Explorers hope sonar shapes are signs of lost city

Sunday, June 2, 2002

HAVANA -- Floating aboard the Spanish trawler she chartered to explore the Cuban coast for shipwrecks, Paulina Zelitsky pores over yellowed tomes filled with sketches and tales of lost cities -- just like the one she believes she has found deep off the coast of western Cuba.

Zelitsky's eyes grow wide as she runs her small hand over water-stained drawings of Olmec temples in a dog-eared 1928 study of Mexican archaeology. The Russian Canadian explorer compares the shapes with green-tinted sonar images captured in March while studying the megalithic structures she discovered two years ago off Cuba's Guanahabibes Peninsula.

Amid piles of sonar-enhanced maps is a well-worn copy of "Comentarios Reales de las Incas," or "Royal Commentaries of the Incas," a classic of Spanish Renaissance narrative by the son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador. Zelitsky is particularly fascinated by Garcilaso Inca de la Vega's account of ancient ruins at the bottom of Lake Titicaca, Peru.

"You would not think that a reasonable woman of my age would fall for an idea like this," chuckled Zelitsky, a 57-year-old offshore engineer who runs the exploration firm Advanced Digital Communications of British Columbia, Canada.

Appeared in 2000

Zelitsky passionately believes the megalithic structures her crew discovered 2,310 feet below the ocean's surface could prove that a civilization lived thousands of years ago on an island or stretch of land joining the archipelago of Cuba with Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, about 120 miles away.

The unusual shapes first appeared on the firm's sophisticated side-scan sonar equipment in the summer of 2000, during shipwreck surveys off Cuba's western coast, where hundreds of vessels are believed to have sunk over the centuries.

Puzzled by the shapes with clean lines, the team has repeatedly returned to the site for more sonar readings, more videotapes of the megaliths with an unmanned submarine. The crew left in mid-May for a month.

Evidence for Zelitzky's hypothesis is far from conclusive, and has been met with skepticism from scientists from other countries who nevertheless decline to comment publicly on the project until scientific findings have been made available. Submerged urban ruins have never been found at so great a depth.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, the ruins of Jamaica's Port Royal are located at depths ranging from a few inches to 40 feet below the ocean surface. The seaside community was controlled by English buccaneers before it slid under the waves in earthquakes beginning in 1692.

No easy explanation

Back in Cuba, a leading scientist recently admitted there is no easy explanation for the megalithic shapes found by Zelitsky's crew. The shapes on the sonar maps look like walls, rectangles, pyramids -- rather like a town viewed from the window of an airplane flying overhead.

"We are left with the very questions that prompted this expedition," Manuel A. Iturralde Vincent, research director of Cuba's National Museum of Natural History wrote March 13.

Because of the large faults and an underwater volcano nearby, Zelitsky supposes the structures sank because of a dramatic volcanic or seismological event thousands of years ago.

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