Researches believe they have discovered the fate of the SS Cotopaxi, which disappeared without a trace of wreckage after leaving Charleston, South Carolina in 1925, carrying a cargo of coal and a crew of 32.
The ship was bound for Havana, Cuba, and vanished near the area popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle. The mystery has been billed as one of the “triangle’s biggest secrets” by promotional material for the Science Channel’s “Shipwreck Secrets,” which will document the search for the Cotopaxi in a Feb. 9 special premiere.
Marine biologist shipwreck explorer Michael Barnette told USA TODAY the special will show that the Cotopaxi rests off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida at a site known for decades as the “Bear Wreck.”
But the location of the Cotopaxi is only part of the story — Barnette worked with other experts to construct a theory about what happened to the ship using research that included insurance records and dives to the site.
Two major factors contributed to the ship’s fate, according to Barnette’s account: A sudden storm, and a ship that left port ill-equipped to deal with the weather.
Wooden hatch covers for the ship’s cargo holds were in disrepair, allowing water from rough weather to slosh below deck, Barnette’s research showed.
“The ship was doomed at that point,” Barnette said.
Caught by a massive, quick-moving storm, the crew “had no shelter”: the situation went from “bad to catastrophic in very short order,” according to Barnette.
Records helped tie a distress signal from the ship to the approximate location of the Bear Wreck. Dives to the site — which Barnette said looks more like an underwater junkyard than a shipwreck you might see in a movie — were also a part of the research.
Barnette said he presented the theories to archeologists from the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum to win their support for the findings.
Not a part of those findings: The pop culture lure of the Bermuda Triangle.
In an email, Barnette said the region, which is famous for mysterious ship and plane wrecks, is arbitrarily defined and fictitious. The site of the Cotopaxi wreckage would likely fall outside its loose borders — just like many other wrecks associated with the Bermuda Triangle.
While the region where the Cotopaxi disappeared has drawn attention in the past — including a reference in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — Barnette hopes his research will shed light on the human cost of the tragedy.
Financial pressures of the Great Depression may have played a factor in why the Cotopaxi left unprepared for the severe weather, Barnette said. That choice still impacts family members of the Cotopaxi’s victims.
Among those family members: Douglas Myers, grandson Cotopaxi Captain William J. Myers, who Barnette met during the filming.