During the final months of World War ll, a US Navy ship set sail without much worry of encountering enemy fire. The 1,195 sailors of the USS Indianapolis were prepared for a calm voyage. After all, they knew the end of the war was imminent. One night, their lack of concern turned to horror as explosions tore through their ship. Those who jumped overboard realized too late they hadn’t escaped danger. Instead, they fell into a perilous situation that would haunt the survivors to their final days.
In March 1945, World War ll was in its final months, and the USS Indianapolis arrived at a port in California. Nicknamed “Indy,” the vessel had survived a Japanese kamikaze attack and needed repairs.
The sailors believed they’d seen the last of any enemy encounters. But upon their arrival, the scientists of the infamous Manhattan Project had completed the atomic bomb. They just needed to start moving the weapon closer to its target in Japan.
USS Indianapolis: The Legacy
Charles B. McVay lll was the captain of the Indy. He was informed that a highly classified cargo was to be transported on his cruiser. Neither he nor his crew knew what it actually was: The uranium core of an atomic bomb.
When the USS Indianapolis set off for its destination, sailors whispered about the mysterious cargo. Many described the size as large as several ice cream freezers. The two armed guards stationed by it didn’t help quiet rumors.
Sailors tried to amuse themselves by claiming they were transporting scented toilet paper for General MacArthur. Everyone had been assured the cargo was not hazardous, though no one knew for sure. The quicker they could unload it, the better.
USS Indianapolis: The Legacy
Once the Indy reached port and its top-secret shipment was taken off, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. A routine journey across the Philippine Sea was scheduled next. Captain McVay inquired about any dangers in navigating the war zones, just to be safe.
Big Navy ships had to travel with an armed escort ship to help detect potential enemy vessels. “Things are very quiet,” was the response Captain McVay received. With that, he ignored the need to have an escort tag along as they sailed again.
On a dark July night, the USS Indianapolis appeared to be alone in the ocean. But something in the distance was steadily spotted: a Japanese submarine eager to sink an Allied vessel.
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Before anyone could recognize the threat, two torpedoes crashed into the Indy. Dozens of men were killed in the explosions of debris and flames. Within seconds, the pleasant night had changed. All hell broke loose…
Seaman First Class officer, Felton Outland, can still remember the chaos. He told a friend to grab life jackets for them. When only one was found, his friend went to try and find another. It was the last time Outland ever saw him.
USS Indianapolis: The Legacy
After most jumped overboard without life jackets, sailors got covered in their ship’s ruptured fuel oil. They did their best to swim away in case another explosion occurred.
USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage
Within 12 minutes, the USS Indianapolis had completely sunk. The disaster was far from land, and there had been no responses to the rescue calls made. While 900 men survived the torpedo attacks, they faced a new threat.
The struggling sailors dealt with scorching sunlight, followed by frigid night temperatures. As the days passed, they began to drink from the ocean, in a futile attempt to hydrate. But the sea water did even more harm. Many men became delirious.
USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage
Sailors started knife fights, and some even killed one another. Others started to hallucinate fresh drinking water being served from the USS Indianapolis at the bottom of the ocean.
Then came the infamous shark attacks. They infested the waters, attacking and eating sailors. The dead outnumbered the living. Of the 900 men that went into the ocean, only some 316 remained when help finally arrived on the fourth day
A rescue plane spotted them. Not long after, two large ships sailed through the wreckage towards the survivors. The sight of the corpses that hadn’t been taken by the sharks almost camouflaged the surviving men.
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Those that survived were not necessarily the strongest of their crew. Many were simply lucky. The rescue wouldn’t be the end to the tragic story of the Indy. The ship’s captain had survived, and the U.S. Navy needed a scapegoat.
Of all the captains in the U.S. Navy, McVay was the only one court-martialed for losing a ship during war. He challenged them for the fatal rescue delay, and the courts chose to punish McVay because of it.
To add salt to the wound, the Navy brought in the Japanese submarine commander that ordered the torpedo strike. With his testimony, McVay was charged…but the sentence was overturned. The USS Indianapolis captain suffered such intense grief that he made a tragic decision.
