The Recovery of the K-129

The movie poster for the documentary Azorian
An image showing how the location of the K-129 was triangulated

Finding the Wreck

While the reason for the sub’s sinking is still unknown, a loud explosion was picked up by multiple underwater microphones in the US’s hydrophone array. The approximate position of this event was triangulated to within 5 nautical miles, to a point hundreds of miles away from where the Soviet navy was searching. The USS Halibut, a special operations submarine, was dispatched to the area and spent three weeks towing the Fish, which consisted of cameras, lights, and sonar arrays built to work in the extreme depth. After finding the wreck in over 16,000 feet of water, Halibut remained in the area to survey the wreck and its surroundings to gather info in preparation for a possible salvage attempt.

The Salvage Attempt

In order to recover the treasure trove of intelligence inside the sub, the CIA came up with the audacious Project Azorian: the worlds largest claw arcade game. A purpose built ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, would sit on the surface above the wreck, and open its moon pool, which is an opening in the bottom of a ship designed to give stable access to the water. This stability would be critical for the plan, which was to lower a huge claw down 16,000 feet to grab the sub and winch the sub back up into the Glomar‘s moon pool, which would secure the sub.

While it has a unique look, this is all that would be visible during the Hughes Glomar Explorer‘s operation, its true nature hidden beneath the waves.

The CIA got Howard Hughes to attach his name to the ship, and his company to contract a shipbuilder to build the Glomar for manganese mining, a cover story that raised real conversations over the viability of that idea for the future. However, Hughes and his company had no part of the project.

The Glomar sailed to the wreck’s location and despite several Soviet vessels in the area, who had apparently been tipped off that a salvage attempt could be coming, lowered the winch in secret. The winch made it down, grabbing the front section of the sub, leaving the broken back section, which was of less importance to the CIA. Unfortunately, during the raising, several of the arms of the claw broke, and a large chunk of the front half sank back to the seafloor. Even so, the remaining section was winched up and taken aboard the Glomar.

While we don’t know everything that was recovered, it is confirmed that two nuclear torpedoes were recovered, along with the bodies of six Soviet sailors, who were buried at sea with military honors. Additionally, it is speculated that code books, instruments, and the K-129‘s bell were recovered.


While not completely successful, the CIA calls Project Azorian one of their largest intelligence successes of the Cold War, and the sheer audacity of the attempt has inspired documentaries and books. This was the only successful salvage of an opposing submarine during the Cold War, making it even more unique. Because it was so rare for a sub to sink, there were very few opportunities to learn about Soviet subs. The CIA pounced on this opportunity, and created a miracle. The Glomar enjoyed a second life as a real underwater mining and drilling vessel, living up to her cover story until her scrapping in 2015.