In an odd echo of the events leading to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370’s disappearance, the search vessel Seabed Constructor turned off its monitoring system for three days.
The Seabed Constructor, operated by Texas firm Ocean Infinity, formally began its search on January 22 but switched off its automatic identification system (AIS) February 1, to reappear on February 4. Ocean Infinity has been engaged by the Malaysian government to locate the downed flight’s wreckage or flight recorders on a ‘no cure, no fee basis’.
This unaccounted-for activity has sent some of those following the case of modern aviation’s greatest mystery — already a source of spiraling conspiracy theories — into a fever of speculation.
Professional and amateur observers were quick to criticise the decision to switch off the vessel’s AIS.
#MH370 Morning Update – Nothing new. Seabed Constructor is now over 15 hours without updating her AIS position. I will post as soon as anything changes
— Kevin Rupp (@LabratSR) February 1, 2018
Whatever strategy you have now @Ocean__Infinity, – wrong one. Request your vessel #SeabedConstructor turn on its AIS & allow ppl like @richard_e_cole @LabratSR @Airlandseaman report fairly & accurately. Otherwise you create a vacuum quickly filled by idiots/speculation. #MH370
— Air Investigation (@AirInvestigate) February 2, 2018
The most popular theory revolves around a known shipwreck in the vicinity of the area in which Seabed Constructor ‘disappeared’, thought to be that of Peruvian-built transport ship MV Inca, which sunk in 1911. This site was discovered during a previous search effort for MH370 in 2015.
In the second weekly report released by the search team and the Malaysian government, the radio silence was not accounted for, but the report noted that two points of interest were discovered and classified as geological upon investigation from the Seabed Constructor‘s AUVs.
A map of the search area covered in the preceding week was also provided.
Relatives of those on board MH370 have been alarmed by the lack of transparency surrounding the new search operation, as the vessel’s going dark seemed to re-inflame hostilities and suspicion of a cover-up by the Malaysian government and the general lack of information and accountability surrounding the plane’s disappearance.
KS Narendran, who had a relative on MH370, said he was concerned by the Seabed Constructor going dark.
“I found the development quite odd, and worrying,” he said. “If this silence and becoming invisible was intentional, to ward off suspicion, a satisfactory explanation is due. If it was for other reasons, then in the interests of transparency, we ought to be told what caused it.
“There are no journalists and no family members on board the search ship. I wish there were some … We watch on in good faith. I hope ongoing official disclosure is of such a high order that there is little room for speculation, controversy or a whiff of conspiracy,” he told The Guardian.
In a televised press conference overnight, Malaysian transport minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said the search was “going smoothly”, and seemed to suggest that the AIS was deliberately switched off because the Seabed Constructor was leaving the search area on its way back to port in Fremantle.
Others have been quick to debunk theories of suspicious motivation for the ship’s disappearance from AIS tracking as conjecture, highlighting that there are plausible, straightforward possibilities for the AIS being switched off deliberately.
“I have nothing polite to say about those who are spreading rumours that Seabed Constructor was really on a treasure hunt,” Kevin Rupp, a precision machinist who has been publicly tracking Seabed Constructor told The Guardian.
“If the ship detected possible contacts [with MH370] its most likely action would be to move to the spot of the detections and lower an ROV – a tethered remote-controlled small vehicle,” he said.
“To do this, Seabed Constructor would have to sit still in one place for a long period of time and this would be very noticeable to those of us watching through our AIS tracking apps … I believe they may have turned the AIS transmitter to low power mode to prevent us from speculating that they had found something and causing undue distress for the next of kin.”
Others have suggested that the transponder apparatus may have malfunctioned.