On January 1st 1739 the French ships Aigle and Marie were fumbling through the lowest, most inhospitable regions of the Southern Atlantic Ocean when they found something quite remarkable. Their captain, a young man named Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier had set off with dreams of wealth, fame and power. He believed that somewhere south of the Equator lay a massive continent. And Bouvet, well, he’d just found something no-one else had ever seen before…
At this point in time westerners already knew something of Australia. A small number of historians believe the Portuguese had sighted the continent as early as the 1520s, but evidence for this is questionable. In 1592, a Dutch sailor named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten made his way to India, came across a group of Portuguese sailors in possession of the maps needed to reach the Far East, then stole those maps. These maps, with instructions on trade winds and the known hazards of such a voyage had, prior to this theft, exclusively belonged to the Portuguese. The Dutch were finding their sea legs at the time – and were soon to pioneer the modern corporation; and soon Dutch trading ships would regularly sail to the Spice Islands, and beyond. Why wouldn’t you when profits of up to 1,000% could be made from the cargo?
It took until 1606, for one of their own – Willem Janszoon, to sight Far North Queensland. The Spaniard Luis Vaz de Torres arrived just months later, and mapped out stretches of the North of the country – as well as a stretch of water later named the Torres Strait in his honour. In 1611, the Dutch adopted the practice of travelling along the ‘roaring 40s’ – a latitude where the wild winds helped cut travelling time considerably. This also put them on a path to hit Australia’s West coast if they misjudged their longitude (a regular occurrence.) Because of this more explorers were sailing alongside, and mapping parts of Australia’s West coast.
Notably there was Dirk Hartog; who found a place to land in 1616. He provided evidence of landfall to later settlers, by accidentally leaving a pewter dinner plate behind. Frederick de Houtman nearly hit an Atoll off the coast in 1619. At some time we needs must come back to Houtman himself, – his misadventures in Aceh – that atoll, and the 1629 wreck of the flagship Batavia on ‘Houtman’s Abrolhos.’ That will be a very long one, for now let’s put a pin in that – but note in 1629 a Dutch ship was in these waters. Very bad things happened on the atoll. Their lifeboat also sailed most of the length of the West Coast of Australia – and Australia received it’s first two European settlers.
There were several others besides. Abel Tasman’s visit in 1642 filled in much of the picture. William Dampier’s visit in 1699 is interesting for other reasons. He is someone else we’ll put a pin in for now.
Cook, Bass and Flinders (all mentioned in my previous post on Jorgen Jorgensen) would all come later – but by Bouvet’s time, Europeans knew of a land mass roughly as big as Europe was down there. Many of Europe’s great thinkers reasoned there had to be much more besides – if only for balance’s sake – there had to be as much land below the equator as above it in their considered opinion. Bouvet lobbied to go out and claim that land for France, and the French figured where was the harm in sending the young man? Bouvet left for parts unknown, believing if he found the fabled ‘Terra Australis’, the French crown would appoint him governor of Terra Australis. As Governor he would attain the fame and fortune he desired.
On December 10th 1738, Bouvet’s ships dipped below the 44th Parallel well into the ‘roaring forties.’ They sailed into a deep blanket of fog which took several days to pass through. As the fog started to clear, Bouvet was greeted by several massive icebergs. He wrote they were “Floating rocks which are more to be feared than land.” On New Year’s Day, the ships were as far as one could possibly be from human contact, when they discovered – “a very high land, covered with snow, which appeared through the mist.”
Bouvet was unable to circumnavigate the island, let alone land. It would’ve been one hell of a task to do either at the time. The seas were exceedingly rough, the air exceedingly foggy, and the sea full of moving ice blocks as tall as skyscrapers. The island itself was surrounded by steep cliffs that reached thousands of feet high into the air at their highest points. Just how inhospitable the island was would become apparent to later explorers. With 93% of the island covered by ice year round, you couldn’t grow any food there. The seas around the island made landing with supplies extremely dangerous. Add to that, those sheer cliffs are dangerous to climb, even with mountaineering gear – as they are highly prone to avalanches. Also, the island contains an active volcano that goes off every couple of years. South Africa sailed to the island in 1955, thinking it a good place to set up a weather station. They couldn’t find a flat plane large enough to set one up. Three years later, an American icebreaker stopped by the island, discovering it had grown an extension out the back due to a recent eruption. The island now had a significant flat area to set up that weather station. In the ‘Dog Days’ of a Southern summer, the island reaches an average of only two degrees Celsius. This does not take into account wind-chill. Winds of 50 knots are considered mild on the island. Wisely, Bouvet noted where he believed the island to be on the map – claimed it in the name of France, and moved on.
