The disappearance of the SS Cotopaxi in 1925 has been shrouded in tales of the paranormal and supernatural. In one of the most popular imaginings, the ship inexplicably vanished in the infamous Bermuda Triangle under some spooky circumstances.
Steven Spielberg's 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind went a step further and said the ship mysteriously emerged in the Gobi Desert after going missing in the Bermuda Triangle some 50 years earlier. There were even recent rumors the Cotopaxi was sailing around Cuba as a ghost ship.
Unsurprisingly, none of these theories were correct. Now a team of marine biologists and underwater explorers say they have identified a shipwreck some 56 kilometers (35 miles) off St Augustine in northeast Florida as the missing ship. While this may be the right neck of the woods, this location is not actually within what is considered the "Bermuda Triangle", an area in the Atlantic Ocean between Puerto Rico, Bermuda, and the southern tip of Florida, where many ships and planes are said to have gone missing.
The SS Cotopaxi was a large US merchant steamboat that was first launched in 1918. On November 29, 1925, Cotopaxi departed Charleston in South Carolina for a voyage towards the Cuban capital Havana, but it never reached its final destination. The ship and her 32 crew members were never seen again.
Over three decades ago, a shipwreck was found off the coast of Florida. However, it was never verified whether it was the wreck of the ill-fated Cotopaxi and it simply became known as the "the Bear Wreck.”
Now, marine biologist and underwater explorer Michael Barnette says he has a wealth of evidence that they are one and the same, revealing the details in an episode of the Science Channel's show "Shipwreck Secrets", which first aired February 9, 2020.
"I knew [in] my heart that it was the Cotopaxi, but trying to prove it is something different," Barnette told CNN. "We didn't know 100 percent because we didn't have that smoking gun, we didn't have a bell with a name on it, or anything like that."
Together with British historian Guy Walters, Barnette sifted through archive records and newspaper reports about the ship. They discovered an overlooked detail; the ship had sent out wireless distress signals on December 1, 1925, which were picked up in Jacksonville – not far from where the shipwreck was discovered decades later. The pair also gathered information about the ship’s size and shape. After a failed drone survey on the area, they employed the help of marine archaeologists from the St Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum to dive the waters around the shipwreck.
Based on all of their findings and groundwork, they are confident this is the wreck of SS Cotopaxi. However, without established identifying features, it is difficult to confirm. For some, though, it is offering an end to long-unanswered questions.
"It really does help bring closure," Robert Fulcher, whose great-uncle was one of the ship's crew members, reports NPR.
"Now we know exactly where the ship went down, where his remains lie, the cause of the sinking. It was not due to sea monsters or whirlpools or aliens or any such thing in the Bermuda Triangle."