A Russian submarine provides a rare expedition to the bottom of Switzerland’s largest lake to view the wreck of a 19th century lake steamer, and a peek into a forgotten tragedy.
Descending to the depths of Lake Geneva in a Russian-built submarine, is like descending into another dimension. It's pitch black and lonely and still. So far only Jacques Piccard and his team have travelled the 290 meters below the surface; the site of a mysterious shipwreck, virtually unexplored until now.
Along with Russian submarine pilot Nikolay Petko we climb through a small opening into the MIR-2 submarine. Inside the control room it's jumble of gauges, cables, screens and switches. This is definitely no trip for claustrophobics; being locked in four square meters with people you only met five minutes ago.
Petko speaks some English. He smiles at us as though to give us courage. This isn't his first trip to explore underwater mysteries: he's filmed the wreck of the Titanic, resting some 4000 meters deep into Atlantic. He closes the submarine's heavy hatch, makes some notes in a log book, adjusts the oxygen levels, and asks us if we're ready. We are about to dive deep into Lake Geneva to uncover its last remaining secrets. We're ready.
Nikolay Petko lowers the switch to release air and let water into the ballast tanks. The sound of the pumps is deafening. We dive down slowly, several meters per minute. At first, the water is turquoise green and turns grey-blue about 40 meters deep; by 80 meters it's black. Petko turns on the headlights. Countless dead algae particles fall like snowflakes around us – I feel like I'm in an underwater winter wonderland. "Platform, MIR-2 here." Petko radios colleagues above. They give information about our exact location as he wipes sweat from his brow with a towel. It's 34°C with 94% humidity in the control room, although things cool down somewhat as the excursion progresses.
Lac Léman's Titanic
"Look, over there you can see the steering wheel," Petko says. With the help of a compass, ultrasonic localization and GPS data, Petko maneuvers the MIR closer to what was once the steamer Rhône. It collided with another vessel, the Cygne, on a stormy November night in 1883, piercing a huge hole in the side of the Rhône which sank within minutes. The Cygne was able to return to Ouchy, in Lausanne, some 20 minutes after the catastrophe.
Eleven passengers and three crew members lost their lives in the accident. The drama and stories were similar to that of the Titanic. For example, a newly married man on the Cygne rescued a woman he thought was his wife. When he saw she wasn't, he tried to throw her overboard.
Now, the vessel lies on the hilly, sandy lake floor. The thought of its sad end makes me uneasy: just what are we doing down here? And why is this submarine called MIR, like the 1997 Russian space station where astronauts had to wear oxygen masks because of poisonous smoke on board? A glance at the ceiling and I see the oxygen masks. "Don't worry, it's okay," says Petko. The word "mir" means peace, he tells me.
Can this thing really withstand the pressure? Water is dripping from the ceiling. And there's a pool of water by one of the three portholes. But Pletko says it's absolutely normal: it's condensation.
Petko studies a scree; the wreck appears in red. To better maneuver the submarine he turns the side on propellers, carefully as to not to stir up sediment that could cloud his vision. The cameras film the wreck from above, from the right and from the left. Once that's done, Petko radios to the Russian commander on the platform that we're ready to come up.
He fills the ballast tanks with air, for buoyancy. We start to rise back toward a more familiar world. It's a little bumpy at first, and you can see bubbles rising. We keep moving up. As soon as the first rays of sunlight are visible in the water, Petko turns off the headlights to save battery power.
We get up to the surface and can see the blue sky outside the small portholes. But we have to wait a few minutes while Petko lets more oxygen into the cabin to raise the pressure so we can open the hatch. The excursion 290 meters into the deep, into Jacques Piccard territory, is over. Travelling down to an old wreck -- down into the past -- was a surreal experience. It felt like a science fiction movie, or maybe a James Bond flick. From the platform, a speed boat takes us back to shore. We're running late: we lost track of time down there on the lake floor.
Read the original article in German
photo - whimsyglimmer