HAVANA -- The images appear slowly on the video screen, like ghosts from the ocean floor. The videotape, made by an unmanned submarine, shows massive stones in oddly symmetrical square and pyramid shapes in the deep-sea darkness.
Sonar images taken from a research ship 2,000 feet above are even more puzzling. They show that the smooth, white stones are laid out in a geometric pattern. The images look like fragments of a city, in a place where nothing man-made should exist, spanning nearly eight square miles of a deep-ocean plain off Cuba's western tip.
"What we have here is a mystery," said Paul Weinzweig, of Advanced Digital Communications (ADC), a Canadian company that is mapping the ocean bottom of Cuba's territorial waters under contract with the government of President Fidel Castro.
"Nature couldn't have built anything so symmetrical," Weinzweig said, running his finger over sonar printouts aboard his ship, tied up at a wharf in Havana harbor. "This isn't natural, but we don't know what it is."
The company's main mission is to hunt for shipwrecks filled with gold and jewels, and to locate potentially lucrative oil and natural gas reserves in deep water that Cuba does not have the means to explore.
Treasure hunting has become a growth industry in recent years as technology has improved, allowing more precise exploration and easier recovery from deeper ocean sites. Advanced Digital operates from the Ulises, a 260-foot trawler that was converted to a research vessel for Castro's government by the late French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
Since they began exploration three years ago with sophisticated side-scan sonar and computerized global-positioning equipment, Weinzweig said they have mapped several large oil and gas deposits and about 20 shipwrecks sitting beneath ancient shipping lanes where hundreds of old wrecks are believed to be resting. The most historically important so far has been the USS Maine, which exploded and sank in Havana harbor in 1898, an event that ignited the Spanish-American War.
In 1912, the ship was raised from the harbor floor by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and towed out into deeper water four miles from the Cuban shore, where it was scuttled. Strong currents carried the Maine away from the site, and its precise location remained unknown until Ulises' sonar spotted it two years ago.
Then, by sheer serendipity, on a summer day in 2000, as the Ulises was towing its sonar back and forth across the ocean like someone mowing a lawn, the unexpected rock formations appeared on the sonar readouts. That startled Weinzweig and his partner and wife, Paulina Zelitsky, a Russian-born engineer who has designed submarine bases for the Soviet military.
"We have looked at enormous amounts of ocean bottom, and we have never seen anything like this," Weinzweig said.
discovery immediately sparked speculation about Atlantis, the fabled lost
city first described by Plato in 360 B.C. Weinzweig and Zelitsky were
careful not to use the A word and said that much more study was needed
before such a conclusion could be reached.