Feb 19, 2021

Red Herring

It was the early 80s, the height of the Cold War, when something strange began happening off the coast of Sweden. The navy reported a mysterious sound deep below the surface of the ocean. Again, and again, and again they would hear it near their secret military bases, in their harbors, and up and down the Swedish coastline. 

After thorough analysis the navy was certain. The sound was an invasion into their waters, an act of war, the opening salvos of a possible nuclear annihilation. 

Or was it? 

Today, Annie McEwen pulls us down into a deep-sea mystery, one of international intrigue that asks you to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, your deepest beliefs could be as solid as...air.

This episode was reported by Annie McEwen and produced by Annie McEwen, Matt Kielty, and Sarah Qari, with sound design by Jeremy Bloom. 

Special thanks to Bosse Lindquist.

Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.   

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Listener-supported WNYC Studios.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOLAB INTRO)

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LULU MILLER: Hello. I'm Lulu Miller. This is RADIOLAB. And today...

Boom, boom.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, hello.

LULU MILLER: Hi.

...A story from producer Annie McEwen...

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER DRIPPING)

LULU MILLER: ...From her bathroom.

ANNIE MCEWEN: I'm actually, like, straddling the bathtub here, so...

LULU MILLER: (Laughter) Perfect.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Good thing I did yoga last night.

LULU MILLER: I do think our thing is, like, underwater mysteries from the '90s.

ANNIE MCEWEN: (Laughter) Yes. OK, so today I have a story. It's like a Tom Clancy international underwater spy thriller with a little spicy science thrown in.

LULU MILLER: All right. I am grabbing my popcorn. Take me away.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yeah. OK, let's begin with...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, OK.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Thank you, Magnus.

Magnus.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Not a problem. Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: How do you pronounce your last name?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It depends on where you come from. So most Americans would say Val-berg (ph) or Wal-berg (ph) or something like that. Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: What do you say?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Well, that also depends. In Sweden, it's Val-bery (ph).

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, wow.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: But in Denmark, it becomes a bit more like Vale-bough (ph) or something.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wow.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: OK. Anyway, Magnus is an associate professor...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: At the University of Southern Denmark.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Where he studies underwater sound.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So let's start off in 1981.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yes.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Well, let's go back to that time.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah. So that's a defining year.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Just how old were you then?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, so I was 13 years old.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Thirteen.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And I was living in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden.

ANNIE MCEWEN: OK.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And it was an extremely tense period.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Because in Stockholm...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: You know, we have the Baltic Sea right in front of us.

ANNIE MCEWEN: There was only about 140 miles of water separating Sweden from...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: The Soviet Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNIE MCEWEN: And Magnus said to him and a lot of other Swedes, there was just this fear of what was on the other side of the water.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: I remember this still in the school. You know, you had a map. You could see all the details of the Western Europe.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Small towns, all these roads, the colors of different countries.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And then across the Baltic, it was just white. There was just nothing. And that was Soviet Union. We didn't really know even what was there.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Just this mysterious nothingness.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, and not very far away.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Now, Magnus says it's important to know...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: That Sweden has this kind of island politically because Sweden was neutral.

ANNIE MCEWEN: But because of a lot of this mystery, a fear of communism, there was always the sense that one of their greatest threats was the Soviet Union.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: We heard about it all the time. We were even practicing a little bit in school. And we were really living in a time when we were worrying about a nuclear war almost daily.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So 1981, the defining year - it's late October.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Sort of when it gets really dark here, you know, and cold and damp.

ANNIE MCEWEN: It's about 4 in the morning, pitch black.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOGHORN BLOWING)

ANNIE MCEWEN: A fisherman leaves his home, gets in his boat and heads off to check his nets. Sweden has this, like, super-long coastline that's filled with these really complex inlets.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Full of islands. There are rocks - like, granite islands everywhere.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And just as the sun is starting to come up, this fisherman makes his way into one of these rocky inlets. And all of a sudden, out of the darkness, looming up out of the water right in front of them...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: There is this big Russian sub standing there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNIE MCEWEN: It's huge. It's like this long, almost bullet - dark bullet in the water, and it is, like, towering out of the sea, just sitting there.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It's insane.

