Echo of War: Search for Sunken Warships Continues on Matua

Затерянные в тумане. Фото: Андрей Горбань

On June 27, began a complex expedition of the Underwater Research Center of the RGS and the Navy of the Russian Federation to the islands of the Greater Kuril Ridge. Scientists focus on the small volcanic island of Matua. During the Second World War, when these lands were part of Japan, a powerful fortress with a whole system of defensive fortifications was built here. Since 2016, the RGS has been exploring the island, restoring the historical and cultural heritage of the Kuril Islands.

During the new season, the scientists are aiming to study the areas of Japanese shipwrecks, the shipwreck of the American submarine "Herring", and other objects of military equipment history. With the help of a manned underwater vehicle (OPA) C-Explorer 3.11, the experts will conduct an additional survey of the waters of Matua Island, which began in 2017, by diving.

The set of tasks assigned to the researchers is also a training exercise for the methods and techniques that the specialists will have to apply this summer as part of the work on environmental monitoring of the Arctic Basin. The skills will be practiced on a submarine that sank during World War II, located at a depth of 107 meters off the coast of Matua Island.


На острове преобладает суровый холодный климат, характерный для Северных Курил. Фото: Андрей Горбань

Matua Island in the middle part of the Greater Kuril Ridge is significantly removed from the populated areas of Sakhalin and Kamchatka. The island itself is small: its length is 11 km, its width is 6 km. However, the harsh cold climate with a lot of precipitation characteristic of the Northern Kuriles, as well as the lack of permanent settlements, make it difficult to study. It is also home to one of the most active volcanoes in the region – Sarychev Peak.

The cultural layer preserved on the island belongs to the history of the Ainu – the oldest inhabitants of the Okhotsk Sea Basin. Translated from Ainu, "matua" means "hellmouth". Here lies the northernmost point of distribution of the corded pottery – the archaeological culture of the Neolithic Japanese period of Jōmon.

The RGS specialists were the first to start conducting research on the island. Over the years of studies, materials have been collected for the atlas that describes the marine life in the waters of the nearest islands; a survey of the bottom relief was carried out to analyze hydrographic characteristics. A reconstruction of the activity of Sarychev Peak was made. Another volcano that went under water was investigated: its peak is located at a depth of 11 meters south of Matua.

However, the main task of the experts was the search for and investigation of historical military equipment and fortifications of the Second World War period. During those years, Matua, which belonged to Japan, was turned into a real fortress. Surrounded by a natural barrier – the waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, with powerful underground fortifications – the island had a garrison of up to seven thousand people.


На подступе к Матуа. Фото: Андрей Горбань

The base lasted until August 1945, when the Japanese garrison of the island surrendered to the Red Army troops. Today, the wartime ruins on the ground and, in particular, the artifacts in the waters of Matua and neighboring islands are of scientific interest. With their help, the specialists from the URC RGS will try to make a historical and geographical portrait of this little-studied land.

The Underwater Research Center of the Russian Geographical Society unites historians, archaeologists, divers, oceanologists, and many other specialists with the aim of comprehensive research of underwater spaces and objects with a full range of technical means for the study and preservation of natural, cultural, and historical heritage. The team is headed by Sergey Fokin, executive director of the URC RGS, diver and pilot of a manned underwater vehicle.

Comprehensive work on the study of Matua Island of the Kuril Ridge has been carried out by the RGS together with the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation since 2016. The specialists conducted more than 1000 laboratory studies on physico-chemical and biological indicators, made more than 200 measurements of the relief and the external environment. Radiation and chemical reconnaissance was also carried out; the island's fortifications and more than 100 historical sites were examined. The divers conducted hydrographic studies of the bays of Matua Island.

Julia Gopius