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Early Submarine Discovery: The Secret of the Pearl Islands

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For the past 137 years, a mysterious wreck has emerged at low tide each day on a beach off the coast of Panama. Researchers now know that it's the presumed lost "Sub Marine Explorer," one of the world's first submarines and a vessel that would ultimately kill its German inventor.

The tower was the first thing Jim Delgado saw. Inch by inch, it emerged from the deep-green surf of the Pacific Ocean -- an encrusted piece of black metal covered with barnacles, rust and seaweed, a ghostly apparition slowly rising from the sea.

Delgado was sitting on the roots of an ancient palmetto tree, staring at the water as if transfixed. Aside from the hermit crabs digging in the sand at his feet and the brown pelicans screeching in the treetops, Delgado was alone -- the only human being on this godforsaken island known as San Telmo, somewhere southeast of Panama City.

Low tide came slowly and sluggishly, eventually exposing the mysterious rust-eaten wreck a fisherman had described to Delgado. The man believed it was a Japanese submarine that had been on a mission to attack ships near the Panama Canal during World War II, only to fall prey to the treacherous waters of the Pearl Archipelago.

But the more the tide retreated, the more Delgado -- director of the renowned Vancouver Maritime Museum -- was convinced that the fisherman's story couldn't possibly be true. This thing appearing before his eyes had to be older, much older.

The design reminded the scientist of an "iron cigar," and he instinctively thought of the "Nautilus," that legendary underwater vessel author Jules Verne described in his novel "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." Delgado had devoured the book as a young boy.

But could something like this be possible? Delgado was mesmerized. Years ago, working as a marine archaeologist, he had recovered the wreck of the "General Harrison," a ship from the days of the California gold rush, from San Francisco Bay. He was also involved in the raising of the "H.L. Hunley" from the harbor entrance at Charleston, South Carolina -- the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship, during the American Civil War in 1864.

And now, on this isolated beach on a tropical island -- during his vacation, no less -- he had apparently happened upon the most spectacular find of his career.

Without any equipment, and wearing nothing but boxer shorts, Delgado swam out to the mysterious wreck. He cursed when he scraped his left leg on the sharp-edged metal -- and because he didn't have a measuring tape to document the object's exact dimensions. The size, shape and condition of the chambers corresponded to none of the vessels he was familiar with -- and Delgado thought he knew just about everything that had ever floated. But this craft's technology seemed much more modern that that of the "Hunley." The shape of the hull was more reminiscent of the fantasy forms he'd seen in old science fiction books. Why on earth, he wondered, had he never heard about this vessel?

When Delgado heard the sound of the approaching rubber dinghy that had come to take him back to his cruise ship, he quickly took a few shots with his camera -- hardly able to believe his luck at having decided to pass on the dull bird-watching outing the other passengers had taken. His few hours on this remote island had truly been worth it.

Historic find

That was five years ago, and by now it's become clear that Delgado made a sensational historic find. He discovered the lost "Sub Marine Explorer," one of the world's first functioning underwater boats, designed by a brilliant German engineer whose invention eventually brought him an agonizing death.

A look at the workings of the submarine.
DER SPIEGEL

A look at the workings of the submarine.

The well-preserved wreck off the shores of San Telmo offers an unprecedented glimpse into the maritime past. Even though the beginnings of manned underwater vessels aren't so distant, the pioneer days of submarines remain filled with unanswered questions. Old construction plans often diverge from the actual designs, and many boats were either lost or destroyed. In some cases it remains unclear as to exactly how -- and whether -- the vehicles actually worked.

The San Telmo discovery could provide answers to many questions about the first submarines. Some of Delgado's colleagues believe that the wreck in the Pacific is a unique example of a handful of submarine prototypes that have remained preserved. They are craft in which daring men -- essentially the Space Shuttle pilots of their age -- ventured into the unknown world beneath the ocean's surface in the 19th century. Only five diving machines from the years before 1870 have survived the ravages of time:

  •  The "Brandtaucher" designed by German inventor Wilhelm Bauer, now in a museum in Dresden.
  • A nameless submarine used by the Confederates in 1862, during the American Civil War, now on display in New Orleans.
  • The "H.L. Hunley," built in 1863 and currently being restored in Charleston, South Carolina.
  • The "Intelligent Whale," a submarine built in 1866 and now in a New Jersey museum.
  • And the "Sub Marine Explorer" off the coast of San Telmo in the Pacific, built in 1865.

The "Explorer" marks a high point in maritime engineering, but also a tragic one. Equipped with a cleverly designed system of ballast chambers and a compressed air tank that allowed for pressure compensation, it also had two hatches beneath the hull enabling divers to exit the craft underwater. But about 130 years ago, when the vessel was being used to collect oysters and pearls from the ocean floor off the coast of Panama, the condition known as "the bends," or decompression sickness, was largely unknown. The condition can cause an agonizing death when divers rise to the surface from deep water too quickly. Technical progress had fatally outpaced medical science, costing the inventor and team of the "Explorer" their health and their lives.

But on the evening following his discovery, as he sat excitedly in the dining room of his cruise ship, Delgado had no idea of the tragedies that must have transpired in this iron coffin in the Pacific's pearl beds. Instead, he couldn't stop describing the details of the strange wreck to his wife Ann.

Back home in Vancouver, the scientist had the pictures he took on San Telmo developed and promptly e-mailed the images -- together with a description and a request for further information -- to colleagues around the world.

One man, Richard Wills, an expert on American Civil War submarines, wrote back to inform Delgado that his data were a perfect match to a description Wills had discovered in a scientific article from 1902. The piece even included a precise drawing of the largely unknown diving device. This couldn't possibly be a coincidence -- the vessel had to be the "Sub Marine Explorer."

Little known inventor

Inside Kroehl's craft.
Sven Röbel

Inside Kroehl's craft.

Little was known at the time about the man who designed the craft, a German inventor named Julius H. Kroehl who had emigrated to the United States. He built an iron fire watchtower in Harlem in 1865 and was then hired by the New York magistrate to demolish -- unsuccessfully, as it turned out -- a reef that obstructed shipping in the East River. But how did the mysterious German hit upon the idea of designing such a progressive diving ship? Delgado decided to get to the bottom of the story. A search through historical archives revealed that the "Sub Marine Explorer" last belonged to an outfit called the Pacific Pearl Company, which planned to dig for oysters off the coast of Panama in the 1860s.

As far back as the days of the Conquistadors, divers had been digging up treasures from the depths of the "Archipiélago de las Perlas." Black slaves had once fished the famed "La Peregrina" pearl -- a magnificent, softly shimmering 50-carat jewel -- from the waters of the archipelago. The shells also held the promise of fortune, offering wealth in the form of mother-of-pearl, a highly sought-after luxury material used in the fashion of the day.

According to old business records, one of the partners in the company with offices near New York's Wall Street was a certain W.H. Tiffany, apparently a member of the eponymous jewelry and lamp dynasty.

The story was becoming more and more fascinating, and after making two more trips to San Telmo in 2002 and 2004, Delgado had finally collected enough material to justify launching an expedition to delve into the final secrets of the "Explorer" and its inventor.

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