ANNIE MCEWEN: What was it doing there?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Exactly. What was it doing there? So...

ANNIE MCEWEN: The fisherman called the navy.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And we all woke up to the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Speaking Swedish).

ANNIE MCEWEN: Soviet submarine beached on Sweden's shores.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Speaking Swedish).

ANNIE MCEWEN: It's a huge story. Like, all the papers write about it.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And everyone is like, what on Earth is going on?

ANNIE MCEWEN: So the military comes down with their helicopters circling overhead, many, many boats.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: But at this time, Sweden was - people would also say we were incredibly naive because we didn't have any wars for, you know - the last war was, like...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, you're soft.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It was like - yeah, it was, like, Napoleon Wars. We didn't really - weren't involved in anything.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So Magnus said the military sent some guys out to the submarine.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And, you know, we kind of knocked on the door of the sub and said...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wait. They knocked on the side of the sub.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah. I don't know if they knocked. But, you know, they kind of asked kindly, can we come in and have a look? And they said, no, no, of course not.

ANNIE MCEWEN: OK.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: You know, and then they said, oh, OK, sorry about that. But some - there were some clever physicists. They parked a small boat beside of the sub, and through some clever measurements, they could measure that there were nuclear, you know, weapons inside.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, scary.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: You know, we have these defining moments for a nation. In the states, you have, like, the Kennedy murder, the 9/11.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yeah.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And, you know, and this is one of those for Swedes. And people started immediately to say, hey; this is war. Like, we are in war. And eventually because, again, maybe we were too soft...

ANNIE MCEWEN: What happened is that the commander of the Soviet sub told the Swedish military that all of their navigation instruments on board had malfunctioned all at once.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Sort of sorry, we navigated wrongly.

ANNIE MCEWEN: You know, we lost our way. We ran ashore. Like, we made a mistake.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So the Swedish military sent a bunch of ships out to the sub, pulled it off the bottom. And they, you know, returned it to international waters, and it left.

LULU MILLER: OK.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And for a 13-year-old Magnus...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It was super weird because you could see that adults and the politicians, everyone were completely - how to say - like, taken with their pants down, right?

ANNIE MCEWEN: (Laughter).

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It was like, what? Like, no one could, of course, explain this. So the Navy, of course, they got a lot of money, so they became more vigilant. They had to now start to see if they could, you know - could they protect the Swedish coasts?

ANNIE MCEWEN: And, you know...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It's not an easy thing to do.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...It's a huge coastline, over a thousand miles. So how do you, like, patrol that?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: An obvious way to do that is with sound.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Forget ships and sonar.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Sounds propagate very well on the water.

ANNIE MCEWEN: We're just going to listen for the subs.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Does that mean they, like - they hung hydrophones on buoys out in the water...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...All along the coast? Like, just a whole bunch of them?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah. Some - yeah, well, not everywhere, of course. But it started to listen into this more carefully after this - all the politicians promised us that now we have bought all these gears, and now we are ready to tackle this problem and, you know, no problem. And, you know, then we went into sleep again. And then in October '82, we had the next wake-up call.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNIE MCEWEN: This time in this big harbor...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Very close to Stockholm.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Right outside of a Swedish naval base.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: People started to see periscopes.

ANNIE MCEWEN: One after another after another after another popping up out of the water. And the Swedish military was like...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: We have detected them, and we have them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNIE MCEWEN: So this time, the Swedes send in a bunch of ships.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: With nets.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CHAINS RATTLING)

ANNIE MCEWEN: These big metal nets that they use to block the exits of the harbor, so there's no way a big sailboat can get out. And then they send in a bunch of helicopters that have hydrophones, and they dip those hydrophones...

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BUBBLING)

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Into the water. And they start listening for submarines. And before long, one of those hydrophones would pick up the unmistakable sound of a Soviet sub.

LULU MILLER: And what does that sound like?

ANNIE MCEWEN: I'm going to get to that. But what happened is when the Swedes heard this sound, they would drop a bomb from the helicopter that would hit the water, sink down to a predetermined depth. And then (imitating explosion).

LULU MILLER: (Laughter).

