Recreational divers aren’t allowed to explore the Japanese submarine I-124, resting on the seafloor 150 feet below the Indian Ocean’s surface in waters northwest of Darwin, Australia. Designated a war grave, the wreck is off-limits.
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Now maritime enthusiasts, history buffs, and the just plain curious can get a good look anyway — thanks to virtual reality technology. Anticipating the 80th anniversary of the sinking of I-124 in January 2022, the government of Australia’s Northern Territory and the Australian Institute of Marine Science in October 2021 mapped the wreck using sophisticated remote sonar sensing equipment.
Maritime archeologist John McCarthy of Australia’s Flinders University in Adelaide was then commissioned to create a virtual dive experience. The resulting video, available in English and Japanese language versions on YouTube — search “I-124” — “takes you down into the deep, to experience the wreck firsthand,” McCarthy said. The crisp high-resolution graphics reveal intricate details as the virtual camera skims over and around the sub on the ocean floor. If you watch on your computer, you can click and drag your mouse to rotate the view and look around — though the video is best viewed with a VR headset.
Launched in 1927 and based on the design of a World War I German U-boat, I-124 was laying mines and raiding Allied shipping off Darwin in early 1942. After Allied codebreakers intercepted the sub’s radio transmissions back to Japan, Australian and American warships and planes hunted it down and sank it with depth charges and bombs on January 20, 1942. The entire crew of 80 was lost. After the war, the Japanese convinced Australian authorities to declare the site a war grave.
The submarine’s resting place has not always been peaceful. In 1977, a frustrated salvager detonated explosives and damaged the conning tower in a bizarre and unsuccessful effort to pressure the Japanese government into letting him recover scrap metal and mercury from the wreck.