A U.S. Navy team tasked with recovering the voyage data recorder of the missing cargo ship El Faro arrived to the 100-square-mile search zone late Friday and has begun searching, according to Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Chris Johnson.
Only a week remains before VDR batteries may die.
Johnson told CNN that the team is employing some of the same high-tech equipment that was used to search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
The Jacksonville, Florida, based El Faro disappeared near the Bahamas with 33 people, including 28 Americans, on board on October 1.
Locating the container ship’s VDR — sometimes referred to as a “black box” — is key, since it could offer clues to the crew’s decision-making leading up to its encounter with Hurricane Joaquin, and perhaps reveal how and why it sank.
Until the batteries run out, or until they find it, Johnson said the search team will use an instrument called a hydrophone that’s designed to detect the recorder’s pulsating sound.
It’s the same hydrophone searchers used to scour a large swath of the Indian Ocean in 2014 looking for MH370’s black box.
But whereas that search area was massive — equivalent to the size of New Mexico — the search area for El Faro is only a fraction of that size — about half the size of Lake Tahoe.
It’s one of the reasons why Johnson is feeling confident about their chances this time around.
“If we get out there and can’t find the (VDR), we have other options, and those options might be better anyway,” he said.
One of those options is a sonar vehicle called Orion that is towed underwater as it sends back real-time data. Johnson said the team will move on to the Orion if “they determine they are likely not going to locate the signal.”
The other is the remotely operated vehicle called CURV 21 that Johnson said is loaded with “a suite of video equipment.”
Tote Services, the company that owns the 40-year-old El Faro, confirmed Thursday that the large pieces of debris that washed ashore in the Bahamas in recent days came from the ship — an encouraging sign that they’re in the right area.