Weather improves but clock ticks for Argentine submarine search

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina, Nov 21 (Reuters) - The search for a missing Argentine submarine and its 44-member crew was helped by calmer seas on Tuesday, but there were no new clues about its location and worries multiplied because the vessel may be running low on oxygen, a navy spokesman said.

The ARA San Juan was en route from Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city, to its base in Mar del Plata and was about 300 miles off the coast when it gave its last location on Wednesday, soon after reporting an electrical malfunction.

If the German-built submarine had sunk or was otherwise unable to rise to the surface since it sent its last signal, it would be winding down its seven-day oxygen supply.

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Missing Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan
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Missing Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan
The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan and crew are seen leaving the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A crew member of the Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan stands on the vessel at the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan and crew are seen leaving the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Photo released on November 17, 2017 by Telam showing the A.R.A. San Juan submarine being delivered to the Argentine Navy after being repaired at the Argentine Naval Industrial Complex (CINAR) in Buenos Aires, on May 23, 2014. The Argentine submarine is missing in Argentine waters after it lost communication more than 48 hours ago. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORTIZ / Argentina OUT (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORTIZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A crew member of the Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan stands on the vessel at the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Ships are seen at an Argentine Naval Base, where the missing-at-sea ARA San Juan submarine sailed from, in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 18, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Picture released by TELAM showing Mar� Morales (L) mother of submarinist Luis Garcia, accompnied by an unidentified man at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 18, 2017. Argentina's navy is hunting for one of its submarines which has been reported missing in the South Atlantic with a crew of 44 on board. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / Alejandro MORITZ / Argentina OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORITZ' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORITZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Picture released by TELAM showing unidentified people gathering at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 17, 2017. Argentina's navy is hunting for one of its submarines which has been reported missing in the South Atlantic with a crew of 44 on board. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / Alejandro MORITZ / Argentina OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORITZ' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORITZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo released on November 17, 2017 by Telam showing the A.R.A. San Juan submarine being delivered to the Argentine Navy after being repaired at the Argentine Naval Industrial Complex (CINAR) in Buenos Aires, on May 23, 2014. The Argentine submarine is missing in Argentine waters after it lost communication more than 48 hours ago. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORTIZ / Argentina OUT (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORTIZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A man reacts outside the Argentine Naval Base, where the missing at sea ARA San Juan submarine sailed from, in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A heart formed with stripes with the colours of Argentina's national flag hangs from a fence outside the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Navy crew work aboard the ARA Sarandi destroyer before leaving to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
A woman walks past an Argentine national flag hanging from a fence outside the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. Words on the flag read "We are with you". REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Navy crew work aboard the ARA Sarandi destroyer before leaving to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
The ARA Sarandi destroyer is seen before leaving to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Argentine Navy captain Gabriel Galeazzi looks on after a news conference at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Malvina Vallejos, sister of missing submariner Celso Oscar Vallejos hangs a supportive message for the 44 crew members of Argentine missing submarine outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
Malvina Vallejos, sister of missing submariner Celso Oscar Vallejos speaks outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
People pray at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017, after being refueled to take part in the search of missing submarine ARA San Juan A man . An Argentine submarine has been lost in the South Atlantic for five days now with 44 people aboard. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
A man prays at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017, after being refueled to take part in the search of missing submarine ARA San Juan A man . An Argentine submarine has been lost in the South Atlantic for five days now with 44 people aboard. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
People pray at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
A man waits in front outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. Argentina's navy revealed Monday that a submarine missing for five days reported a mechanical breakdown in its final communication, and that weekend signals did not come from the vessel, dimming hopes for its 44 crew members. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
An Argentinian flag painted with a submarine is dislpayed as supportive message for the 44 crew members of Argentine missing submarine outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. Argentina's navy revealed Monday that a submarine missing for five days reported a mechanical breakdown in its final communication, and that weekend signals did not come from the vessel, dimming hopes for its 44 crew members. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
Argentina's Navy destroyer ARA Sarandi sails off to take part in the search of missing submarine ARA San Juan, from the north breakwater of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for a missing Argentine submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
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"Assuming the worst, that it was underwater and could not snorkel - which means renewing air and oxygen - and could not rise to the surface on its own, we would be in the sixth day of oxygen," navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told reporters.

More than a dozen boats and planes from Argentina, the United States, Britain, Chile and Brazil have joined the search. Authorities had been mainly scanning from the sky as storms halted the maritime hunt last weekend.

The weather improved on Tuesday, helping search efforts by sea. Wind speed slowed and waves that rose as high as 8 meters (26 feet) at the weekend diminished.

"The search by patrol ships has become more effective thanks more than anything to less pounding by the waves, which have fallen to three or four meters," Balbi said.

Also on Tuesday, authorities investigated white flares spotted in the South Atlantic overnight. Searchers found an empty floating raft, and noticed the flares from a distance. But the raft's brand suggested it did not belong to the ARA San Juan, which was equipped with only red flares for emergencies and green flares for other situations, the navy said.

Searchers have suffered other disappointments.

Analysis of satellite signals and sounds detected by underwater probes, initially thought to be messages from the crew, has found they did not come from the vessel.

"The sounds could be biological. We have discarded the possibility that it was a clanging of morse code against the hull of the submarine," Balbi said.

Relatives of crew members have been gathered at a naval base in Mar del Plata, where the search is being coordinated.

The ARA San Juan was launched in 1983, the newest of three submarines in the navy's fleet, and underwent maintenance in 2008 in Argentina. Its four diesel engines and its electric propeller engines were replaced, according to specialist publication Jane's Sentinel.

(Additional reporting by Maximilian Heath, Juliana Castilla and Nicolas Misculin in Buenos Aires; Writing by Luc Cohen and Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Frances Kerry and Grant McCool)

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