He sighted Antarctica soon afterwards, and attempted to land there for twelve days, before giving up on that too. By then a large number of his men were dying of scurvy, so the Aigle and Marie quickly made for the Cape of Good Hope.
Bouvet took down the coordinates to the island incorrectly – not that anyone else was in a rush to go there – but this was noted by other explorers – like the whaling ships who were venturing out into these waters at the end of the century. The Island was re-discovered in 1808 by a British whaler named James Lindsay. Lindsay named the island after himself, then too, promptly lost the island. Like Bouvet, he recorded incorrect coordinates. In 1822 the American adventurer Benjamin Morrell claimed to have landed there, and to have even scaled the island’s high cliffs. This is questioned by some, not least of all as he was using Lindsay’s co-ordinates, which were out by several hundred kilometres.
Correct co-ordinates were finally locked down by the British in 1825, but no-one was known to have actually landed on the island till a Norwegian ship arrived in 1927. They too claimed this inhospitable rock, and put two huts on the island. Both huts were found flattened by the winds when they returned two years later. Some time after that, Norway did put a weather station there, on the landmass that was belched out by the volcano in the late 1950s.
The Norwegians gave the island the name it is known by now. They christened it in honour of it’s original discoverer – Bouvet Island.
Although Bouvet Island is the most remote point on Earth – 1,600 kilometres from the nearest trade route, another couple of hundred kilometres again to the nearest landmass (South Africa and Tristan de Cunha to the North, Antarctica to the South) – it has two short Tales relating to it I would like to share with you today.
First there was that lifeboat. I don’t think we need to spend more than two minutes on this part of the tale – but it certainly added to the island’s aura of mystery for some time.
In 1964 South Africa were still sniffing around Bouvet Island (this will be an ongoing theme), though they had not been back since 1955. This new extension was already christened Nyrosa (meaning new mound in Norwegian) and claimed sight unseen by Norway, but clearly South Africa were never too worried about who claimed to own this island. Besides the American Icebreaker, who never made landfall, no-one was known to have been there in the years since.
On Easter Sunday two ships approached the Nyrosa. They waited three days for the winds to die down enough to send a helicopter out to the island.
Onboard the helicopter, a British adventurer named Allan Crawford. He’s now best known for his work on the world’s most remote inhabited island – Tristan de Cunha – and his advocacy in returning the people of Tristan de Cunha back to their island years after a volcanic eruption saw them evacuated to England in 1961; but for our purposes, Crawford was a well thought of South Seas adventurer.
What Crawford saw there puzzled the world for half a century.
Near the point where the helicopter landed, a lagoon had formed. A handful of fur seals had made their way up there, and were bathing in the water – next to a half-submerged life boat. On the rocks bordering the lagoon, two oars and a 44 gallon drum. There were no markings on the boat, drum, or oars to suggest who these items once belonged to. A search of the barren island yielded no further clues. No bodies were to be found. The crew having around 45 minutes to do a quick survey of the land, and to take rock samples – and to fend off a gang of enraged Elephant seals also on the Nyrosa – and not too happy to see strangers in these parts; their search was not exhaustive, but the men felt safe concluding there were no human beings, dead or alive to be found on the island.
For decades the lifeboat remained a mystery. The closest trade route lay 1,600 kilometres to the North, so if the crew of some ship mutinied and jettisoned their captain – like Bly on the Bounty – could anyone really row a lifeboat that distance, through the worlds roughest seas? If so, why? If it was flotsam washed ashore, and this goes with the ‘Bly hypothesis’ too – how did the boat make it up steep cliffs still several hundred feet high on the Nyrosa in one piece? It must have landed with a full crew to haul it up the cliff. If this is the case, where are the signs of a makeshift camp? Surely, if you have a sizeable party you leave a couple of people to set up camp while others explore and so forth?
