An expert's point of view on a current event.

MH370 and the Secrets of the Deep, Dark Southern Indian Ocean

The world's most isolated ocean has a long history of making things disappear.

Paul Kane/Getty Images
Paul Kane/Getty Images

In 1900, Jules Verne published The Castaway of the Flag, an adventure novel in the shipwreck fantasy subgenre. To put his Swiss Family Robinson in an excessively remote spot beyond hope of rescue, he plonked them on New Switzerland, an imaginary island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Then, as now, the region’s main features were its remoteness and isolation — capable of hiding an entire island, or simply vanishing a Boeing 777 in its untrafficked vastness.

On March 24, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the missing Malaysia Airlines fight, which took off March 8 from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing and hasn’t been heard from since, "ended in the Southern Indian Ocean." The loss of MH370 has for the first time turned the entire world’s attention to this region: Big enough to contain Russia twice, the southern Indian Ocean has been condemned to obscurity by its emptiness and inhospitality. The ongoing search for the wreckage — none of the 239 people on board is believed to have survived — is frustrated by the extreme remoteness and the harsh climate of the presumed crash zone, in the words of Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, "as close to nowhere as it’s possible to be."

Whoever or whatever caused the plane to crash here could not have found a more desolate locale. The southern Indian Ocean is "out of normal shipping lanes, out of any commercial flight patterns, with few fishing boats, and there are no islands," a U.S. government official familiar with the search effort told CNN. Of all the world’s large bodies of water, this may be the one least explored; to be lost at sea out there is nearly as lethal as being stranded in outer space.

Distance is hampering the search effort. The planes taking part in the search fly out from Perth, Australia, the closest city to a debris field floating in the ocean that may be MH370’s wreckage. But it’s still roughly 1,600 miles away, and the 8-hour round-trip flight from Perth limits the time available for actual reconnaissance.

Not that there are other options besides Perth: There simply isn’t anything closer by — let alone inhabited lands. The closest spit of land is the French archipelago of Kerguelen, uninhabited but for a rotating staff of what must be the world’s most bored meteorologists. In the 19th century, the French government even decided against establishing a penal colony on the Delaware-sized island because it would be too cruel on the inmates. The only way off the Kerguelen is via a freighter, which takes 10 days to reach the nearest airport. (Kerguelen is also known, aptly, as Desolation Islands.)

The southern Indian Ocean is not only remote, but it has worse weather than just about any other place on the planet. Storms have hampered the search by grounding flights, reducing the usefulness of the handful of vessels in the area (including an Australian Navy ship and a Chinese icebreaker), and further dispersing and submerging much of the debris floating on the surface.

Storms are the rule rather than the exception in this part of the world, plagued by the Roaring Forties — the never-ending winds that howl around 40 degrees latitude south. The weather, combined with the fact that this zone, just north of Antarctica, is the only place where water can flow around the globe without hitting land, means that the waves are among the highest in the world. (Surfing is inadvisable.) That these are some of the deepest parts of the Indian Ocean, with a rugged and volcanic ocean floor, decreases the likelihood that the black boxes would be retrievable. All of which adds up to an almost impossible race against time: Those black boxes have limited battery life and will likely stop transmitting around April 7.

The mystery of Flight 370 will be added to the slim corpus of stories set in the southern Indian Ocean. Apart from Verne’s delightful fiction (the shipwrecked family brings order and progress to the uninhabited island), one very real horror story keeps floating to the surface. In the 17th century, the Dutch ship Batavia was stranded on the Houtman Abrolhos, a collection of reefs and islands off the western Australian coast. A group of mutineers instigated a reign of terror over the survivors, killing more than 100 before they themselves were executed by the officers arriving in a relief vessel. Despite the infamy thus bestowed on the Abrolhos, these same reefs later proved the undoing of the Zeewijk, a Dutch East India Company ship that crashed there in 1727. Eighty-two of the initial 208 men stranded on the islands managed to reach the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in a craft they built from the Zeewijk‘s wreckage — the first boat ever built in Australia.

The Dutch persisted in this dangerous route because they chose to ride the winds of the Roaring Forties due east across the Indian Ocean rather than take the straighter, slower route closer to India to their colonies in the East Indies. If they overshot their trajectory, the ships would crash into the rocks and reefs off western Australia. The original ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman, was said to have perished in a violent storm in these parts.

Over time, sailors learned to keep away from the southern Indian Ocean, the furthest place from anywhere that anyone could ever dread to find themselves — except if one had the good fortune to land on the shores of New Switzerland. What was the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 doing here, thousands of miles off course, disastrously far from any runway, its nose pointed towards Antarctica? Until it gives up the answer, the southern Indian Ocean remains part of the mystery.

Frank Jacobs is an author, journalist, and blogger. He writes about strange maps, intriguing borders, and other cartographic curiosities.