THREE separate but fleeting sounds from the Indian Ocean yesterday offered fresh hope in the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, as officials rushed to determine if they were signals from the plane’s black boxes.
The head of the international search off Australia’s west coast confirmed a Chinese ship had picked up electronic pulsing signals twice in a small patch of the search zone, once on Friday and again on Saturday.
An Australian ship carrying sophisticated deep-sea sound equipment yesterday picked up a third signal in a different part of the massive search area.
Retired Australian Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, who is co-ordinating the search, said: “This is an important and encouraging lead, but one which I urge you to treat carefully.”
He stressed the signals had not been verified as being linked to Flight MH370, which was travelling from Kuala Lumpur, to Beijing when it disappeared on 8 March with 239 passengers and crew on board.
Experts expressed doubt the equipment aboard the Chinese ship was capable of picking up signals from the black boxes. As of last night, the boxes had not been detected and the search is set to continue today.
Referring to each of the three transmissions, Mr Houston said: “We have an acoustic event. The job now is to determine the significance of that event. It does not confirm or deny the presence of the aircraft locator on the bottom of the ocean.
“We are dealing with very deep water. We are dealing with an environment where sometimes you can get false indications. There are lots of noises in the ocean, and sometimes the acoustic equipment can rebound – echo, if you like.”
China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported the patrol vessel Haixun 01 detected a “pulse signal” on Friday in the southern Indian Ocean at 37.5 kilohertz – the same frequency emitted by the flight data recorders aboard the missing plane.
Mr Houston confirmed the report, and said the Haixun 01 detected a signal again on Saturday within 1.4 miles of the original signal, for 90 seconds. He said the Chinese also reported seeing white objects floating in the sea in the area.
The British navy ship HMS Echo, which is fitted with sophisticated sound-locating equipment, is moving to the area where the signals were picked up and is due to arrive today.
The Australian navy ship Ocean Shield, which is carrying high-tech sound detectors from the US navy, will also head there, but will first investigate the sound it picked up in its current region, about 300 nautical miles away.
Mr Houston said Australian air force assets are also being deployed into the area around the Haixun 01 to try to confirm or discount the signals’ relevance.
Meanwhile, in Kuala Lumpur, families of passengers aboard the missing plane attended a prayer service yesterday that also drew thousands of Malaysian sympathisers.
“This is not a prayer for the dead because we have not found bodies. This is a prayer for blessings and that the plane will be found,” said Liow Tiong Lai, the president of the government coalition party that organised the two-hour event.
Many others looked sombre, and several wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Pray for MH370”.
Two-thirds of the passengers aboard Flight MH370 were Chinese and a group of relatives has been in Kuala Lumpur for most of the past month to follow the investigation.
After weeks of fruitless looking, the multinational search team is racing against time to find the sound-emitting beacons and cockpit voice recorders that could help unravel the mystery of the plane. The beacons in the black boxes emit “pings” so they can be more easily found, but the batteries last for only about a month.
Investigators believe Flight MH370 veered way off-course and came down somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.
After weeks of false alarms, officials were careful not to overplay the latest development.
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said: “We are hopeful but by no means certain.”