DANIA BEACH, Fla. – Some international intrigue, Soviet-style with a Cuban twist, has kicked up along the shores of South Florida.
A 1,200-pound Soviet buoy that surfaced off Dania Beach looks like it belongs in a James Bond movie. Script — which the Library of Congress says is Russian for Hydrometrical Service of the USSR — is painted in black on its side.
Exactly where the rusty, Cold War-era relic came from, and what it was used for, remain a mystery.
Workers at Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park pulled it off the beach just days after Hurricane Irma swept through town. They think it floated 350 miles from Cuba, given Cuba’s historically close ties with the Soviet Union.
Bill Moore, the park’s maintenance mechanic, locked eyes on the 12-foot buoy at the same time Coast Guard members did. He marveled at it, thinking, “You don’t find that too often.”
The Coast Guard’s administrative offices are next to the park’s headquarters. “They came running down here with their dog,” he said. “They tried to confiscate it.”
But Moore retrieved it before the Coast Guard could, he said. The buoy was too heavy to budge, so Moore tied a rope around it and with a skid-steer loader dragged it up the embankment and then brought it to the park office’s parking lot.
The buoy has brownish-orange stripes. Filled with water and sand, it weighs at least 1,200 pounds. A tear in the side shows it is stuffed with foam inside.
The pointy tip with ropes appeared to be the part anchored into the sea. The damaged top looks like it once had something affixed to it, perhaps a light used as a channel marker for ships.
Robert Molleda, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the buoy could have come from Cuba, given the geographical proximity.
“In Irma, the storm came from the south-southeast. And in a storm like that, something could get dislodged,” he said. “It could go adrift and easily wind up in Florida.”
The writing means Hydrometrical Service of the USSR, said Harold M. Leich, the Russian Area Specialist of the European Division of the Library of Congress.
The first word is an abbreviation for “Gidrometricheskaia,” which means “water-measuring,” like an instrument that measures water temperature, movement and depth, he said. Some Russian-language experts translate it as “Hydrometeorological,” referring to a branch of meteorology involving the study of water in the atmosphere.
Another inscription on the buoy says it has a lifting capacity of 3,000 kilograms, or 6,600 pounds, Leich said.
Molleda said such buoys often are used to measure wave height, and weather variables like temperature, wind speed, direction, or atmospheric pressure.
Others only report water temperature, or water levels to monitor for tsunamis. Or, it could “be a combination of all those things.”
But what if this wasn’t REALLY for the weather at all, or if it had a dual purpose?
Leich, a Russia expert for the Library of Congress since 1987, has his suspicions, based on history.
The Soviets were Cuba’s chief ally and supporter from Fidel Castro’s rise to power in the 1960s until the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991.
In addition to providing large quantities of infrastructure and other aid to Cuba, they used Cuba as a base to monitor and spy on the U.S., he said.
So “my best guess is the buoy, and probably many others just like it or similar to it, were placed by the Soviets as an aid to navigation for Soviet vessels bringing materials to Cuba or returning back to the USSR,” he said. “In the chaos of the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the infrastructure placed by the Soviets simply remained in Cuba, including this buoy.”
The Soviet buoy may have first been in the Florida Keys, said Jerry Wilkinson, 89, whose Tavernier home was destroyed by Irma.
Wilkinson told the Sun Sentinel on Friday that his buoy disappeared from his backyard during the hurricane. But Wilkinson said he wasn’t sure it was the same one. Though it bears some resemblance to his, the Russian writing on the Dania buoy seemed more intact, he said.
“The lettering looks too clear,” Wilkinson said.
His buoy was a gift 15 years ago from a marina owner, who found it long ago off Plantation Key, an island in the upper Florida Keys, he said. Wilkinson always figured it had a Cuba-Soviet connection, perhaps related to the Cuban missile crisis, he said.
“I don’t think Russia made it for [Cuba] ‘cause they would have made it in Spanish,” he said.
He wouldn’t want the buoy back if it were his, he said. “I can’t ship it back, it’s too heavy,” he said.
In recent days in Dania Beach, two plainclothes men in a white pickup arrived at the state park. They identified themselves as members of a Navy investigative team, said Steven Dale, the parks manager.
They were there to check out the buoy and, at Dale’s request, offered to haul it away.
“I said, ‘Leave your business card,’ ” but the men left — without leaving a card — and haven’t returned, Dale said.
A spokeswoman for a division of Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, D.C., said two of her engineers came to check it out.
“Our guys were just curious,” Roxie Merritt said. “They have a theory that it may have been attached to Cuba; it’s purely speculation.”
They also won’t haul it away. “It’s a state beach; it belongs to the state,” she said.
Park officials said they’d be happy to give the buoy to the Coast Guard if it still wants it. The Coast Guard’s public affairs office in Miami didn’t comment on the buoy.
Meanwhile, the questions remain on what the Soviets used it for.
“The mystery is what it was used for and whether it was active or not,” Molleda said. “Those are the big unknowns.”