15 Strategic Reserves of Unusual Products

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We’ve all collected something at one time or another, although it’s usually more for novelty’s sake than to ameliorate large-scale humanitarian disasters or to control the market price of, say, souvenir spoons. Other than doomsday preppers, that’s usually the purview of national governments. But while many countries keep stockpiles of the obvious things, like petroleum or gold, you might be surprised to hear what others have been collecting in their federal reserves—and why.

1. THE GLOBAL STRATEGIC MAPLE SYRUP RESERVE

Non-Canadians might think of maple syrup production as a cottage industry, but it’s responsible for thousands of jobs in the Great White North—and whole lot of the nation’s revenue. The Canadian province of Quebec is responsible for 71 percent of the world’s maple syrup, and the stuff’s not cheap—a 600-pound barrel of grade-A syrup trades at $1650 USD, more than 10 times the price of crude oil. Add to this the fact that maple trees are notoriously fickle about the weather—they require both cold nights and mildly warm days to cause sap to flow, which means that a sudden change in the weather can cause disaster—and it’s a situation that could potentially cost Canada beaucoup bucks. So, since 2000, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers has been building entire warehouses of extra maple syrup near Quebec City, to brace the country for a sudden syrup dearth. The Federation also seeks to push the alleged health benefits of maple syrup to its foreign consumers, arguing on the platform that it’s better for you than white sugar.

The stockpile that was created to protect the province’s revenue was robbed in 2012, following a great syrup surplus the previous year. Thieves who weren't part of the Federation but had access to the warehouse siphoned syrup from barrels, making off with 60 percent of the stockpile—6 million pounds—which worked out to over $18 million CDN in syrup. The thieves were later arrested, but only a quarter of the syrup was recovered.

2. THE SVALBARD GLOBAL SEED TRUST

A frozen, far-flung possession of Norway with a mere 2600 residents, the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard doesn’t have a whole lot going on—but its low population density (just 0.10 of a person per square mile) and its location, inside the Arctic Circle just north of the Scandinavian peninsula, make it the perfect place to hide your stash.

Starting in 1984, the Nordic Gene Bank has been squirreling away frozen seeds inside an old coal mine, and in 2006, Norway began construction of a new facility 400 feet inside a sandstone mountain to protect against the loss of certain plant life in the event of a global catastrophe. The island's permafrost will keep the seeds frozen in the event of an electrical failure, its high elevation is expected to keep the seeds safe and dry if the polar ice caps should melt, and there's a lack of tectonic activity. After many years of duplicating seeds from the Southern African Development Community, which also keeps a vast seed collection, the NGB merged its seeds with the SADCs, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008. The vault contains approximately 865,000 different agricultural seed samples, with the capacity to hold 4.5 million.

3. THE PROTECTING ICE MEMORY PROJECT

Did you know that glaciers contain data? Scientists do, which is why, deep within a snow cave in Antarctica, a group of them are slowly building a library of ice in an effort to head off global warming before the glaciers melt completely. The Protecting Ice Memory project was launched in August 2016 by a team of glaciologists and engineers from France, Italy, Russia, and the U.S. The idea is to get as many samples from as many mountain glaciers as possible worldwide, catalogue the info found within, and ship the samples to their icy database at the bottom of the world.

The information contained within the 426-foot-long ice cores includes historical data points on gaseous concentration, pollution, and long-term temperature changes, among other things. This project has only just begun, and it sounds like it could be slow-going—the three ice cores extracted from Col du Dôme in France aren’t even in Antarctica yet, and the first one won’t be analyzed until 2019, with the other two slated for sometime in 2020.

4. THE NATIONAL RAISIN RESERVE

Most stockpiles are created to protect against a shortage of the thing that’s being stockpiled, but the National Raisin Reserve came about as a solution to the opposite problem: America just had too many raisins. During World War II, both the government and civilians bought raisins in large quantities to send to soldiers overseas; by a few years after the war's end, in 1949, the raisin market was flooded. In response, the raisin growers joined together and under the auspices of a New Deal-era Act created Marketing Order 989, supervised by the USDA, which allowed them to take a varying percentage of American raisin farmers’ produce—sometimes almost half and often without paying for them—in an effort to create a raisin shortage and artificially drive up the market price. The confiscated crops were then put into storage in California, whereupon some of them would eventually be used in school lunches, fed to livestock, or sold to other countries.

