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Searching for the Missing Malaysian Jet at the Ends of the Earth

The surface of the moon is more familiar than the floor of the Indian Ocean.

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The southern Indian Ocean is shown in this image taken by a Royal New Zealand Air Force plane searching for the missing jet on March 22, 2014.

Jim Gibson, who runs one of the world's largest salvage companies, sent an autonomous underwater vehicle and a crew of nine to Australia last week, ready to hunt for the black boxes once debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is identified.

His company, Phoenix International, based in Largo, Maryland, has assisted in more than 50 aircraft recoveries, including the search for Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic in 2009, and the space shuttle Columbia, which broke up over Texas in 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board.

But none of his team, as far as he knows, has ever been to the patch of the Indian Ocean where the search is under way.

Why would they? There's nothing there, say those who have traversed it. No shipping lanes, no fishing grounds, not even any land to speak of, except for a handful of craggy islands claimed by France in the 1840s that remain uninhabited today. Beneath the surface, the ocean floor lies between 6,500 and 13,000 feet (1,980 and 3,963 meters) deep, with largely unexplored trenches, canyons, and volcanic ridges.

"We probably know more about the surface of the moon than we do the area we're going to be operating in," he says. "You're really out there in an area of the world that's not very forgiving."

Heavy Seas, Howling Wind

The isolation of the sea that swallowed up the Boeing 777 is only the first in a list of challenges confronting those trying  to solve the riddle of its disappearance. Distances are daunting. Search planes operating out of Perth, capital of the state of Western Australia, must fly up to four hours to reach the zone. Combined with the four-hour return trip, that leaves only two hours to scan the waters for objects obscured by swells and whitecaps. In fact, if the region is known for anything, it is for a continuous howling wind.

"You are halfway between Africa and Australia, ten days from Perth and ten days from South Africa," says Matt Jolly, master of the Braveheart, a 120-foot ship that transports tourists and the occasional British diplomat to Pitcairn Island, famous as.the South Pacific home to descendants of the H.M.S. Bounty's mutineers. "The farther south you get, you start getting into some relentlessly heavy seas."

Flight 370 disappeared on March 8, about 40 minutes after departing Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing. The plane turned abruptly away from its northeasterly route, flying west and then south toward Antarctica. No one knows why. The only conclusion, announced on March 24, was that the jetliner ran out of fuel and crashed into the empty vastness of the southern Indian Ocean, killing all 239 passengers and crew on board.

The search zone is immense. For 11 days, it was centered roughly 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) west of Perth, a two- to three-day trip by ship. As the search progressed, the zone edged south toward the latitudes named by 18th-century sailors for their ever-increasingly foul weather: the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and, finally, just above Antarctica, the Screaming Sixties.

Predictably, bad weather and rough seas hampered efforts to find hundreds of objects of various sizes that have been spotted by satellites from China, France, Thailand, Japan, and the Colorado-based firm DigitalGlobe, which passed images it had captured onto the Australians.

New Search Zone

On Friday, after new models of the jetliner's possible speed and fuel burn were calculated, the search zone shifted about 700 miles (1,126 kilometers) north. The new estimates reflect the possibility that the plane burned more fuel, meaning it may not have flown as far south as originally thought before crashing, according to authorities at the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which detailed the shift. The new zone is smaller, about the size of New Mexico, and closer to Australia, reducing travel time and allowing for longer search times. The weather has also cleared.

On Saturday, eight aircraft joined six ships to search about 97,300 square miles (252,006 square kilometers) in the new search zone. A Chinese search plane spotted three objects of various colors in the new search area, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

The Braveheart spent January and February transiting this area, as Jolly took clients between Perth and Durban on South Africa's east coast.

"If you're up high, it's not difficult to navigate," he says. "Sailors used to hook around Africa and head east with the easterly flying airstream. It's very well known, and it's been used for years and years."

Still, winter is closing in. And with it will come bad weather and rough seas.

Phoenix International, a contractor to the U.S. Navy, also sent a Towed Pinger Locator to Perth, which will be used in the hunt for the jetliner's black boxes. The pinger locator can detect the black boxes as deep as 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) beneath the surface, Gibson says.

Salvage Operations in a "God-Awful Place"

Finding the debris, which will lead to the wreckage and in turn lead to the black boxes, doesn't mean the chore will get any easier. Salvage operations to retrieve crucial parts of the wreckage could take months. If the wreckage lies deeper than 20,000 feet—and there are canyons that deep in the area—specialized submersibles known as ROVs will have to be deployed to roam the ocean floor searching for plane parts.

"There could be lots of rocks and ledges and any number of things that add a whole new dimension," Gibson says. "And with the equipment we're using, you also have to get it from the deck of the ship into the water. In heavy weather, that can be extremely difficult work."

That also assumes the search will progress that far.

Walter Munk, a world-renowned oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, knows firsthand what the search teams are up against. He is one of the few scientists who has worked in the region.

In January 1991, Munk, now 96, visited Heard Island, a mount of volcanic rock about 2,500 miles (4,023 kilometers) west of Australia, to measure the effect of climate change by calculating changes in ocean temperatures as a function of acoustic travel times across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

Ten days into a month-long mission, a ferocious storm moved in. All of the equipment was destroyed.

"It is a terrible problem to search in that area," he says. "It's a god-awful place."