He took his own life, never having fully healed from the worst sea disaster in U.S. naval history. But Indy survivors know the root cause of their suffering. Unfortunately, fellow sailors would never learn the reason behind their downfalls.
In contrast, the fate of the infamous Zebrina was plagued by controversy. The ship was built in Whitstable, a seaside town in the often gray, rainy country of England. Even from the beginning there was something unique about this particular three-mast schooner. And it would play a part in her ultimate demise.
Unlike other schooners, the Zebrina had a flat bottom like a barge. This could help protect the vessel during travels along rough, rocky terrain. And by 1873, it was set to sail down to South America.
The original plan was for the Zebrina to transport meat, as refrigeration techniques had improved by this time. Meat no longer had to be stored in mounds of salt, but that meant the Zebrina would be on a countdown.
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Before Zebrina could accomplish its voyages, a problem arose. It was too slow, and so the ice preserving the meat cargo would surely melt. A different plan of action was needed.
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The vessel would be redirected to a shorter course along Mediterranean trade ports throughout Europe. In the background, a global conflict was on the rise that would put the entire crew in peril.
At the height of World War I, the ocean became a dangerous place for Allied merchant ships. German U-boats were known to capture civilian crews and sink their vessels. It was during this threat, on October 15, 1917, the Zebrina prepared to set sail.
She was packed with a cargo of coal while stationed at Falmouth, Cornwall. Captain Martin was at the helm, just one of many skippers the Zebrina had during her time. Once everything was in order, the vessel went out into the open water.
Two days later, on October 17, the Zebrina was spotted — but not at its destination. It drifted along Cherbourg, France, until washing ashore at Rozel Point. Any other vessel would have been destroyed in the waters that the Zebrina had passed through, but its unique build saved it from annihilation.
Experts were perplexed: Why did the ship wash up in Cherbourg, almost 200 miles away from its true port. The French coast guard soon arrived and searched the decks and cabins, but they found nothing. No sign of life.
Prior to setting sail, the Zebrina’s usual six man crew had been increased to 23. And not a single one of them had been found. All around the coast guard was an eerie silence.
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Inside, signs of a breakfast were found at a table set for five. And in the Captain’s log that was found, there was no transcription of any danger. It had only been dated “October 15,” when it left port in Falmouth.
The most obvious explanation was a U-boat attack. The crew could very well have been captured. But the Zebrina had no damage of being involved in a naval battle, plus it was common practice for German ships to sink captured Allied vessels.
Perhaps any torpedoes fired from U-boats had passed under the Zebrina’s flat bottom. But there was also evidence that the Zebrina was equipped to handle such attacks. Onboard, there were a number of 8 and 12-pounder guns, enough to defend against enemies at sea.
And there was the odd matter of the breakfast table. It had been set for five. With a crew of 23 men, only five were preparing to eat? The French investigators didn’t know what to make of it.
What if, unable to sink the Zebrina, a U-boat captured everyone onboard and was eventually sunk elsewhere during another battle? With no bodies of the Zebrina’s crew ever found, perhaps the crew was at the bottom of the ocean?
When WWl ended and celebrations were held, however, postwar research could never place a U-boat in the vicinity of the Zebrina’s journey. And there was another piece that didn’t fit into the theory…
Captain’s logs from captured vessels would be taken as proof of claim. The French coastguards had found Captain Martin’s log still on the Zebrina. What if a U-boat didn’t take the crew but something much more monstrous?
Sea monsters were believed by many to roam the vast ocean. Back in 1915, a German submarine captain and his six officers spotted an enormous aquatic reptile after an explosion from the nearby wreckage of a British vessel.
The creature was said to have shot into the air before disappearing back under the water. It never resurfaced, but was it truly a sea monster? Submarine captains were known to be very matter-of-fact, so inventing such a story could very well harm their reputation.