This went on until 2002, when farmer Marvin Horne decided that he actually was not going to hand over his raisins and, instead, preferred to sell all of them. The government responded by sending the raisin police (actually a local private detective firm) to surveil his farm and then sending him a bill for about $680,000. Horne sued, and the case bounced around several courts for many years, ultimately landing at the U.S. Supreme Court—twice: the first time due to a question on jurisdiction (where one justice referred to the law that created the Marketing Order as “the world’s most outdated law”) and the second time to determine if the raisin seizures violated the Fifth Amendment prohibition against taking personal property without just compensation. Ultimately, in 2015, the court ruled in favor of Horne: For seizures to continue, compensation would have to be paid. Many pundits saw this as the end of the raisin stockpile, but it may soon return—the USDA just says that “Due to a recent United States Supreme Court decision, [the Volume Control] provisions are currently suspended, being reviewed, and will be amended.”

5. THE CHINESE PORK STOCKPILE

Meanwhile, in China, they’re finding out what happens when you confiscate too much of a staple: in this case, a 200,000-metric ton stash of pork. The Chinese pork reserve is nothing new; the stockpile of frozen meat has existed for almost a decade in an effort to control the wildly fluctuating price of pork. The meat has been at the center of the country’s cuisine and culture for thousands of years. (Rou, the Mandarin word for “meat,” is the same as the word for “pork.”) The idea was cooked up in 2007, when porcine blue ear disease wiped out a large number of Chinese pigs and the price of pork soared by 87 percent, leading to civil unrest. In May 2016, the stockpile came in handy when 6.1 million pounds of frozen pork were released in response to a price surge of more than 50 percent—which was a result of the government keeping the price so low that Chinese farmers were giving up on raising pigs for such low profits, creating a dire pork shortage. Although economists doubt how effective the pork reserve is, the price of pork did fall in the ensuing months. Sounds like it’s an effective tactic, as long as you don’t go hog wild with it.

6. THE COTTON RESERVE IN INDIA

Dating back several millennia, textiles manufacturing is one of the oldest industries in India’s economy, and the country is hugely dependent on it too—garments and fabrics make up 11 percent of India’s total exports, and 60 percent of those exports are cotton-based. Which is why the state-run Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) has amassed about 2.5 million bales of cotton, which it sits on in case it needs to back up the mills in the event of a shortage.

India isn’t the only country in the world to hoard cotton—China used to do this as well, and at one point, it owned up to 40 percent of the entire world’s supply. But now that the Chinese government stopped buying cotton in 2013, due to the fiber’s high storage costs, India may one day take the all-time cotton high score.

7. FEDERAL HELIUM RESERVE

In 1925, the U.S. government began reserving helium for use in dirigibles, in hopes of catching up to the massive fleet of airships that Germany had used during World War I. But by the end of World War II, airplanes had replaced airships as the military’s de rigueur aircraft, so you’d think the helium stockpile would have been sold off.

Not so. Turns out, this helium is valuable for a bunch of perhaps-unexpected reasons. Not only is it useful since it’s a “superfluid” at temperatures very near to absolute zero, it’s ideal as a protective atmosphere for shielded arc welding. The scientific research industry also has a demand for the gas—the helium atom is one of the simplest that can be used to study atomic physics in quantum mechanics. Today, it’s utilized in the production of fiber optic cables and computer chips. NASA uses helium in its Delta IV rockets and to maintain pressure in liquid oxygen fuel tanks, and the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, needs about 130 tons of helium to operate.

By the mid-1990s, the U.S. government decided to get rid of the reserve, passing the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 and gradually selling the helium stockpile off to private buyers. But as helium was being used more and more, the prices were being kept artificially low, which led to massive waste—so the House of Representatives stepped in with the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 and voted to extend the life of the Federal Helium Reserve. These days, the U.S. is reducing its helium stores to 3 billion, hidden about 3000 feet underground in Amarillo, Texas—conveniently located near two natural gas fields in the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas that contain unusually high percentages of helium and are the country’s greatest helium resources. New mining endeavors are expected to create a helium surplus by 2018, so it sounds like we’re in good shape (for now).

