The fate of a New Zealand submariner who vanished with his vessel 101 years ago could finally be settled by a mission in the Bismarck Sea off Papua New Guinea.
Kaikoura-born Abel Seaman John "Rosy" Reardon was one of 35 crew on board the submarine AE1 when the Australian vessel disappeared without trace on September 14, 1914. Despite a number of costly missions to locate AE1, its assumed resting place in deep water off the Duke of York group has never been found.
An Australian company, Find AE1, hopes to succeed where previous attempts failed, partly because it is using state-of-the-art underwater detection gear. The company started its hunt at the weekend, using a survey ship with a multi-beam echo sounder. Any promising objects detected by the sonar will then be examined by an underwater camera.
Spokesman Hugh Dolan said a number of "low-probability contacts" had been made in the likely area of grounding, which is just east of the Duke of York Island. Using charts of tidal flows and sea currents, the team, which includes former submariners and maritime experts, has narrowed a primary search area to a few kilometres of seabed.
"Perhaps, in a day or two we can solve this ... mystery," Mr Dolan said.
Marilyn Abernethy, of Kaikoura, a descendant of John Reardon, said discovery of the submarine would close the chapter on an unsolved family mystery.
"Fingers crossed," she told the Herald when informed of the new search. "They've tried before with- out success."
Mrs Abernethy said a photo of her great-uncle always hung in a family house when she was growing up.
Reardon was her grandmother's brother, the third son of Edward and Catherine Reardon, nicknamed "Rosy" because of the colour in his cheeks. Responding to a newspaper appeal for boys to join the navy, Reardon, then just 15, signed up in 1907 for service on the cruiser HMS Pioneer. In 1911, he was posted to HMS Challenger and the following year, having reached the UK, volunteered for submarine training.
Naval historian Gerry Wright, who wrote a book called Kaikoura's Submariner, says life on board the submarines was tough. Underwater, the air was full of oily fumes. The boats had one bunk, which the three officers shared, while the ratings slept where they could. The men used a bucket as a toilet.
Built at Vickers Armstrong shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness, a seaport in northwest England, the 55m, diesel-electric AE1 was designed to fire torpedoes forwards, backwards and sideways. The submarine sailed to Sydney with a sister vessel, AE2, in early 1914.
Reardon's boat received orders after the outbreak of World War I to join an expeditionary Australian force and invade German New Guinea, where a shore-based radio station helped direct the powerful German East Asiatic Squadron.
On the day AE1 vanished, the submarine and the destroyer HMAS Parramatta were on patrol. Records from the time show AE1 was last seen by HMAS Parramatta about 1.5 nautical miles to the southeast of Duke of York just after 3pm. When the submarine failed to reappear that evening, a frantic search began.
Three ships plied the waters for three days but failed to detect even a tell-tale oil slick.
AE1 was listed as lost with all hands, and has remained so ever since.