Whether by a sea monster or as casualty of war, the mystery of the Zebrina will never truly be explained. And after all these years later, it still haunts the minds of both the rational and the most imaginative. Experts often compare it to the most famous ghost ship in history.
Ten people don’t just disappear. That was exactly what sailors aboard a salvage ship told themselves when they came across the empty Mary Celeste at sea. They brought her back to dry land for an official investigation, which only raised more questions than answers.
On November 7, 1872, the Mary Celeste set sail from New York with seven crew members, Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife Sarah, and their infant daughter Sophia. The ship traveled to the Azores, which was recorded in its log.
This mystery may not have endured so long in maritime history if it hadn’t been for Arthur Conan Doyle. The Sherlock Holmes creator published, “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement,” his imaginative retelling of the incident.
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Doyle’s highly sensationalized version concerned a supposed survivor of the ghost ship, which was caused by a mutiny. Other popular folk explanations included pirates and supernatural forces. These stories spread like wildfire, but also clouded public perception of the incident.
On the other hand, documentarian Anne MacGregor swore to discover the what really happened to the ship. “There’s so much nonsense written about this legend, I felt compelled to find the truth,” Anne said.
Anne had already made four other investigative documentaries, so she knew what she was up against. “There are obvious limitations for historic cases, but using the latest technology, you can come to a different conclusion,” she said.
Anne started with ruling out what didn’t make sense. The ship was fully intact and had cargo in its hold, so pirates were out. Another theory was that drunk crew members turned on the captain. After interviewing their descendants, this seemed rather implausible.
Because the ship was intact, and even seaworthy, this made it even stranger. “It wasn’t flooded or horribly damaged,” Phil Richardson, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said. “The discovery crew sailed it, so it was in really good shape.”
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With the more violent theories knocked out, Anne delved into reasons why the passengers and crew would abandon a perfectly good ship. First, she wanted to find the exact spot where the ship was left alone.
According to the ship’s log, they were six miles from Santa Maria, one of the Azores on November 25, but 10 days later, the other crew found the vessel 400 miles east instead. It was time to track the ship’s potential path.
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Anne obtained water temperatures, wind speeds, and wind directions from the International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set. ICOADS stores information from 1784 to 2007 to study climate change.
Using this information, she concluded that the ship could have easily sailed to where it was discovered without a crew to guide it. Still, why was it abandoned? They were getting closer.
The most likely situation for a captain to issue an abandon ship order is if they spotted land. Because the closest island to the Santa Maria was hundreds of miles away it would be likely that the ship was left early on November 25, after the log entry was written.
Using notes from Attorney General Frederick Solly-Flood, who oversaw the investigation, we can get a bit more information. According to this source, the captain miscalculated their position due to a faulty chronometer. He was actually 120 miles west.
On November 24, the Mary Celeste changed course and sailed to the north of the Santa Maria. They faced rough seas and high winds. These factors wouldn’t be enough to warrant an order to jump ship, though.
Before this trip, the Mary Celeste carted coal across the ocean. The ship itself received a plethora of upgrades to make it the ultimate coal carrier. Within the pumps, coal dust, and other debris were found.
This could be the reason why authorities found one of the pumps on the ship completely disassembled. These devices were responsible for getting rid of the seawater that accumulated in the Mary Celeste.
Without a working pump, Captain Benjamin would have no idea if ship’s hull was full of water. He would have needed to rely on visual clues, which are almost never as accurate as machinery.
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At this point, the Mary Celeste faced terrible weather, an inaccurate location, and a poorly functioning ship. All of these factors may have overwhelmed the poor captain, leading him to issue the order.
Though Anne’s theory is backed by extensive research, it is still just a theory. No one really knows what happened to the 10 souls aboard the Mary Celeste. But modern historians can’t give up on a great mystery.
Anne is now writing a book with even more information about the Mary Celeste. “The research goes on,” she says. “Because I have been touched by the story, as I hope other people will be.” Anne’s also looking to other nautical mysteries for clues.
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One case began in the mid-17th century in the waters of Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Though heavily trafficked as a trading route between Europe and Asia, the sea was angry the day one sailor decided to test his luck.