8. THE FROZEN ARK

It’s not news that animal species are disappearing at an increasing rate, with a quarter of all known mammals and 10 percent of all birds facing possible extinction within the next couple of decades. In 2004, three British organizations decided to join forces and combat the issue. The Natural History Museum, the Zoological Society of London, and Nottingham University established a “frozen zoo” they called The Frozen Ark Project.

To do this, DNA and living tissue samples are taken from all endangered species that can be accessed and then preserved, so that future generations can study the genetic material far into the future (they generally discount a Jurassic Park scenario, but say it might be possible in a few instances). So far, the Frozen Ark has over 700 samples stored at the University of Nottingham in England—and participating consortium members in the UK, the U.S., Germany, Australia, NZ, India, South Africa, Norway, and Ireland. DNA donations come from museums, university laboratories, and sometimes the animals themselves, via zoos.

9. CHINA’S GIGANTIC URANIUM STOCK

U.S. Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

China's population continues to grow, and the country's power needs continue to rise—so the government is always on the hunt for sources of power. One of the major sources, these days, is nuclear, and in order to ensure nuclear power for a long time, the Chinese government has been stockpiling lots of uranium. The Chinese are already estimated to have nine years worth of uranium, although they don’t disclose any details.

After the Fukushima disaster in Japan and other longstanding concerns about nuclear power, the price of uranium plummeted to less than a quarter of what it was in 2007. The cheap pricetag has been great for China, which has been able to buy large portions of the world market for virtually nothing; when the price of uranium increases again in the future (either due to increased demand or decreased supply), China’s nuclear power plants will continue to operate.

10. THE EU's BUTTER SURPLUS

Like the raisin and helium stockpiles, World War II was the impetus for Europe’s infamous “butter mountain.” Food shortages and economic collapse were fresh in the minds of Europeans, and so the European Economic Community—a precursor to the European Union—began subsidizing farmers. In 1962, the Common Agricultural Policy was created to pay guaranteed, artificially high prices to dairy farmers for surplus products, which were sold to the European public for higher prices, causing a drop in sales. Attempts to compete by non-EU dairies were squelched at the borders by heavy taxes. Then they stockpiled the rest for a rainy day (or world war). In 1986 alone, the EU bought 1.23 million tons of leftover butter.

In the 1970s, word made it to the street of the “butter mountain” that the EU had been tucking away, which was costing taxpayers an enormous amount of money—almost 90 percent of the EEC’s budget in 1970—and outrage ensued. It still took until the ‘90s for something to be done about it, however. Instead of paying farmers for their unwanted butter, the EEC switched to paying them to not produce it. The so-called butter mountain was finally dissolved (or melted?) in 2007.

(It wasn’t an actual mountain of butter, of course, nor was it even kept in the same place—the surplus butter was distributed and placed in cold storage in various silos across the continent. Despite this, though, once the name “butter mountain” been coined by the press, the name stuck.)

In 2009, just two years after the butter was liquidated, the global recession and relative strength of the euro had made it more difficult for dairy farmers to sell their goods. The EU came to the rescue, and the butter mountain was back. The European Commission pledged to buy up to 300,000 tons of butter, at a guaranteed price of €2299 a ton, so its dairy farmers wouldn’t go out of business. Although it was considered more of a “butter molehill” this time around, the butter and other agricultural goods the EU bought cost taxpayers a whopping €280,000,000, and the pressure was on to get rid of it ASAP. As of 2011, a portion of the butter had been donated to the worldwide Food Aid for the Needy program.

11. THE STRATEGIC NATIONAL STOCKPILE

This one’s kind of a no-brainer. Managed by the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Government stocks millions of doses of vaccines, antidotes, antitoxins, antibiotics, and sundry other medications in warehouses scattered across the nation to prep for natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and biological terrorist attacks. The warehouses are distributed such that supplies should be made available to the site of the emergency within 12 hours, whether it strikes in Alaska or Arkansas (and, if needed, the full force of resources can arrive in 24 to 36 hours). The details on locations of the warehouses and their exact contents aren’t publicly available.

