix its position to within a few feet and then to follow a precise, reliable search trackline. Connected by cable to the vessel, side-scanning sonar sweeps the ocean floor with pulses of sound, providing a strikingly clear picture of objects on the bottom.

When a promising object is detected, an ROV can be dispatched to investigate. Searches can be performed in 20,000 feet of water.

For now, though, Weinzweig and Zelitsky say they have their hands full keeping up with the terms of the contract with the Cuban government.

"We have signed a long-term exclusive contract with the Cuban government for the natural resources of the Cuban Gulf of Mexico," Weinzweig said. "Our money is private and comes from family and friends who have purchased shares in our offshore company. We have spent $4-million over the last three years and we will require an additional $8-million or $9-million.

"This kind of work is very expensive and we require investment financing. However, our ownership in the final product, whether oil or treasure, would more than handsomely reward the investment required for conduct of deep and ultra deep work on the ocean bottom.

"For now we are busy with our other work," Zelitsky said. "As soon as we have done enough to help finance an archaeological expedition (to the Mega site) then maybe we can do that. But right now it's oil and gas."

A lost civilization found?

Canadian scientists aboard the research vessel Ulises made their discovery in the summer of 2000, on a sandy plain near an underwater mountain just off Cuba's west coast, at the northeastern edge of the Yucatan Channel. The Yucatan is about 100 miles to the west.

Area shown, an image created by sonar about 2,000 feet beneath the surface, is about 100 meters by 50 meters. Canadian researchers say the large stone structures appear to be ruins.