He was Hendrick van der Decken, a Dutch sea captain en route to Amsterdam from the East Indies. With a cargo hold loaded with silks, spices, and dyes, the Dutchman hoped this exotic bounty would bring him fame and fortune back in the Netherlands.
But as van der Decken’s ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope, the vessel found itself caught in the heart of a raging tempest. The crew begged their captain to turn back, to return to shore and wait the storm out. The Dutchman, however, wouldn’t be swayed.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Tim Kuklewski / U.S. Coast Guard
Whether drunk or mad, van der Decken plunged further into storm, intent on seeing himself a hero in his native land. Yet his men knew that sailing onward was suicide — and they weren’t about to take their fate lying down.
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The crew mutinied, though the captain managed to overpower the leader of the coup d’état and kill him. But even in victory, van der Decken couldn’t prevent the inevitable: the waves rose, and the Dutchman and his entire crew were swallowed by the sea.
The story of van der Decken’s foolishness served as a cautionary tale to other savvy seamen, though it wasn’t until 1843 that the ill-fated journey became more than just history. Thanks to an opera written by Richard Wagner, below, the curse of the Flying Dutchman was born.
According to Wagner’s legend, van der Decken was damned for betraying his men and sailing through the storm. From then on, the spirits of the Dutchman and his crew were never permitted to return to shore, doomed to sail the seven seas for all eternity.
Over the years, however, this curse also came to be associated with Captain Bernard Fokke, a sailor for the Dutch East India Company. Having made a trip from Amesterdam to Indonesia in just three months, some believed Fokke had traded his soul to the devil in exchange for his sailing skill.
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Yet these were just legends — or, at least, for a time they were. Beginning in the 18th century, various sightings were reported of ghostly ships sailing along the horizon only to disappear once approached.
Famously, King George V actually encountered the Dutchman while aboard the HMS Bacchante. As the ship sailed past Australia, the eerie red glow of a phantom vessel crossed the Bacchante‘s bow.
The night was clear, however, and as the crew raced to identify the strange apparition, the light vanished. Then, without warning, the crewman who’d first spotted the ship fell from his place on the topmast and plunged to his death.
This gave rise to the popular identification of the Flying Dutchman as an omen of ill fate. Legend has it that if you stare into a storm brewing off the coast of the Cape of Good Hope, you’ll see van der Decken and his ghost crew looking right back at you.
And if that’s the case, you’re headed for the same grisly fate as the captain and his men. Many sailors claimed that sight of the Dutchmen would lead ships astray, causing them to crash into hidden rocks or reefs and sink themselves.
Since King George V’s fateful encounter, sightings of the ship have skyrocketed. In 1939, residents of Cape Town, South Africa spotted a ship flying full sail before disappearing, and during WWII, a German submarine crew claimed to see a ghostly vessel in the Suez Canal.
Yet were these “ghost ships” really all the Dutchman? And for that matter, could such a thing even exist? As it turns out, spotting “the Dutchman” actually has more to do with natural science than spirits from beyond the grave.
Known as fata morgana, this phenomenon occurs when rays of light bend through air layers of different temperatures. The end result is a kind of refracting lens that can produce both inverted and erect images of nearby objects and landscapes.
You may recognize this phenomenon from the sight of hot asphalt on a summer’s day. The heat lines radiating upward indicate the vast temperature difference between the pavement and the cooler air and result in visual distortion of the surrounding area.
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In regard to the Dutchman, fata morgana often presents the image of an object beyond the horizon due to light bending around the curves of the Earth. As a result, distant ships will appear closer, distorted, or even hovering in mid air.
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Therefore, these alleged ghost ship sightings were nothing more than the reflections of other vessels at sea — that’s why whenever other ships would approach them, they’d seemingly vanish.
