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The Mysterious Lost Underwater City of Cuba

What mysteries lie beneath the surface of the oceans of our world? In early 2001, two marine engineers by the names of Pauline Zalitzki and her husband Paul Weinzweig were out on an exploration and survey mission with their Canadian company, Advanced Digital Communications, at a location off the Pinar del Río Province of the western coast of Cuba. They were there under commission by the Cuban government in order to carry out sonar surveys off the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, looking for shipwrecks dating back to the Spanish colonial era, often known to hold vast amounts of lost treasure, and several of which the team had already successfully located. However, on this day, the expedition was to discover something far stranger than a sunken Spanish galleon down there in the murk upon the sea floor. Thus would begin the strange tale of a purported ancient underwater city lying under the waters of Cuba, which has drawn to it all manner of debate and discussion.

At the time the crew were utilizing sonar in about 2,000 feet of water when they began getting startling images that baffled and perplexed all who were present. There flickering on the screen were sonar images of what appeared to be large structures resembling pyramids, massive blocks, and mysterious circular structures, sticking out there on the otherwise flat and barren seafloor of the area. They had no idea what they were looking at, but one thing they were sure of was that this was no shipwreck. Intrigued, they made a second trip to the location, this time bringing along a remote-controlled sonar submersible vehicle to confirm that not only were the structures really there, but they actually seemed to be arranged in a symmetrical grid along the bottom. The stone blocks used in the geometric structures also seemed to be smooth and polished granite, something that had no business being down there at the bottom of the sea. In fact, it looked to them like a vast, urban center of some sort, like a sunken city hiding there in the depths away from the rest of the world.

The story hit the news in a major way at the time, with sensational headlines exclaiming that an underwater lost civilization had been found off the Cuban coast. It was not long at all before people were mentioning the strange submerged ruins in the same breath as the legendary lost continent of Atlantis, UFOs, ancient aliens, and other such oddities. Even as this was all capturing the imagination of the public it was also capturing the attention of curious scientists, to mixed reviews. For the most part those who studied the images, including National Geographic magazine and others, admitted that the structures were anomalous, but they were wary of making any conclusions or endorsing the idea that this was some sort of lost city made by humans or aliens. Marine geologist Manuel Iturralde would notably concede that it was a cool discovery, but pointed out that the ruins were too deep to have possibly been manmade, as he estimated that it would have taken around 50,000 years for such a city to have sunk that low into the sea, putting it past the technology that would have been available at the time. He would say:

50,000 years ago there wasn’t the architectural capacity in any of the cultures we know of to build complex buildings. It would be cool if they were right, but it would be real advanced for anything we would see in the New World for that time frame. The structures are out of time and out of place.

Most scientists were of the mind that more data was needed to derive any conclusion about what was shown in the images, but theories swirled anyway. One idea was that there had perhaps been some catastrophe such as a massive tectonic event that had brought the city down to the depths, but there was no evidence at all that anything of sufficient magnitude had happened in that region at any point in history. Another idea was that the whole area had once been above sea level on a basin and that rising sea levels had submerged it all over time, similarly to what is thought to have happened to Atlantis, but it is considered improbable that this ever happened in the Caribbean, and Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, of the site Bad Archeology, has said of this theory:

The depth of the alleged remains is the biggest problem of all: during the Pleistocene, sea levels dropped as water was locked up in the ice sheets that developed around the globe. At the maximum extent of the ice, the drop in level was around 100 m, which is very different from the 600-750 m depth of the alleged remains. At no point during the Ice Age would they have been above sea level unless, of course, the land on which they stand has sunk. This is the claim made for Atlantis: according to Plato’s account (the only primary source for it), it was destroyed σεισμῶν ἐξαισίων καὶ κατακλυσμῶν (“by violent earthquakes and floods”). However, if we take Plato at his word – as we must if we assume Atlantis to have been an historical place – the violence of its sinking makes it improbable that an entire city could have survived plunging more than 600 m into an abyss. Rapid sinking would devastate structures; the persistence of mud just below the surface suggests that the sinking was not to a depth of 600-740 m. Unless we are prepared to jettison Plato’s text – the sole source for the story of Atlantis – we cannot identify the features found by Paulina Zelitsky with Atlantis.

A computer generated mock-up of the supposed city

There have been other, even more fringe theories thrown around as well, such as that the city was intentionally built underwater or even that it was created by ancient aliens. For their part, Zalitzki and Weinzweig maintained that they believed it to be the remnants of a city that had been built by local peoples upon a land bridge connecting Cuba to the mainland at some point, although such a bridge is not known to have ever existed. Of course, another, more mundane notion is that this is simply anomalous looking natural structures. The problem is that all of this is mostly based on just those sonar images, which in itself has its own problems, as Fitzpatrick-Matthews explains:

The next problem involves trying to understand what the sonar shows. All the fancy graphics showing pyramid-like structures are computer generated: they are not photographs of things seen under the sea. All the detail is limited to the resolution of the side-scan sonar, which is not good enough to determine whether the supposed structures exhibit 90° angles, let alone confirm the claims that some stones are covered in hieroglyphs. The initial images, which do not have the three-dimensional data provided by the side-scanning sonar, show rectilinear but not rigorously right-angled features, so I suspect that the angularity of the generated images is an artefact of the processing, much like many of the details claimed for the ‘Face on Mars’. We have some interesting sonar images that are basically like ink-blot tests: they need interpreting and the interpretation is entirely dependent upon the preconceptions an biases of those looking at them. Paulina Zeltisky was predisposed to see artificiality, because that is what she was being paid to do (even if the artificiality she was specifically interested in involved sunken ships). Others have seen geological formations.

In other words, there is simply not enough imagery data, and the ruins might be anything. Interestingly, there seems to have been no real follow-up expedition to the site, which some have seen as rather suspicious and conspiratorial. One reason that has been proposed is that the Cuban government has initiated a cover-up and chased people away from the area, including the original crew that discovered it, but the more skeptical take is that it just hasn’t been seen as worthwhile enough for anyone to want to front all of the funding it would take to launch a proper expedition. Whatever the case may be, there has been very little in the way of follow-up, and the story of the amazing underwater city of Cuba went from a media sensation to just sort of fizzling out to be forgotten, only briefly getting a shot in the arm with an appearance on the TV show Ancient Aliens. What is this place and is there anything to it at all? If it really does exist, is it the work of an ancient civilization, aliens, or merely mundane geological forces? For now no one knows, no one has gone out there to really check it out, and all we can do is wonder and speculate.