The idea of the submarine conjures up images of stealth and secrecy. Ever since mankind developed submarines, they’ve served as both the backbone of and the scourge of the world’s navies; being stalked by one was terrifying, and being in one…. most of us would think that was terrifying too. But like other abandoned technology rusting away in tank cemeteries, aircraft graveyards and various abandoned military facilities across the world, the death of the world’s decommissioned submarines is often long and drawn out. This article examines 10 of the world’s abandoned sub bases and vessels awaiting scrapping or destruction by the elements.
10. The Soviet Union’s Kuril Islands Submarine Base
In 1982, the New York Times reported that there was a rumour that the Soviet Union has established a remote, hidden submarine base somewhere at the northern end of Simushir Island. Only about 250 miles off the coast of Japan, the news had been first reported by a Japanese newspaper, but that’s all there was to the story.
As it turned out, there was much, much more to the story…
Simushir Island is one of a chain of islands formed from volcanic activity, and it’s unique formation left it with a massive, open caldera in the middle of it. There’s absolutely no way you can look at it without thinking that it would be a great place for a super-villain’s lair or a secret submarine base… and that’s exactly what the Russians thought, too.
In the late 1970s, the Soviet military blasted a channel through the rock and into Broutona Bay. Over the course of the next decade or so, an entire town was built around the submarine base; at its height, it was home to about 3,000 people. The three docks – only one of which remains – were once used for submarines that docked there in between outings. One of their missions was said to be the laying of explosives and mines across the northern end of Japan in case of the development of hostilities. Supposedly, it was also a radar station with extensive recon and monitoring equipment.
Word got out about the supposedly secret base, and now, the whole thing stands in rusted ruins. Bizarre, bizarre rusted ruins. Giant signs declare the base’s name and the date of its construction, maps and murals still decorate the walls, and the rusted hulk of a long-ago damaged submarine still floats in the caldera.
9. Decommissioned Subs at Devonport, England
(Image: Adrian Jones; decommissioned submarines Warspite, Conqueror & Valiant)
Not all submarine graveyards are miles away from civilization, sitting on islands that are all but deserted or hidden away in what would make an excellent super-villain’s lair. In 2002, Britain needed a place to start storing their defunct nuclear submarines, most of which were state-of-the-art during the Cold War, now left over and obsolete. They were moved to the base at Devonport, a stone’s throw from nearly a quarter of a million residents, and those residents weren’t happy about it.
(Image: Adrian Jones; decommissioned sub HMS Valiant)
As late as October of 2014, another submarine, the HMS Tireless, joined the others that were rusting away on the docks – their nuclear engines still intact. Even though most military officials claim that they’re perfectly safe sitting where they are, there’s still the question of radiation leaks and the waste products that are going to go along with dismantling the subs – if that ever happens – which isn’t going to be any time soon. The military hasn’t even named a place where they’re going to be dumping all the waste materials that would go along with the project, leaving Devonport residents to worry about the nuclear submarine graveyard that’s right next door.
(Image: Google Earth)
There are 12 submarines sitting in the impromptu graveyard – the oldest, Conqueror, arrived in 1990. Eight more are scheduled to be added over the next few years, absolutely contrary to what everyone living in the area wants. The 12 submarines means that there’s about 25 tons of radioactive waste stored at the site, and even though a few other interim storage sites have been selected, residents probably have a long wait ahead of them.
(Image: Google Earth)
The submarine graveyard is a strange sight. At one time, the crafts were the front lines of Britain’s Cold War defense. They were cutting edge, they were deadly, and they were responsible for protecting the nation. That was another era, though, and now, people just want them gone.
8. Coney Island’s Lone Submarine Wreck
There’s plenty of lore and stories that have been built up around the rusting hulk, just peeking above the water. Inspired by Jules Verne, a key player in the Civil War…. the truth is much more recent and much more epic.
In 1956, the ocean liner Andrea Doria sank off the coast of New York. At the time, it had been one of the biggest cruise liners in the area, sailing back and forth between America and Europe for three years. When she sank, she took around 46 people with her – and a wealth of artifacts. Under maritime salvage law, the wreck – and everything on it – was just waiting for someone to go and claim it. There was a fortune to be made, there was no doubt about that, and Jerry Bianco wanted to make it.
Working in a Brooklyn Navy yard, the ship fitter decided that it was absolutely a worthwhile investment to build a submarine that was capable of descending the 240-odd feet to salvage what he could. After four years of hard work from Bianco and his two sons, the 40-foot Quester 1 launched. It was bright yellow – not because of the song, but because he got a good deal on the paint.