Some examples of the known goodies the SNS stocks are smallpox vaccines, Cipro to combat anthrax, and diabetes and blood pressure meds for folks who might be stranded from their homes long-term. These all came in handy during the September 11th attacks in 2001 and in the catastrophic effects wreaked upon southern Louisiana after it was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2009, the SNS responded to the H1N1 swine flu pandemic by releasing a quarter of its influenza-specific supplies—including antiviral drugs, gloves, and face masks—to the American public.

Not sure what kind of disaster you’re dealing with quite yet? The SNS has you covered there, too. If you’ve got a lot of people suffering from an unspecified malady, they’ll send out “push packages”—a grab bag of different medications and supplies—for health care workers to disperse, free of charge.

12. RUSSIA’S TOP-SECRET UNDERGROUND FOOD RESERVE

In a series of former mine tunnels deep below the surface of Central Russia sits a top-secret cache of cereals, sugar, canned meat, and other food staples, all managed by an agency called Rosreserve. The agency—which manages all of Russia's federally-mandated reserves—classifies the food depot a state secret, and so there’s not a lot of information on it, including its location. Nor does anyone outside of Rosreserve seem to know how much food they’ve got packed away down there. But we know that the complex is vast, it’s 400 feet underground, it’s airtight and nuke-proof, and it’s kept at 65 percent humidity and 7 to 8 degrees Celsius—without refrigeration, relying only on the frozen ground to keep things cool. The facility also includes a laboratory, so that the food can be tested against the government’s nutritional standards, and the inventory is rotated on the regular, to ensure that none of it goes bad. About-to-expire food is delivered to consumers, primarily food security agencies.

13. SCOTLAND YARD’S RUBBER BULLET COLLECTION

Just months after riots erupted throughout England in August 2011—which saw looting, arson, and the deaths of five people in response to the killing of Mark Duggan by a police officer—London’s Metropolitan Police thought it might want to be a little more prepared in case it happened again. The Met responded by purchasing 10,000 baton rounds, also known as plastic bullets, to add to its comparably small existing collection of only 700. The new shipment put the Met’s rubber bullet inventory at an all-time high, with a previous record of 6424. It was reported that the rounds are not the police’s preferred method of dealing with conflict, but only that they want to have them available.

The idea behind baton rounds, of course, is to cause pain but not grievous injury or death. But that depends on how far away from a target you fire them from. In 1982, a soldier at a protest rally shot an 11-year-old Northern Irish boy in the head with a baton round from several feet away, killing him. Rubber bullets were used widely by the police in Northern Ireland, in fact, during the ethno-nationalist conflict known as The Troubles, wherein misuse regularly led to serious human injury.

With its new plethora of rubber bullets, the Met also elected to train more of its officers to deploy them correctly, but it wasn’t because of the history of misuse in Northern Ireland. The reason cited was because the police had received criticism during the UK riots for not having enough specialists to make the tactic easily available.

14. THE NORTHEAST HOME HEATING OIL RESERVE

If there’s an area of the U.S. that most needs a stockpile of heating oil, it’s the Northeast. Between its brutal winters and the general dependence of its households on oil as a heating method, a disruption in access to supplies could be a serious problem. That’s why, in 2000, President Bill Clinton directed the creation of the reserve as a component of the existing Strategic Petroleum Reserve, via the Department of Energy.

NEHHOR, as it’s called, isn’t a giant reservoir of oil, though, like one might imagine—instead, a million barrels of ultra-low-sulfur distillate (a.k.a. diesel) are housed in three separate terminals in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Oil is sometimes auctioned off from this stockpile—the U.S. Department of Energy has developed an online bidding system for the purpose of running occasional one-day emergency sales, open to any interested party.

Although NEHHOR was originally intended to be temporary, it’s still around today, and it’s a good thing. It took 12 years, but the reserve was finally opened up in November 2012, when Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc throughout much of the Northeast and 2 million gallons of heating oil were delivered to local and federal relief efforts.

15. FOOD SECURITY COMMODITY RESERVE

Among this list of strategic reserves, this is perhaps the most generous one. Called the Food Security Commodity Reserve since 1996, it was originally Title III of the Agriculture Act of 1980 that established a reserve of up to 4 million metric tons of wheat, which would be earmarked for combating famine in developing nations. Although the first incarnation of this reserve was strictly wheat-based, the 1996 farm bill opened the doors to other foodstuffs to be included in the reserve, such as rice, corn, and sorghum.