If there were people who landed with the vessel, and then negotiated the steep incline, where were their remains? Were they all killed and eaten by a gang of 4,000 Lb Elephant seals? If they had landed there and gotten the better of any seals congregating there at the time till someone rescued them, where was the evidence of seal remains?
Had they explored further inland, and gotten buried by an avalanche?
If, rather than a mutiny, a shipwreck had occurred, surely someone would have noticed a missing ship between 1955 and 1964, right?
Ultimately, it appears the murkiness of the Cold War obscured the answer, to the west at least, for half a century. In October 1958 a Russian whaler named Slava 9 (not to be confused with their Slava class missile cruisers) was near the island, when they decided to make landfall. A group of men landed on the Nyrosa, but then the weather took a turn for the worse – these men were left to fend for themselves on the island for several days till safe to send a helicopter for them. I guess in this case the biggest mystery is why the men didn’t have the boat upside-down on land as a shelter – as Shackleton’s men did on Elephant Island in 1916, as their boss sailed for help on South Georgia Island (I know, put a pin in that one too)…
Our final Tale this week takes place 3am Oslo time, 22nd September 1979. Our location, an uninhabitable Island on the same line of Longitude as Oslo – which is to say it was also 3am on Bouvet Island. In the dead of night, a massive double flash was detected close to the island.
There are a few reasons we know there was a flash, and think we know what caused it. In 1963 most of the world’s nations agreed to a partial nuclear test ban. Signatories were no longer allowed to test a nuclear bomb above ground, in space or underwater. You could – and a number of countries continued to do this – test a nuke by digging a very deep hole in the ground then setting the bomb off down the bottom of that hole. This does not produce the signature double flash, a flash unlike anything else known in nature.
To look out for people testing regardless, the USA launched twelve reconnaissance satellites – The Vela satellites – which detect both that flash, and any increased radiation in the atmosphere.
In the wee small hours, Vela satellite 6911 detected the flash from it’s orbit. It was not the only device to pick up the incident that day. At the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – nearly 10,500 kilometres to the Northeast – a fast moving ionospheric disturbance was detected. The ionosphere being the layer of our atmosphere that sits between the air we breathe and the wilds of space – coronal mass ejections like the Carrington Event are the normal natural cause for such readings. This was no coronal mass ejection on or around 22nd September 1979. The US Navy’s SOSUS devices – a network of underwater sound recorders, also picked up the heavy thud from the Vela incident, as it came to be known. The thud registered as far out as a device near Prince Edward Island, Canada.
In Melbourne, Australia, 9,100 kilometres to the East, high levels of iodine 131 radiation showed up in the thyroids of sheep. A relatively unthreatening side effect of a nuclear detonation (iodine 131 has a half life of 8 days and is even used as a treatment for thyroid cancers in humans.) The element is known to show up in the thyroids of grazing animals following a nuclear detonation. The sheep were on farms in South Australia on the day of the Vela Incident. The meat-works – unbeknownst to the public – sent monthly thyroid samples to the US Government from the 1950s to the 1980s.
This all added up to the high likelihood someone had detonated a nuclear weapon, on or near the most remote location on Earth.
So just what happened, and who are the most likely suspects? With much of the USA’s documentation still classified, officially we can only catch glimpses – such as a handful of comments left in notebooks by former President Jimmy Carter. These comments can be found at his presidential library. We’re also told US scientists were shipped out to Bouvet Island. They checked the scene of the alleged crime – They could say something like a nuclear device appeared to have been detonated there – but they couldn’t 100% rule out ‘other natural phenomena.’
There are currently two schools of thought. First, Vela 6911 – a ten year old satellite in need of calibration – malfunctioned after being struck with space junk. Or someone nearby, who as far as anyone knew did not have nuclear weapons, tested a nuke there. It just so happened one of Bouvet Island’s neighbours WAS secretly developing nuclear weapons at the time.
If one were to ask today, who are the nuclear armed countries; certain lists come up. The USA, United Kingdom, France and Russia of course are top of the list. India and Pakistan – Two neighbouring countries who have gone to war with one another four times since 1947 – each have a cache of nukes, worryingly. Another nation with border disputes with India (though when these conflicts break out, the weapons employed by agreement of both nations are limited to bamboo poles and rocks – I couldn’t make this stuff up) is China.