Champagne was broken, and the sub was lowered into the water. Because the crane operator charged Bianco by the pound, he had removed all the non-essential items and weight from the sub – including the ballast. When the crane operator didn’t listen to instructions that involved not lowering it quite all the way into the water, the sub listed and partially sank.
Those that had backed the project then backed out, and the sub was left in the water. Now, it’s still there, and it’s a favorite spot for blue crabs and sea birds.
7. Balaklava, Ukraine
Once known as “Object 825 GTS”, the submarine base sitting outside of the Ukraine town Balaklava was once at the height of top secret. Hollowed out from the mountain and equipped with an underground water channel leading to a hidden dry dock outfitted for repairs and weapon storage, the base was built beginning in 1957. Since access to the base was from underwater, that meant that subs didn’t need to surface anywhere near the base – helping to keep it secret from prying eyes.
Abandoned only in around 1996, plans for its eventual abandonment were begun in 1991 and slowly followed through with over the years, although there’s a handful of different dates for when the structure finally was officially abandoned. While it was operational, it was massive. Able to withstand a direct nuclear attack, the base could also function as an emergency nuclear shelter that could support the entire population of the nearby town – all 3,000-odd people.
Now, visitors to the small town can tour the base in all its eerie, Cold War glory. It’s largely unchanged from when it was a functioning, top-secret base, with its long, coldly sterile tunnels, think walls of concrete, and doors that were designed to withstand a nuclear blast. Everything is cold, thick, heavy and still impenetrable, even after a few decades of neglect.
There was another kind of oceanic warfare going on at the base, too. At one point, it was the home of another top-secret program in which the Russian military was training dolphins for underwater missions, such as attaching explosives and beacons to other ships and submarines.
6. Hara Submarine Base, Estonia
The old Soviet submarine base beside the village of Hara hasn’t been abandoned for that long, but it looks like it hasn’t seen a soul in generations.
Built between 1956 and 1958, the base was once central to Soviet military operations in Estonia – and continued to be a major base of operations for nearly four decades. If the base itself looks a little non-traditional, that’s because it is – much of it is built from stone reclaimed by tearing down countless stone walls from nearby villages. The remains of an old lighthouse – little more than a foundation now – still stand out in the water, overlooking what was once a bustling military base.
What little metal is left, is rusting away; the whole thing looks more than a bit precarious now. Graffiti artists have taken over the rest of the compound, and it doesn’t seem entirely possible that there are still people living who saw it when it was a hub of Soviet power.
The Baltic states were never accepting of their Soviet overlords; in 1989, 2 million of hem joined hands in a peaceful protest that drew worldwide attention to the boot heel which Estonians and their neighbors were laboring under. It was only 3 years later that the base was abandoned, and now, it’s a dark reminder of dark times.
5. The Isle of May’s World War One Submarines
(Image: Royal Navy Submarine Museum)
In a military disaster that was deemed so incredibly embarrassing it wasn’t made public knowledge until well after the deaths of the last people involved, several submarines were sunk off the Isle of May in January of 1918. It was dubbed the Battle of the Isle of May, but there were no enemy ships sunk or even involved – instead, the casualties came from nighttime collisions between ships of the British Navy.
The submarines involved were the K Class, and if you served on one, chances were good you weren’t coming home. Those that joined up for service on them were said to be joining the Suicide Club, and there was nothing stealthy, graceful, or advanced about them. Only 18 were ever built, none were any real use in combat, and 6 were sunk because of accidents.
(Image: via The Jamie Leith Chronicles)
Ships and submarines belonging to the royal fleet were heading to Scapa Flow in Scotland when tragedy struck. It started with two lead submarines, ungainly to begin with, changing direction when they realized they were heading toward minesweepers. Another submarine collided with those that were turning, and a battlecruiser was added to the pile-up. At the end, two submarines sank, the whole crew of the K4 was killed, and all but eight members of the 59-member crew of the K17 also lost their lives.
For a long time, no one simply said anything about what had happened. Eventually, a small plaque appeared in a nearby village, but it was only when there was a proposal drawn up for an offshore wind farm that historians began looking at the long overlooked graveyard of the ill-fated K-Class submarines, and their crew.
4. Sazan Island’s Abandoned Submarine Base
(Image: eigenes Foto, public domain)
Sazan is a small island off the coast of Albania. At one time, it was the home of a Soviet submarine base staffed by a small contingent of Whiskey-class submarines. In 1961, Albania withdrew its membership from the Warsaw Pact and suddenly, the Soviet base on Albanian soil was open season. Albania seized the submarines that were there, increasing their navy considerably.