Subsequently, the Africa: Seeds of Hope Act of 1998 established the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, which added a stockpile of hard cash in order to expand the reach of the Food Security Commodity Reserve, and in 2008, it became an exclusively cash reserve. The cash in the BEHT helps the Office of Food for Peace to supply areas of hunger with provisions without depleting the stores of grain. Recent withdrawals from this cash stash include a donation of $50 million toward provisions for South Sudan during its dire food crisis of 2014.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anne Boleyn

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anne Boleyn was one of England’s most controversial queens. In 1533, King Henry VIII annulled his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) and was in the process of breaking with the Catholic Church to wed the charming noblewoman. But their happiness was not to last: Just three years later, Anne was executed. It’s a compelling story, one that’s been dramatized in plays, novels, movies, and TV shows. But today, we’re setting the pop culture depictions aside to take a look at the real Anne Boleyn.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s formative years were spent in France and Belgium.

Born in the early 16th century (possibly in 1501 or 1507), Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat. As a child, she went abroad to study in Margaret of Austria’s court, located in present-day Belgium, and later continued her education as a member of Mary Tudor’s elegant household in Paris. By the time she returned to her native England in the early 1520s, Boleyn had mastered the French language—and she carried herself like a Parisian, too. “No one,” wrote one of Boleyn’s contemporaries, “would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but [instead] a native-born Frenchwoman."

  1. Anne Boleyn played the lute.

Even Boleyn’s harshest critics had to admit that she was a good dancer. She was also fond of music, and reportedly played the lute (a guitar-like instrument popular at Tudor gatherings) quite well. A songbook that bears her inscription can be found at London’s Royal College of Music. It’s unclear if Boleyn ever owned this book, but its selection of tunes is historically significant.

  1. Anne Boleyn almost married someone other than King Henry VIII.

In 1522, Thomas Boleyn and his cousin, Sir Piers Butler, were both trying to claim some Irish land holdings that had belonged to one of their mutual ancestors. To settle the dispute, Anne's uncle suggested marrying Anne to Butler’s son, James, so that the factions could be unified in the future. By the time Anne returned to England, the marriage was already in the works. King Henry VIII—whose mistress at that time was Anne's sister Mary—supported the match, but the marriage never went through. Anne also had a romantic relationship with one Henry Percy, a future Earl of Northumberland who wound up marrying the Lady Mary Talbot.

  1. Anne Boleyn was pregnant at her coronation.

King Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was annulled on May 23, 1533. He’d been courting Anne Boleyn for years; many of his love letters survive to this day. As the king’s infatuation grew, so did his desire for a healthy male heir—which Catherine never gave him. But Pope Clement VII refused to dissolve the royal marriage. So the Archbishop of Canterbury went ahead and annulled it. Henry VIII would soon be declared “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” severing its ties with the Vatican. Boleyn was crowned queen on June 1, 1533. Her first child, Princess Elizabeth, was born a little over three months later.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s emblem was a white falcon.

The Boleyns took a white falcon from the traditional Butler family crest. For Anne’s coronation ceremony, poet Nicholas Udall wrote a ballad that likened the new queen to this elegant bird of prey. “Behold and see the Falcon White!” declared one verse. “How she beginneth her wings to spread, and for our comfort to take her flight” [PDF]. The new queen also used a white falcon badge as her personal emblem; at some point, a graffitied version of this was carved into the Tower of London.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s religious views are hard to pin down, but she appeared to sympathize with reformers.

At a time when Latin-language Bibles were the norm in Catholic Europe, Boleyn consistently supported the publication of English translations—a controversial notion at the time. As queen, she and her husband arranged for the release of Nicholas Bourbon, a French humanist whose criticisms of saint-worship and other theological matters had landed him in jail. Bourbon went to England, where he tutored Boleyn’s nephew (at her request).

  1. Anne Boleyn was the first of Henry VIII’s queens to get beheaded.

Like Catherine before her, Anne Boleyn failed to deliver Henry VIII’s long-sought male heir. In 1536, she found herself on trial, accused of high treason, adultery, and incest. (Rumors circulated that she was having an affair with her brother, George.) Though many historians dismiss these allegations, they sealed her fate nevertheless. Boleyn was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Henry VIII wed his third wife, Jane Seymour, that same month. Two spouses later, history repeated itself when the king had queen number five—Catherine Howard—decapitated in 1542.

