Search for missing MH370 solves 19th-century British shipping mystery




 

Two Victorian shipping mysteries may have been solved thanks to the £50 million search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

While sonar devices have failed to pinpoint the wreckage of the Boeing 777 which disappeared with 239 people on board in March 2014, they have located a pair of shipwrecks on the Indian Ocean seabed.

One is believed to be West Ridge, a 220-foot iron barque, built in Scotland, which was lost while carrying British coal to India in 1883, claiming the lives of 28 crew.

It was found on December 19 2015, 12,000 feet below the surface, 1.500 miles off the west coast of Australia.

The wreck was found lying upright and evidence uncovered by Australian archaeologists suggest that the vessel weighed between 1,100 and 1,655 tons and had at least two decks.

Sifting through the debris, scientists found a coal sample which, on further analysis, suggested that the ship was British.

That information and the surviving anchors and metal fasteners enabled researchers to identify the West Ridge as the likeliest candidate.

The search for MH370

Built in Glasgow in 1869 the 1,405 West Ridge's dimensions appeared to match those of the wreck.

However even if West Ridge is the most likely candidate, Dr Anderson did not rule out two other possibilities - Kooringa and Lake Ontario, which were lost in 1894 and 1897 respectively.

Greater uncertainty surrounds the identity of a second wreck, a wooden ship which was found on May 19 2015 about 22 miles away from the iron wreck.

Using shipping records, scientists have narrowed down the identity of the wooden ship - which weighed between 250 and 880 tons - to one of two vessels.

One is the W.Gordon which sailing from Scotland to Australia in 1877 with 10 crew on board when it sank and the other Magdala, which was lost five years later during a voyage from Wales to Indonesia.

"Most of the material widely scattered on the seabed consists of the remains of the coal cargo that had spilt out of the hull prior to it striking the seabed," said Dr Ross Anderson, curator of maritime archaeology at the West Australian Museum.

In brief | The disappearance of Flight MH370

"The evidence points to the ship sinking as a result of a catastrophic event such as explosion, which was common in the transport of coal cargoes."

Dr Anderson said more work - and funding - is needed before his team can be certain over the identity of the wrecks.

"If it was a shipwreck that we could dive on ... we'd be looking for any artefacts like ceramics or bottles or anything that could confirm providence," Dr Anderson added.

"These are the deepest wrecks so far located in the Indian Ocean, they're some of the most remote shipwrecks in the world, so we try to maximize any information."

The wrecks of two other trawlers, which were lost in the 20th century, were also found, but the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which supervised the hunt for MH370 did not ask the museum carry out further research.

When the sonar search first located the wreckage, it was briefly thought that the remnants of MH370 had been found.

Hopes were dashed when high-resolution images showed that it was a ship rather than aircraft which had been discovered.

The search for MH370 is continuing with Texas-based Ocean Infinity carrying out the work. The Malaysian government has promised to pay the company $20 million if it finds the plane or its black boxes.

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