And as for the ships sinking at the sight of “the Dutchman,” this was likely just the product of the poor weather often associated with the legend of the ghost vessel. Yet even with this mystery solved, there’s another phenomenon at sea that scientists just can’t seem to wrap their head around…
In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean lurks the Bermuda Triangle, a 500,000-square mile area that connects Bermuda, Miami, and Puerto Rico. It looks just like any other area of the ocean, but it has a pretty ominous reputation.
See, when vessels try to sail through this particular corner of the universe, something terrifying is known to happen: they completely disappear. That’s what fascinated people about the Bermuda Triangle for so long.
Interestingly, this mystery dates back to Christopher Columbus and his oceanic journeys. In his journal, Columbus wrote that, when he was in the area, his compasses went oddly askew and he saw strange lights. Then, hundreds of years later, a bizarrely inexplicable event happened.
In March of 1918, the USS Cyclops — a ship with a 309 people on board — set sail out of Barbados. The trip started off as planned, but while crossing through the triangle, the ship and crew vanished.
It gets even weirder. On December 5, 1945, five Avenger torpedo bombers took off into the sky and flew over the Atlantic Ocean through the triangle. None of them were ever seen again.
People assumed these bizarre Bermuda Triangle stories were actually based on The Tempest, a play written by William Shakespeare about an actual shipwreck he proposed was caused by a sorcerer.
But, there was one literary piece that really got people into the mystery. Vincent Gaddis, a magazine author, wrote a compelling article about the strange occurrences in the triangle, which got tons of people talking.
The craze about the triangle didn’t stop with that article. People suddenly demanded to know more about the three-sided shape that haunted the ocean, and author Charles Berlitz wrote an entire book about it.
Tons of theories formed as to what caused this eerie phenomenon. One theory stated that a massive sea creature was responsible for everything. But, of course, we now know that’s an absurd idea.
Another theory claimed alien spacecrafts might be responsible, and hundreds of feet below the surface of the water was an odd formation some scuba divers claimed was an extra-terrestrial ship.
Yet another guess was that the “lost” city of Atlantis was located underneath the triangle, and the advanced technology Atlanteans had were still operational and sucked planes and ships into the realm.
Other conspiracy theorists claim the triangle was the location of an actual wormhole where the space-time continuum had little relevance and objects were transported to other dimensions. Sounds crazy, right?
As intriguing as many of these theories are, the actual truth behind them isn’t anywhere near as thrilling as aliens or sea beasts. In fact, a team of researchers and scientists from England think they have an actual answer.
The minds at the University of Southampton, England, have studied the events in the Bermuda Triangle extensively. After much research, they actually think the answer has to do with the water itself.
They feel rogue waves were likely the cause of the disappearing ships over the years. These waves are tsunami-like and tower over everything in the ocean, making them impossible to avoid.
The rogue waves toppled the ships and sent them directly to the oceans’s bottom in pieces. Some loomed as high as 100 feet, and allegedly crashing down on vessels and leaving no remains.
Still, the United States Coast Guard says the area known as the Bermuda Triangle is completely safe to travel through. It’s still fun, however, to imagine paranormal happenings actually do occur! Earth’s waters, it seems, holds many strange secrets.
Located some 40 miles off the coast of Belize City, the Great Blue Hole has marveled those who’ve skirted its crystal-blue waters for over the last half-century. At over 1,000 feet across, this massive cavern was long considered the biggest of its kind.
The hole is at the center of the Lighthouse Reef, one of the many small atolls that make up the world’s second-largest coral reef system, the Belize Barrier Reef.
As such, the Great Blue Hole is protected as a World Heritage Site under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
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But although the hole itself has been known to researchers since the mid 20th century, it wasn’t until a famed marine explorer finally visited the site that anyone fully appreciated it.
When Jacques Cousteau visited the site in 1971, the world finally began to take notice of its magnificence. Using the mobile lab aboard his ship Calypso, Cousteau was the first to measure the depth of the hole — a remarkable 407 feet.
National Geographic Society
A 1991 expedition led by the Cambrian Foundation sought to confirm Cousteau’s original measurement, and to their surprise, they found that the French adventurer was nearly spot on.