  1. It has been claimed that Anne Boleyn had 11 fingers.

When you replace a popular monarch and spur the change of the religious fabric of an entire country, you're bound to make enemies. One of Boleyn’s detractors claimed that she had a “devilish spirit,” while another famously called her a “goggle-eyed whore.”

And then there’s Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, who wrote an unflattering description of the former queen many years after she died. According to him, Boleyn had “a large wen [wart or cyst] under her chin,” a “projecting tooth under the upper lip” and “six fingers” on her right hand. But his claims are highly suspect. There’s no proof that Sander ever laid eye on Boleyn—plus, her contemporaries didn’t mention any of these physical traits in their own writings about the queen. At worst, she might have had a second nail on one finger—which is a far cry from saying she possessed an extra digit.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, ruled England for decades.

Coronated at age 25 on January 15, 1559, Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada, promoted exploration, and foiled multiple assassination plots during her 44-year reign. She held the throne right up until her death in 1603.

  1. There’s only one surviving portrait of Anne Boleyn (that we know of).

When Henry VIII executed her, most Anne Boleyn likenesses were intentionally destroyed—and now, there's just one contemporary image of the queen known to exist: a lead disc—crafted in 1534—with Boleyn’s face etched on one side, which is held at the British Museum in London. It’s the only verified portrait of the former queen that was actually produced during her lifetime.

But there may be at least one more image of the queen out there: In 2015, facial recognition software was used to compare the image on the disc to a 16th-century painting currently housed at the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. The picture’s subject, a young woman, has never been identified, but according to the program, the figure looks an awful lot like Boleyn’s portrait in that lead disc—though the researchers cautioned that their results were inconclusive due to insufficient data.

6 Strange Maritime Mysteries

Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images
Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images

The oceans cover over 70 percent of our planet, so it's little wonder that their seemingly impenetrable depths have provided a series of fascinating mysteries, from missing ships to eerie monsters. Below are six mysteries of the deep—some of which scientists think they've at least partly explained, while others remain truly puzzling.

  1. The Mary Celeste

On December 5, 1872, the crew of the British ship the Dei Gratia spotted a vessel bobbing about 400 miles off the coast of the Azores. They approached the Mary Celeste to offer help, but after boarding the ship were shocked to find it completely unmanned. The crew had disappeared without a trace, their belongings still stowed in their quarters, six months' worth of food and drink untouched, and the valuable cargo of industrial alcohol still mostly in place. The only clues were three and a half feet of water in the hold, a missing lifeboat, and a dismantled pump. It was the beginning of an enduring mystery concerning what happened to the crew, and why they abandoned a seemingly sea-worthy vessel.

Numerous theories have been suggested, including by crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned a short story in 1884 suggesting the crew had fallen victim to an ex-slave intent on revenge. A more recent theory has pointed the finger at rough seas and the broken pump, arguing they forced the captain to issue an order to abandon ship. Since the missing crew have never been traced, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a satisfying answer to the enigma.

  1. The Yonaguni Monument

An underwater area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
An area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
Vincent Lou, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

In 1986, a diver looking for a good spot to watch hammerhead sharks off the coast of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan came across an extraordinary underwater landscape. The area reportedly looked like an ancient submerged village, with steps, holes, and triangles seemingly carved into the rocks. Ever since it was first discovered, controversy has surrounded the site that's become known as the Yonaguni Monument, with some researchers—such as marine geologist Masaaki Kimura—arguing it is a clearly manmade environment, perhaps a city thousands of years old and sunk in one of the earthquakes that plagues the region. Others believe it's a natural geological phenomenon reflecting the stratigraphy (layers) of sandstone in an area with tectonic activity. The area is open to scuba divers, so the really curious can strap on air tanks and decide for themselves.