ANNIE MCEWEN: Big explosion.

LULU MILLER: OK.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And the helicopters and the ships, they would just wait to see if the explosion would, like - would damage or scare one of these Soviet subs up to the surface. And so they waited and waited - and nothing. No Soviet sub emerged, not even a piece of one. And the Swedish military kept this up for a month, chasing down subs they hear, dropping bombs. And by the end of the month, nothing comes of it. They don't capture a single submarine.

LULU MILLER: What?

ANNIE MCEWEN: I know. Isn't that crazy? (Laughter).

LULU MILLER: Did they just - did they somehow get out of the barricade?

ANNIE MCEWEN: They don't know. They don't know. I mean, I guess, they could even be down there today. They could have hurt the sub. The sub fell. The sub, you know, filled with water. Like, they could be down at the bottom of the harbor. I guess these are just - this is just a huge harbor, and they just couldn't really find any evidence of any Soviet sub.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, it just ended in nothing. And then it - things started to get more and more bizarre. So through the 1980s, every half a year, every year, we would have these submarine chases. All of a sudden somewhere on the coast, the military would give an alarm - oh, there is a sub. And then you would have these helicopters, bombs - nothing.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Really?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And then six months would pass. Once, it was right outside the Royal Castle in Stockholm.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So were people getting, like, annoyed? Like, come on, crying wolf a little bit.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Or are people still very afraid?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah. I think, you know, the Cold War is still going on.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Magnus said there was just this fear.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: The bear is coming. The - you know, the Russian bear is coming. We just have to spend more money to find him.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Were they still seeing periscopes?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah. So that's the thing. What do they see...

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...The whole of the '80s? Or what were they hearing and seeing?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: So they started to ask people, if anyone sees something, you should report it. Call this number. Call the Swedish military.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And they got tons of calls.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Many thousands of observations. But then, the problem is, it's just like in - on a crime scene. If you ask people to say what they saw, it's a long structure sticking up from the water. So is that a periscope, or is it a boat? Could be a small whale. It could be a sub. But who knows?

ANNIE MCEWEN: So what the Swedish military did is they came up with this ranking system for observations. On one end, you had rank six.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Six says, you - we cannot tell. No one knows (laughter).

ANNIE MCEWEN: Could be anything.

LULU MILLER: OK.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And then you have, like, rank one is a definite sub.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Definitely a sub.

LULU MILLER: OK.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Now, the thing is, for a rank one, definitely a Soviet sub, pretty much every time in the report it said...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: We heard a typical sound.

ANNIE MCEWEN: The typical sound?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: We heard a typical sound.

LULU MILLER: What is a typical sound?

ANNIE MCEWEN: So when the - so the typical sound is basically when - like, when the Swedes were sure that they were encountering a Soviet sub, those hydrophones in the water would always pick up this particular sound. It was called the typical sound because it was believed to be the sound that, you know, just, like, a typical Soviet sub would make. And so anytime the Swedish military encountered that sound...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It was automatically given a one.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...It meant that encounter was 100% a sub. And the...

LULU MILLER: And do we...

ANNIE MCEWEN: I'm sorry. Go.

LULU MILLER: And do we know what that sounds like?

ANNIE MCEWEN: Well, not yet because it's classified.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah. No one could listen to the sound, and no one could know what it was.

ANNIE MCEWEN: But all the hydrophones were picking up this sound.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: They were picking up the typical sound.

ANNIE MCEWEN: For years...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...The Swedish military kept hearing this secret Soviet sub sound in their waters.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: So then the strange thing happens, right? In 1989...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN SOUNDING)

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...Everything is changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER JENNINGS: Thousands and thousands of West Germans come to make the point that the wall has suddenly become irrelevant.

ANNIE MCEWEN: The Iron Curtain falls, the Berlin Wall falls.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: You know, everything opened up. And all of a sudden, over one night, basically, the world changed for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Changes were just sweeping across this continent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It's something unreal for me.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: All these places that had been almost impossible to go to were all open.

