Submarine Salvage: An Intricate World Beneath the Waves


Submarine salvage is a specialized field within marine salvage that involves the recovery of submerged submarines. This complex and demanding discipline combines advanced technology, engineering prowess, and meticulous planning to retrieve sunken vessels from the ocean’s depths. The history, techniques, and challenges of submarine salvage provide a fascinating glimpse into the intricacies of underwater recovery operations.

History of Submarine Salvage

Early Efforts

The history of submarine salvage dates back to the early 20th century when naval forces began to develop methods for recovering sunken submarines. Early efforts were rudimentary, relying on basic diving equipment and primitive lifting devices. One of the earliest recorded submarine salvage operations was the recovery of the USS S-51, which sank off the coast of Rhode Island in 1925. This operation highlighted the significant challenges posed by deep-water salvage, including poor visibility, strong currents, and the need for precise coordination.

World War II and Beyond

Submarine salvage techniques advanced significantly during and after World War II. The war saw the loss of numerous submarines, prompting the development of more sophisticated recovery methods. The salvage of the USS Squalus in 1939, which involved the use of a diving bell and specialized lifting pontoons, marked a significant milestone in the field. Post-war efforts continued to build on these innovations, with advancements in diving technology, sonar systems, and remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) enhancing the capabilities of salvage teams.

Techniques and Technologies

Diving Operations

Diving is a fundamental aspect of submarine salvage. Divers play a critical role in assessing the condition of the sunken vessel, securing lifting points, and performing underwater repairs. Modern diving operations utilize advanced equipment, including mixed-gas systems and closed-circuit rebreathers, to enable divers to work at greater depths and for longer durations. Safety protocols are stringent, with decompression procedures and emergency plans in place to protect divers from the hazards of deep-sea operations.

Remote-Operated Vehicles (ROVs)

ROVs have revolutionized submarine salvage by allowing teams to conduct detailed inspections and manipulations at depths beyond the reach of human divers. Equipped with cameras, sonar, and manipulator arms, ROVs can navigate the wreck site, capture high-resolution imagery, and perform intricate tasks such as cutting, welding, and lifting. The use of ROVs minimizes the risks associated with deep diving and enhances the precision and efficiency of salvage operations.

Lifting and Buoyancy Systems

Lifting a sunken submarine requires the use of powerful buoyancy systems and lifting devices. These may include inflatable lifting bags, specialized pontoons, and crane systems mounted on salvage vessels. The lifting process involves careful planning and execution to ensure the structural integrity of the submarine is maintained and that it is raised to the surface safely. Engineers must calculate the buoyancy required, account for the weight of water-filled compartments, and manage the distribution of lifting forces to prevent damage to the hull.

Challenges of Submarine Salvage

Depth and Pressure

One of the primary challenges of submarine salvage is the immense depth at which many submarines rest. The pressure at these depths can crush conventional equipment and pose significant risks to divers. Advanced materials and engineering techniques are required to withstand these conditions, and operations must be meticulously planned to account for the extreme pressures encountered.

Environmental Conditions

Submarine salvage operations often take place in harsh environmental conditions, including strong currents, low visibility, and cold temperatures. These factors complicate diving operations and increase the difficulty of maneuvering equipment. Salvage teams must be equipped to handle these conditions, with robust training and contingency plans in place to address potential hazards.

Navigational Hazards

The location of a sunken submarine can present navigational hazards, both for the salvage vessel and for divers. Wreck sites may be surrounded by debris, entangled in fishing nets, or located in areas with significant underwater topography. Careful mapping and navigation are essential to avoid collisions and ensure safe access to the wreck.

Case Studies in Submarine Salvage

USS Squalus

The salvage of the USS Squalus in 1939 remains one of the most notable examples of early submarine salvage. The Squalus sank during a test dive off the coast of New Hampshire, and a daring rescue operation saved the lives of 33 crew members. The subsequent salvage involved the use of pontoons to lift the submarine from a depth of 243 feet, a feat that demonstrated the potential of buoyancy-based lifting systems and set a precedent for future operations.

Kursk Submarine

The sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk in 2000 presented a significant challenge for salvage teams. The Kursk sank in the Barents Sea following an explosion, and its recovery required international cooperation and cutting-edge technology. The salvage operation involved the use of a giant barge equipped with powerful cranes and a complex system of cables and lifting devices. The successful recovery of the Kursk was a testament to the advancements in submarine salvage techniques and the ability to overcome extreme underwater challenges.


The discovery and exploration of the HMAS AE2, an Australian submarine sunk during World War I, showcased the role of ROVs in modern salvage operations. Located in the Sea of Marmara, the AE2 was explored using ROVs to capture detailed imagery and assess its condition. While the submarine remains underwater as a protected historic site. The use of ROV technology has provided valuable insights into its preservation and historical significance.


Submarine salvage is a field marked by complexity, innovation, and the relentless pursuit of overcoming the challenges posed by deep-sea recovery. Through the use of advanced diving techniques, ROVs, and sophisticated lifting systems, salvage teams have made significant strides. This is in retrieving sunken submarines and preserving their historical and strategic value. The history and evolution of submarine salvage underscore the remarkable ingenuity and determination of those who work beneath the waves. This is to recover these submerged giants.


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