  1. The Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle has probably spawned more wild theories, column inches, and online discussion than any other ocean mystery—more than 50 ships and 20 aircraft are said to have vanished there. Although the triangle has never officially been defined, by some accounts it covers at least 500,000 square miles and lies between Bermuda, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The mystery first caught the public imagination in December 1945 when Flight 19, consisting of five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers and their 14 crewmembers, were lost without a trace during a routine training operation in the area. Interest was further piqued when it was later reported that one of the search-and-rescue planes dispatched to find the missing team had also disappeared. Articles and books such as Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, first published in 1974 and having since sold over 20 million copies in 30 languages, have served to keep the mystery alive, providing potential theories both natural and supernatural. Scientists—and world-renowned insurers Lloyd’s of London—have attempted to debunk the myth of the Bermuda Triangle, offering evidence that the rate of disappearance in the vast and busy triangle is no higher than other comparable shipping lanes, but such is the power of a good story that this is one story that seems likely to continue to fascinate.

  1. The Kraken

A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, sailors told tales of an enormous sea creature with huge tentacles known as the Kraken. Stories around the mythical kraken first started appearing in Scandinavia in the 12th century, and in 1555 Swedish cartographer Olaus Magnus provided an account of a sea creature with “sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree root up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes.” The stories persisted, often mentioning a creature so large it resembled an island. In his 1755 book The Natural History of Norway, Danish historian Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan described the kraken as “incontestably the largest Sea monster in the world."

Scientists have proposed that these stories might derive from sightings of giant squid (Architeuthis dux), although evidence for an even larger, yet extremely elusive, colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) has also come to light. The colossal squid is found in the deepest part of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, and is thought to be up to 46 feet long and 1100 pounds. The problem is that the animal is so rare very few specimens have been found intact, and no live specimen has ever been observed, which means that estimating its exact size is difficult. Researchers have also noticed that sperm whales have been observed with large scars, and have suggested that these could be the result of violent encounters with the colossal squid, which is known to have sharp rotating hooks on the ends of their tentacles.

  1. The Treasure of the Merchant Royal

The remains of the Merchant Royal are known as one of the richest shipwrecks ever. The ship set sail from the New World in 1641 laden with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 Mexican silver bars, and thousands of precious gems—in total, a haul thought to be worth $1.3 billion today. The ship got caught in a storm and was thought to have gone down somewhere off the coast of Cornwall, England. The lost wreck became known as the “el Dorado of the seas” due to the enormous value of its cargo, and over the years numerous treasure hunters have searched fruitlessly for its final resting place, which remains undiscovered. In 2019 fishermen snagged what is thought to be the anchor from the Merchant Royal, but to date the dangerous conditions and extreme depths at which the wreck is thought to lie have meant it has remained unclaimed.

  1. Attack of the Sea Foam

In December 2011, residents of Cleveleys, England, awoke to what appeared to be a soft blanket of snow. But as locals ventured out into the streets it soon became clear that this was no snowstorm, but instead something far more puzzling. Trees, cars, roads, and houses were all wrapped in a thick, white layer of foam. The Environment Agency were quickly deployed to take samples of the sea foam, since residents were understandably concerned as to the origin of the strange, gloopy substance, fearing it might be caused by pollutants.

The dramatic images of the foam-soaked town soon had journalists flocking to the region to investigate the phenomena, but as quickly as it appeared the foam disappeared, leaving behind only a salty residue. Scientists analyzing the foam confirmed it was not caused by detergents, and instead suspected that it was caused by a rare combination of decomposing algae out at sea and strong winds, which whipped up the viscous foam and blew it into land. The phenomena has apparently occurred at other times before and since, and researchers are now working to try and understand the exceptional conditions that cause it to form so that residents can be warned when another thick blanket is set to descend.

Bonus: The Bloop—Mystery Solved

Over the years, the oceans have produced a number of eerie and often unexplained sounds. In 1997, researchers from NOAA listening for underwater volcanic activity using hydrophones (underwater microphones) noticed an extremely loud, powerful series of noises in the Pacific Ocean. The unusual din excited researchers, who soon named it “The Bloop” in reference to its unique sound.

Theories abounded as to the origin of the bloop—secret military facility, reverberations from a ship’s engine, or an enormous sea creature. The most fanciful suggestion stem from H. P. Lovecraft fans who noticed that the noise came from an area off South America where the sci-fi writer’s fictional sunken city of R’lyeh was supposed to be. They proposed that the bloop might have originated from Lovecraft’s “dead but dreaming” sea creature, Cthulhu. In 2005, however, scientists found that the mysterious sound was in fact the noise made by an icequake—or an iceberg shearing off from a glacier.

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