ANNIE MCEWEN: It's as if that white blank space on the map was starting to actually get some color and shapes and names. But while all of this is going on, something very weird is happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNIE MCEWEN: Because the Swedish military is continuing to report hearing the sounds of Russian submarines invading their waters.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Twenty, 30 incidents every year.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And Magnus said, by 1994...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: At that time, we had the prime minister, Carl Bildt. And he got so upset about this, he wrote a very angry letter to Boris Yeltsin saying, now you really have to stop. Now you have created your own country, and the first thing you do is to try to occupy Sweden.

ANNIE MCEWEN: We're sick of this.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Stop.

ANNIE MCEWEN: But Boris Yeltsin's like, I don't know what you're talking about.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeltsin said, well, we are, of course, not there. We don't - you can see; all of our subs are on land. What are you talking about? You're crazy.

ANNIE MCEWEN: He denies everything. So as this whole mystery is unfolding, Magnus is watching from the sidelines. And by 1996...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: You know, by that time, I was a university student.

ANNIE MCEWEN: He's studying underwater biological sounds.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And I got a job in the fishery department because my mentor - he was sort of - he was called Hakan Westerberg. He still is. He's still around.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: Yeah, let's hope so.

ANNIE MCEWEN: That's Hakan.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: Retired oceanographer and fisheries biologist. I started with telemetry, acoustic tracking in the '70s.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And he was one of the few in Sweden who really was an authority on underwater biological sounds.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And one day, Magnus is standing in Hakan's office...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: I was quite fresh on my job.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...When the phone on Hakan's desk rings.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: He was not there, so - and I just took his phone. And they...

ANNIE MCEWEN: You just answered the phone on his desk?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But we had a very collegial relationship.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And on the other end of the line...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...It's the Royal Swedish Navy calling.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: They said they wanted to talk to my boss, of course. But then because he wasn't there, they started to talk to me. And they said, well, they are forming this committee...

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...This top-secret government investigation.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And they would like me and my boss to be part of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNIE MCEWEN: So they say yes. There's a background check.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, I'm cleared by the secret police.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: They were very secretive.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And then he and Hakan are on a train to Stockholm...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUMPETS TRUMPETING)

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...To this huge naval base. It's just like in a James Bond movie. You have a whole submarine base inside the rocks.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wait. What?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: You can sort of open the rocks, and you go in there with your boats.

ANNIE MCEWEN: What?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And you can have huge...

ANNIE MCEWEN: How do you open the rock?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...Boats inside. Yeah, I don't know. You have some big, you know...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Rock door?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...Locks or something like that. Yeah. Yeah, something like that.

ANNIE MCEWEN: What?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: So we went in there and, you know...

ANNIE MCEWEN: So Magnus and Hakan, who are not totally sure why they're there, are winding their way through this military base.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Long tunnels...

HAKAN WESTERBERG: Two Navy captains were our liaisons.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And eventually...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: You come into this meeting room with all these electronic, you know, gadgets...

HAKAN WESTERBERG: ...A lot of recording equipment.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: You have a world map, and they can follow the whole world from in there.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Kind of like mission control at NASA.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It was super exciting.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Finally, they take their seats at a long table. And sitting there around the table are a bunch of other academic types like them.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: But there are also some very high-rank military people. So it was really, like, a wow moment for me. And we were sitting down there, and then they said, well, ladies and gentlemen, you are the first civil people who will listen to the sound.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: The typical sound. This famous sound.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: So now we will actually play the typical sound for you.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So it's been top secret for the last...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, 15 years.

ANNIE MCEWEN: For 15 years.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah. No one has been - no one outside the military was able or allowed to listen to it.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wow. So were you excited?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Extremely, of course. This was like, wow.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Now, what Magnus said he expected to hear was something like...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Bing (ph), bing...

ANNIE MCEWEN: You know, what he'd heard in the movies.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: You know, these movies where they're sitting around a sub.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, yeah.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: So I was thinking, it must be something like that, right?

ANNIE MCEWEN: But then one of the Navy officers turns to a tape recorder and hits play.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPICAL SOUND)

ANNIE MCEWEN: And this is what comes out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPICAL SOUND)

LULU MILLER: Huh. God, is it - are they picking up voices, or, like, radio static? So that's always what it sounds like?

