In 1956, a solid decade into the Cold War, and 45 long years since Hiram Bingham first emerged from the jungle to gaze at Machu Picchu, two oceanographers working off the coast of Mexico discovered the lost city of Atlantis. It was not where anyone expected it to be, obviously, but then again, lost things rarely are. They were investigating a new tidal pattern that suggested recent volcanic activity when their boat, the Papillon, very nearly ran aground on a sandbank 12 nautical miles out to sea. Depth sounder technology was less advanced then than it is now, but they could have seen this coming just by looking over the side of the boat, had they been on deck. One of the other two crew members called out and pulled them hard over. The landmass rose abruptly from the sea bed and loomed up to a couple of feet below the surface; some kind of submerged atoll, or perhaps island, not on any of the charts. As they bobbed about on the swell they could see a huge stretch of shallow water in the distance, covered by flocking and wheeling birds. They were filled with excitement. Chuck Clinton wanted to circumnavigate it, measuring and mapping until they had an idea of its shape. Joe Mulcahy voted to take the dinghy out right into the middle. They tossed a coin and Joe won. They left the crew on board; they would only be a couple of hours.
It was a warm, brooding, day with grey-blue clouds piled up on the horizon. The deep water was dark, dark, blue but over the sandbank it turned into green glass. As they approached the birds, they cut the motor and took out oars. It was so shallow and so clear that they could see the white sand underneath. Shoals of fish passed beneath them. There was no coral. Eventually, even the dinghy ran aground. They eased themselves into the water, which was warm, and continued wading, on their personal beach under a tropical sky surrounded by deep blue ocean, into the heart of something.
Afterwards, they would tell people that it took them a day’s journey, and that it was evening before they stood on top of the hill overlooking the lost city. In truth, they had been walking along a sandy ridge all this time, not realising there would be a valley on the other side. When the water became deep again, they donned their cumbersome glass masks and launched out into it, gazing below as they swam. What they saw, no human eye had witnessed in a thousand years. Wide streets and flat roofs, elegant columns, an acropolis, a parthenon, ghostly white marble statues with floating robes atop white plinths. The late sun reached its fingers down and touched bright mosaics, broken shards of glass. They rested briefly on the face of a marble child, gazing up at the mother who held it forever in her pale arms. Joe and Chuck hovered over the city like birds, finally perching on the tallest building, waist deep in ocean while their feet touched tiles. They could barely speak. They wanted to take something, to show where they had been, but the tiles were so perfect, the mosaics so new. It would have felt like vandalism. In the end, they swam back with nothing in their pockets but wonder.
The crew were anxious and fretful when they returned. It was nearly nightfall and the storm that had been brewing all day was threatening to unleash itself in the dark. They had called and sounded the foghorn and even considered setting off a flare, but the men had not responded. They had been considering a search party when the dinghy came into view, and Chuck and Joe finally appeared, soaked, exhausted and on fire with what they had seen. There was no time for it. As they raved, the crew pulled up anchor and set sail hurredly for home, racing the storm as it bore down on them all the way to the harbour. By the time they reached home, it was too late for talk. They went to their beds.
The next day, the weather prevented them from sailing. The storms lasted a week, during which Joe and Chuck wrote down in meticulous detail everything they had seen, the co-ordinates, the depth measurements they had taken, and a rough layout of the city. They realised that was the greatest discovery of their lives, perhaps of their generation, and they debated who they should tell first. The president? The archaeological society? The CIA? In the end, they put a call through to the US embassy in Mexico and arranged a visit. They arrived in suits, painfully aware of both the significance of their news and of the lack of evidence they had to show.
The ambassador sat at his desk and touched his fingertips together, carefully, as he avoided eye contact. He seemed to be deciding what to say. After a long minute, he came to a conclusion.
‘I wouldn’t go out there again.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘You understand that I am about to share classified information with you?’
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
‘Our military has an interest in some … testing that will occur in and around that patch of the sea. It will not be safe for civilians to approach.’
‘But they can’t! This is a significant find! It’s of interest to the whole of humanity! We have to get a message to them. Are you saying they’re gonna blow it up?’
‘Not at all. I am just advising – directing – you to stay clear. I’m afraid I can’t say any more. You must understand.’
It was a decade into the Cold War. They understood.
They waited five years and tried again, then another year, then two more. For thirty years, Chuck and Joe tried to go back. Some years they couldn’t get the funding. Once it was visa problems. A couple of times, storms saw them off, and more often than they cared to admit, they got out to sea and just plain old couldn’t find it. They never gave up, and they never saw it again.
At the bottom of the seabed, somewhere off the coast of Mexico, lies the lost city of Atlantis. It rose for a while and then sank again. Its columns still loom white in the murky water. Fish camouflage themselves amongst its mosaics. Its palaces are decorated now by shells. Sometimes, when the sun is at its height, a thin sliver of light penetrates into the blue depths and rests on the head of a marble child.