Though the title of the world’s largest marine sinkhole now belongs to China’s Dragon Hole, the Great Blue Hole is still big enough to fit two Boeing 724 airplanes with room to spare.
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Following Cousteau’s exploration, the site has since become a popular scuba spot among professional divers, with some citing it as one of the best in the world.
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But despite all the attention that the Great Blue Hole has gained over the years, little was truly known about the massive cavern and what it contained… until now.
Fueled by his adventurous spirit and fervent support for marine conservation, English entrepreneur and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson sought to unveil the mysteries of the Great Blue Hole once and for all.
Yet even with years of adventures and discoveries to his credit, Branson needed the help of one important individual to truly make the expedition worthwhile.
That’s right: he enlisted the help of Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of the very same man that had put the Great Blue Hole on the map almost 50 years earlier. Together, the two explorers hoped to pick up right where Jacques had left off.
More specifically, the men wanted to use state-of-the-art 3D imaging technology to create a comprehensive map of the interior of the sinkhole. This would provide never-before-seen insight.
They were also looking to test the water quality and oxygen levels within the Great Blue Hole to get a sense of what kind of aquatic life could survive there.
Additionally, Branson and Cousteau were adamant about exploring what they believed to be an oxygen-depleted area at the base of the hole. Why the interest in this so-called dead zone?
Well, if their hunch was correct, this discovery could hold clues to the fall of the Mayan civilization between 800 and 1,000 AD! Yeah, who saw that one coming?
“We’ve heard that in the Blue Hole there is an anoxic area [or dead zone] near the bottom,” said one of the expedition’s crew members. “This is really interesting because things don’t degrade in anoxic areas so we could find preserved life.”
But even as visions of this vast undersea adventure danced in their heads, the men still had one glaring issue to overcome before they could even think about venturing below the surface: how would they do it?
Being that most humans can’t dive more than 130 feet without being crushed by water pressure, scuba diving was completely out of the question. They needed to think outside the box.
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Luckily, they found captain Erika Bergman. Aboard her high-tech STINGRAY 500, the team would be able to dive at depths of up to 500 feet while simultaneously capturing HD recordings of the entire adventure.
Cause of a Kind
And so, on December 2nd, Branson, Cousteau, and Bergman – along with a team of cinematographers from the Discovery Channel – made the journey to Lighthouse Reef to begin their exploration.
With their live stream being broadcast to viewers all over the world, the three adventurers submerged in the waters of the Great Blue Hole.
Though the surface of the massive cavern looked almost clear blue from above, the depths below were anything but. Darkness met the team head on as they dove deeper and deeper into the hole, unaware of what treasures – or horrors – awaited them at its bottom.
Along the way, a variety of fish kept pace alongside the team, ranging from common ocean dwellers to the likes of the exotic Midnight Parrotfish.
But for every unassuming fin or tail that flitted by, they couldn’t help but keep their eyes peeled for the hammerhead and aggressive bull sharks that were known to prowl the area.
When the vessel arrived at the floor of the cavern the team immediately went to work mapping the dimensions of the hole. After only a few minutes of scanning, however, Branson and the others noticed a strange opening…
Curious, the team approached the opening, and inside they found the real treasure of the exploration: stalactites! This discovery would’ve meant little if stumbled upon in a typical cave system, but the fact that the find was made at such a depth underwater was unprecedented.
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According to tests run on the rock formations, these stalactites were an astonishing 150,000 years old. Usually, stalactites only form in dry caves!
That means that the Great Blue Hole was once part of a larger cave system that formed on dry land. As remarkable as this was, though, this discovery actually points to a much larger issue.
With the Great Blue Hole now completely submerged under hundreds of feet of water, it’s a clear indication that the gradual warming of the earth is directly responsible for rising sea levels. As global warming continues to affect our planet, could this be a sign of things to come?
Richard Branson and his team seem to think so, and he’s pledged to aid in the effort to protect at least 30% of world oceans by the year 2030. With sea life covering over two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, now seems as good a time as ever to make sure that it stays that way.