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yeah. This is the sound they've been recording every year since that first sub showed up.

LULU MILLER: It's intriguing.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It sounds a bit like a few Donald Ducks at a very long distance.

ANNIE MCEWEN: What? What do you mean?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Well, you know, like, Donald Duck, this kind of - his voice. If you imagine you had, like, 10 Donald Ducks and they would be...

ANNIE MCEWEN: (Laughter).

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...Maybe, like, 100 meters away or so, I think it would be something like that. And it also sounds a bit like an old shoe that kind of gets like (imitating squeaking).

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, yeah. OK.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It has this kind of squeaky...

ANNIE MCEWEN: (Laughter).

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...Part to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPICAL SOUND)

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And then we are sitting there with all these generals. And they are playing this sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNIE MCEWEN: Did you look around the room at the table of scientists...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...And military people, and you guys...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Well, everyone is sitting there. And, you know, all these professors, they were kind of stiff upper lip. So they were just sitting there and listening kind of carefully. But my boss, he's more like - he's a very relaxed guy, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAKAN WESTERBERG: I think we looked at each other with a very confused gaze.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: But we were kind of keeping a stiff face also.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Cool, cool - got to play it cool. Yeah.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So after they played the sound, the naval officers turned to the scientists and say basically, OK, now that you've heard the typical sound, we'd like each of you to try to figure out who or what is making it.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: To get to the bottom of what this typical sound was about.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And even in that moment sitting at the table, Hakan and Magnus turned to each other. And they don't say anything, but they're both thinking....

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: What - this is very strange. This is definitely not the sub.

LULU MILLER: Dun dun dun. After the break, Magnus and Hakan follow their intuition deep into a cloud of mystery. And they get to the bottom of it. Oh, they get right up close to the bottom of the mystery. RADIOLAB will be back in just a second. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LULU MILLER: RADIOLAB - Lulu - Annie - military crises trying to be averted by biologists.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So after the meeting, Magnus and Hakan are standing outside...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Just standing there, having a cigarette.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Talking about the sound.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It sounds a bit like a popping sounds.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: The sound when you fry bacon.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And both of them thought...

HAKAN WESTERBERG: ...That these must be a biological sound.

ANNIE MCEWEN: But what?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And then I remember saying to Hakan, air bubbles.

ANNIE MCEWEN: This sounds like air bubbles.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: If you think of a scuba diver who gets a hole pinched in his...

ANNIE MCEWEN: His pipes?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...One of his pipes - God forbid...

ANNIE MCEWEN: (Laughter).

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...Like an air bubble stream coming out of a hose. It sounds a bit like that.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So their question is, like, which animal releases air under the water?

HAKAN WESTERBERG: And we had kind of this hunch.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Now, incredibly, you can actually find this hunch in New York City, but it helps to have a car...

MATT KIELTY: Oh, my.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Hello.

...And a friend. So I called up producer Matt Kielty, who's a friend with a car.

MATT KIELTY: You have a bucket.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yeah.

And I also brought a large bucket.

MATT KIELTY: What a ridiculous bucket.

ANNIE MCEWEN: OK, so...

MATT KIELTY: OK.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...I only told Matt we were driving to the Hudson River. That was it.

MATT KIELTY: OK, so we're taking the bridge.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

We drove through Brooklyn, over the Manhattan Bridge...

MATT KIELTY: OK, so now that we've...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wait, is there a - is this the cup holder?

MATT KIELTY: It's my one cup holder.

ANNIE MCEWEN: OK. Well, I need...

...Drove up Manhattan, up to the riverfront...

MATT KIELTY: We can sneak...

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...And look for parking...

No, there's a fire hydrant right there.

...For a while.

MATT KIELTY: I wonder if I could park...

ANNIE MCEWEN: A long while.

[Expletive]. It's a red light.

MATT KIELTY: How many fire hydrants do you need on one block?

ANNIE MCEWEN: Matt, it's a red light.

MATT KIELTY: Oh, my God, that's a spot.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Get on Riverside.

MATT KIELTY: We're on Riverside Drive.

ANNIE MCEWEN: OK, let's go up it.

MATT KIELTY: We'll just park here.