North Korea is now a member of this club, although a long time coming they most certainly were not a nuclear power in 1979. The former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all had nuclear weapons in the Cold War era, but when the Iron Curtain fell, they handed those weapons back to Russia. Several NATO countries, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey play host to nuclear warheads also.
There are almost certainly two other nations – one who has admitted to having nuclear weapons, and another who, to this day kinda-sorta deny having them – normally followed by a sly wink just to say ‘just kidding, of course we do – don’t even think of messing with us.’
The first is South Africa. From the early 1980s, it was known they were a nuclear power. Officially, they dismantled all of their weapons in 1991. With Apartheid coming to an end, their fear of invasion from another country lessened. From as early as 1961 we know South Africa began secretly enriching their own uranium deposits. In 1977 they went further, building a testing site in the Kalahari desert in the Northwest of the country. IF a nuclear bomb was detonated near Bouvet Island it almost certainly has something to do with South Africa – but it can’t have been solely a South African enterprise. This is where that other country comes in.
Israel are long suspected to have nuclear weapons also. One can understand why they feel they might need such a doomsday device. One hopes if so it is only as a deterrent. The story of the modern Zionist movement forming in the late 1890s, and their progress towards establishing a state in Palestine is a long tale – but suffice to say an Israeli state was in existence by 1948. That state fought five major conflicts with it’s Arab neighbours in the years since – the First Arab- Israeli War of 1948, the Suez War of 1956, the Six Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, and in 1982 Israel pre-emptively invaded Lebanon. These wars have all been fought over Israel’s continued presence in the Levant. The moment they were rumoured to have a cache of nukes – and a plan of last resort if attacked code-named ‘The Samson Option,’ tensions in the region eased. There was another reason for that, and more on that in a second.
Israel had a nuclear reactor – The Dimona reactor – as early as 1956, built with French assistance. It’s believed they started working on building a bomb as early as 1966. On the other side of the ledger, when Egypt started hiring former Nazi scientists who had worked for the Nazi nuclear effort – it is alleged Mossad hired former Nazi super-soldier Otto Skorzeny to assassinate these scientists. Officially Israel ‘neither confirm, nor deny’ if they have nuclear weapons.
If they do it is almost certain they collaborated with South Africa. In 1977 South Africa swapped 600 tonnes of uranium with Israel, for just thirty grams of tritium gas in return. Israel had no uranium deposits. Tritium gas is an extremely rare isotope of hydrogen that is used to help fuel a nuclear explosion. Tiny trace amounts can be found in the atmosphere, but typically it needs to be generated by irradiating lithium in a nuclear reactor. This element had been a stumbling block for South Africa, as they had no nuclear reactor of their own.
So it probably transpired a joint Israeli – South African mission set sail from Cape Town to a mysterious, inaccessible island more than 1,600 from a single witness. If the USA discovered this at the time, why might they keep quiet about it?
If they did, and I am only speculating – it likely had something to do with Israel. Jimmy Carter had only just brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt a year earlier, at the Camp David peace accords. The fallout of the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars hit western nations hard – after Arab oil producing nations struck back at them by ramping up oil prices – causing the OPEC crisis that persisted throughout much of the 1970s. Nations who backed Israel had to opt for carless days. Economies were hit by massive inflation. In New Zealand a questionable right wing politician who successfully became prime minister by smearing his opposition as ‘Cossacks’, reacted to the crisis with a bona-fide far reaching socialist program around oil, gas and power generation known as ‘Think Big.’
In 1979 Jimmy Carter was preparing to run for re-election against a mediocre, conservative actor who once was a CIA asset during the blacklist era. His opponent was almost as out of his depth in the role as Trump turned out to be, but elections are lost by one side through voter dissatisfaction more than they are ever won by the other through bright ideas – and Carter looked set to lose in a landslide regardless. If it were disclosed Israel had secretly built a nuclear bomb so soon after peace talks, it could have completely unravelled the peace process, doomed Carter to a one term presidency, damaged world economies – and sullied the president’s legacy. It isn’t inconceivable the man knew more than he let on to, and just chose to keep certain things quiet?
As with the tale of the lifeboat, will time reveal, or perhaps confirm what happened during the Vela Incident? Only time will tell.