(Image: eigenes Foto, public domain)
By the 1990s, the submarines were all but obsolete, though, and the Albania military wasn’t replacing them. The base fell into disrepair, and was all but abandoned. Now, while there are plans being tossed around for opening the island as a tourist location, nothing shows signs of coming to fruition – for now, the old submarine base, along with the small town that provided living quarters for the base’s personnel and their families, are abandoned, an eerie, desolate sight against the beauty of the landscape.
(Image: eigenes Foto, public domain)
In addition to being a submarine base, there’s also a labyrinth of tunnels that run beneath the island. It was also home to a chemical and biological weapons plant, and now, it’s the site of a small outpost that’s mostly used to monitor pirate and smuggling activity between Albania and Italy.
Most recently, the abandoned base has found something of new life as a training field for the Royal Navy. In 2013, Royal Marines ran training missions through the Cold War relic, prepping for scenarios that involved combating pirates and terrorist organizations.
3. Old Sub Base on Johnston Atoll
Johnston Atoll is one of the most remote military bases in the world. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the atoll was first discovered quite accidentally, when an America captain ran aground on the submerged island. In 1926, the atoll was designated a bird refuge, but by the 1930s, its location was crucial to military service. Dredges were used to increase the useable space, which was mostly created from underwater, volcanic eruptions. Several more islands were added, and it wasn’t long before the base was a crucial refueling, maintenance and repair stations for aircraft and submarines.
(Image: Google Earth)
In its heyday, there were about 1,300 people living and working on the station, and in the 1940s, it became most famous as a nuclear test facility. Today, there are still numerous issues with the site, including contamination from the nuclear testing that went on there, as well as other military operations. The chemical weapons disposal plant on the atoll was responsible for the leaking of Agent Orange into the environment, and the sub-marine and missile testing that went on throughout the 1950s and 1960s has led to the continuous leaking of various petroleum products.
Currently, the base is still under the control of the U.S. Air Force, but once their contract is up, it will revert to protected land and become a wildlife refuge.
2. Abandoned Submarine Pen on Vis Island, Croatia
Today, Vis is a huge destination spot for tourists from around the world, and it’s easy to see why – it’s beautiful. It’s still out-of-the-way enough to make it feel like you’re somewhere truly special, but Vis has been occupied since the founding of its first settlement in 397 B.C.
It was, of course, much, much later than that when it became known as a hugely important, strategically crucial spot for a military base. The first of the modern military tunnels were dug out of the Vis hillsides in around 1944, when the location became crucial to those that were fighting for the island’s independence from the so-called “Benign Dictator”, Marshal Tito.
Abandoned only in 1989, the island was shrouded in secrecy throughout its operation as a military base. The abandoned submarine dock is perhaps one of the most noticeable of the remnants left behind after the demilitarization of the island, cut deep into a mountainside. After the end of World War Two, it was one of the largest and most important of Yugoslavia’s military bases, and it was during this period that most of the base was built.
Leading from the submarine docks are a huge network of underground tunnels capable of providing integral military support; popular throughout the Cold War as well, the military presence is still felt throughout the beautiful, incredibly picturesque island – if anything, its surroundings make it even more surreal.
Now, the 3,600-odd residents on the island co-exist with empty barracks, disused tunnels and empty dry docks rather than military personnel, and they’ve made tourism their livelihood.
1. The Sub Marine Explorer
There’s only a handful of early submarines – and by early, we mean 1870s early – that have survived the ravages of time, and one of them is the recently discovered Sub Marine Explorer. Its final resting place is a beautiful one, but the story is incredibly tragic.
Built by a German inventor, the Sub Marine Explorer was one of the first underwater craft – and, strangely, it wasn’t a military one. The craft, resting in the waters of the Pacific off the coast of Panama, was built in 1865 and it last belonged not to a military unit, but to a company that had been wanting to use it to scour the ocean’s oyster beds for pearls. At the time the explorer was new, slaves were being tasked with diving again and again, searching for pearls.
The Sub Marine Explorer, outfitted with hatches that were to be used to gather the oysters from the sea floor, was supposed to make the job much easier and, in turn, much more lucrative. The craft had enough space for six men to work, collecting oysters in a submersible craft that would have been lit by candlelight. Compressed air would have been pumped into the craft when it was ready to rise, but a lack of understand of the effects of pressure on the human body meant that the craft saw disaster.
Several trial runs were done with the machine, before it was taken to Panama and on site at the beach that it would be working. But it wasn’t long before trial runs got longer and longer, and its inventor, Julius Kroehl, was the first to die. With a long history of sickness, doctors didn’t connect it to the diving machine until the crew went down again and again, collecting thousands of dollars worth of pearls, and eventually all dying of the same mysterious illness.
Today, the re-discovery of the old submarine with its one lonely occupant has provided a new look into the history of underwater travel.