ANNIE MCEWEN: It says no parking any time. This is not going to work.

MATT KIELTY: Well, how long are we going to be here?

ANNIE MCEWEN: I don't know. We need to wander around a bit.

MATT KIELTY: I don't even know what we're doing.

ANNIE MCEWEN: We need (laughter)...

MATT KIELTY: I'm looking for parking.

LULU MILLER: OK. What are you (laughter) - can you just...

ANNIE MCEWEN: (Laughter).

LULU MILLER: What are you looking for? What was the hunch?

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yes. OK, OK. So we got down to, like, the rocky shoreline of the Hudson River...

There is a piece of a dead fish.

MATT KIELTY: That might be a whole fish.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Where we found it.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Herring.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: Herring.

ANNIE MCEWEN: A herring fish.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: I think that evening, we were like, let's try herring.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, my gosh. Can we get down?

So for reasons that will become clear very soon, I tried to buy herring, but you can't buy fresh herring in New York City in December. And so I dragged Matt out to the Hudson River because I had read in an article that herring fish have been washing up dead on the shores of the Hudson and nobody really knows why. It could be pollution. It could be water temperature. But still unclear (laughter) exactly why that happened, but...

LULU MILLER: And you know what you're looking for? Like, what exactly does a herring look like?

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, OK. Yeah. So...

How am I going to pick it up? That is the question.

I picked up this dead one we found.

I guess I'll just put my hands around it. Oh.

And...

Very slippery.

Whoa.

...Herring are...

Very big.

...I don't know, maybe 10 inches...

A big dead fish.

...Shiny.

Wow.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: They are the silver of the oceans 'cause there are all these reflections from their scales.

ANNIE MCEWEN: They just kind of look like - it's like if a kid drew a fish, it would be this fish.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: But the really important thing about a herring, the whole reason why Magnus and Hakan had this hunch, is because of what is going on inside of a herring.

Now, Lulu I know you've written a whole book about why fish should not be called fish. But have you ever wondered, how does a fish just float around in the water?

LULU MILLER: I don't think I have actually wondered that.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Let me go ahead and tell you. So it turns out in most fish, they have this thing called...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: The swim bladder...

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: The swim bladder...

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...The swim bladder, which is basically this tiny sac...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Filled with gas...

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: ...That regulates the fish's buoyancy.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: ...Similar to the buoyancy tank of a submarine.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So if you're a fish and you want to go up or down in the water column, you do this by either pulling air into your swim bladder sac or pushing it out. And most fish do this through their bloodstream and their gills, which means it's quiet, silent, like, basically invisible. But not the herring - the herring is different.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, the herring is special because they have a canal straight from the swim bladder to the anal opening.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So when a herring needs to get air out of its swim bladder, it basically pushes it through this canal, out its butt, into the water. And Magnus says when this happens...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: You will have this sort of small string of air bubbles.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Which, he had a hunch, might just sound like bubbles coming out of a hose underwater.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

LULU MILLER: So he - his guess is, like, this submarine sound is actually just bubbles that come out their butt.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Uh-huh.

LULU MILLER: So his guess is fish farts.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yeah.

LULU MILLER: OK.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Technically, these are not farts because they do not come from, like, digestive gases.

LULU MILLER: OK.

ANNIE MCEWEN: But...

LULU MILLER: This makes me feel better. I feel like I can continue to engage with this story without feeling so gross.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, are you, like, anti-fart or something?

LULU MILLER: I'm just very grossed out by them, yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: What?

LULU MILLER: Like, I just - are you not?

ANNIE MCEWEN: No. Well - I mean, no.

LULU MILLER: How are you...

ANNIE MCEWEN: What? Why are you?

LULU MILLER: It's like, even saying the word makes me, like...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Fart.

LULU MILLER: I'm like, I don't want to be in this space even linguistically, let alone aromatically.

ANNIE MCEWEN: My God, this is like - wow, that's so interesting. I would never...

LULU MILLER: How are you not?

ANNIE MCEWEN: Because they're the funniest thing in the world, because they're a thing we all do - if we can't, that's upsetting. They make you feel better immediately.

LULU MILLER: (Laughter).

ANNIE MCEWEN: Like, even animals, like, find them funny kind of. I don't know. They're just - they're wonderful. They connect us all.

LULU MILLER: They make you feel better immediately. They connect us all. OK. I (laughter) - your - I just appreciate the meaning you draw while also being simultaneously relieved these are not actual farts. Carry on.

ANNIE MCEWEN: OK. So Hakan and Magnus, they now had their, like, fish fart theory. But now they needed to figure out, did the fish fart actually sound like the submarine sound?

HAKAN WESTERBERG: And we approached that rather crudely.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Basically, Magnus went to a fish shop...

HAKAN WESTERBERG: Bought a couple of herrings.

ANNIE MCEWEN: That were dead...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Went to the lab...

HAKAN WESTERBERG: ...Rigged up the hydrophone.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: OK.

ANNIE MCEWEN: You hold him.

And then Magnus took this herring, submerged it underwater.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And I squeezed it.

ANNIE MCEWEN: It's so weird to squeeze a fish, though. It's very weird.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: But I squeezed it pretty hard.

ANNIE MCEWEN: I don't think anything's coming out.

And he just kept squeezing it.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: So it was like kind of (blows raspberry).

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Oh. What is - (screaming).

ANNIE MCEWEN: It's poo (laughter). I made it poop.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It was like a really big blur of, you know, herring poo and things coming out.

ANNIE MCEWEN: I'm sorry, fish.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: OK, toss him over.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh.

So then...

You want to squeeze one?

...Hakan tried.

You should get this feeling. It's a weird feeling. Maybe this will be the lucky one.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: I got the magic touch.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wait. Wait.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: I got them fart fingers (laughter).

ANNIE MCEWEN: He put the herring in the water.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: Squeezed it...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Gentle - gently squeezing.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: ...Gently.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Gentle. Come on, little butt (ph).

And then...

Oh.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: Oh.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Bubbles.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: (Unintelligible) Bubbles.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: It was a tiny little bubble.

ANNIE MCEWEN: OK. That's good. You do have fart fingers.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And then you would hear this kind of very eerie poppy sound, this kind of the perfect typical sound, we thought.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Turns out, they thought wrong...

LULU MILLER: (Laughter).

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Because when they look at the recording of the fish fart compared to the recording of the sub sound, they just - they don't really match.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Absolutely not.

ANNIE MCEWEN: This has just become...

HAKAN WESTERBERG: OK.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Very depressing.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: But I mean, this is a dead fish in an aquarium.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So then they went out into a bay with this little tube...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Connected to a vacuum pump.

LULU MILLER: Oh, no.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Managed to get a wild herring in there, got it to fart.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: That sound didn't match.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: No.

ANNIE MCEWEN: But then, they had this thought. We need to get more realistic here. We need to get out into the wild because herring aren't solo fish. They travel together in schools.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: These schools can be huge, like a square kilometer.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Like, sometimes we're talking billions of fish all traveling together. And so they thought, if we're right about this, the sound we're looking for isn't the sound of one fish farting. It's the sound of a lot of fish farting.

LULU MILLER: Ew.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Like, a lot, a lot.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yes. And, you know, we were working for the fishery science in Sweden, so we knew a lot of fishermen. And they would tell us when herring goes into nets, they get stressed, and the net starts boiling, they said.

LULU MILLER: Whoa.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So Magnus follows this clue onto a boat and out to a fishing trap.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNIE MCEWEN: Beneath him, in the shadow of the boat, he could see thousands of herring just swimming around down there.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: I put the hydrophone in the water...

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BUBBLING)

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...And...

(SOUNDBITE OF HERRING FARTING)

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Victory.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: The typical sound.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Ja.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: (Laughter).

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Ja. The whole box was just singing...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wow.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...Of these sounds. It was just incredible. It was just this cacophony of herring.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROTTNINGHOLM BAROQUE ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE OF ROMAN'S "ANDANTE")

ANNIE MCEWEN: Their findings were harder for some members of the navy than others to accept.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: I mean, there were people that - their whole career was chasing submarines.

ANNIE MCEWEN: But finally, in 1999, it became official. The typical sound that had haunted the Swedish Navy for over a decade was not made by Soviet submarines. Instead, for over a decade, the Swedish Navy had been straining their ears to hear the sound of thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of herring, all farting...

LULU MILLER: Oh, my God.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Together.

LULU MILLER: OK.

HAKAN WESTERBERG: So that was the end of the typical sound.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Man, I just can't believe - like, you guys so quickly had all these ideas, but why did the military not think for 15 years - like, are there no scientists in the military that would have...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Any of your experience? Or, like, why was it...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, I think they didn't have to knowhow. And the other thing is this whole thing of the military having this culture that you keep things secret, which means that it's very hard to have, like, an open - and it's very top-down. So it's very hard to have an open discussion about - like, a scientific discussion going on around these topics. I mean, now I make it sound like they are very different from the rest of us, but in a way, they are just human beings. And you can easily wind yourself up in some kind of explanation. If you have a few authorities telling you how things are, you can easily start to collect evidence that that must be how it was.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Magnus told me that the Swedish military actually used sonar to investigate this sound. And what they saw on the screen in front of them was that sound coming from an object, and then they would watch that object split apart.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Divided into two...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...And then divided into four.

ANNIE MCEWEN: What?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: And then it would go back into one again.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Whoa.

And now we can guess that what they were probably seeing was a school of herring splitting apart, splitting apart again. But at the time, this was a Soviet sub.

So they must have thought these subs are, like, super-high-tech.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Exactly. They had people investigating. How can it be that Russia...

ANNIE MCEWEN: What?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...Can build a sub that can sort of be decomposed into two and to four and then back into one?

ANNIE MCEWEN: No way.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: You have, like, military scientists sitting and trying to build a model of Russian sub that can sort of disintegrate into four. I mean, it doesn't make any sense.

ANNIE MCEWEN: That is amazing.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: I think this is something to look after in our times that - you can always...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, yeah.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: ...Laugh at it and say how wrong they were, but I wonder what people will think about us in 20 years.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, totally. I think about that all the time.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah. Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Like, what is the fish fart of today?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RED ARMY IS THE STRONGEST")

THE ALEXANDROV ENSEMBLE: (Singing in Russian).

ANNIE MCEWEN: There's just one more little thing that I take away from this story because as I was doing research, I learned that herring have just been fished forever.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Like, really fished.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: All these Scandinavian countries - they were built on herring, basically (laughter). It's kind of...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Right.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: It's been what people have been eating and fishing for thousands of years.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Right, and not just that. Like, cities have been founded on it. Cultures have been founded on it.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Millions have been made, and these fish have just been, like, running for their lives for millennia.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And it's like, in this one moment, or in this one decade or period of time, like, herrings just got back at humans in some way and, like...

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Sort of gave them a wild chase, you know?

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah. Yeah. You could say that, yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And just for once, they had the power and the upper hand.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: They played an important part of a country's foreign policy.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Totally, yeah.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: It's almost like in the end, this story is just a very long-winded fart joke on us humans.

MAGNUS WAHLBERG: Yeah, exactly. It is. That's what it is (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAR A' GAMLA TAKTER")

HARRY BRANDELIUS: (Singing in Swedish).

LULU MILLER: Winded - I see what you did there, McEwan. This very long-winded fart joke was bravely reported by Annie McEwan and beautifully produced by Matt Kielty, Annie McEwan and Sarah Qari with sound design by Jeremy Bloom. Reporting and translation help from Magnus Ormstadt (ph). Huge thanks to Ben Wilson, who's done his own fascinating research into the herring toots, and to Ola Tunander, Hans Gordon (ph), Andreas Timmelstad, Klaus Helmersen and Meg Bolz (ph). Catch you on the flip, friends. May your sanity stay intact and your wind broken. Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAR A' GAMLA TAKTER")

HARRY BRANDELIUS: (Singing in Swedish).

SAM: Hi. This is Sam (ph) calling from London, England. RADIOLAB was created by Jad Abumrad, and it's edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster, with help from Shima Oliaee, Sarah Sandbach and Jonny Moens. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly and Emily Krieger.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY BRANDELIUS SONG, "HAR A' GAMLA TAKTER")

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