There’s no denying that we humans do tend to get a little complacent at times. Here we sit, right at the top of the food chain, building Starbucks and McDonald’s outlet over every square inch of the planet like we own the place.
We think we know everything about this planet of ours. We like to have things wrapped up in a pretty little intellectual bow, explained in textbooks and otherwise dealt with, so nobody asks any awkward questions.
Nevertheless, there are some things we can’t quite explain away. We’ve tried, certainly, but we’re just not quite there yet. Not convincingly, at any rate. All manner of ghastly, lumpen looking creatures (hello there, Mr. Blobfish) lurk deep at the bottom of the oceans, for instance, which we’ve never even met yet. There are some places science just doesn’t have the tools to penetrate.
The Bermuda Triangle, an area of the North Atlantic ocean between Florida, Puerto Rico and Bermuda, could be seen as one of these. Much like Roswell, the place has become a slice of popular culture in its own right, and fact and fiction have become increasingly muddled as a result. What do we truly know about the mysterious ‘Devil’s Triangle’ and what happens there?
Well, that’s the question. In this rundown, I’m going to try to sift through some of the sensationalism and look into the facts of (among other things) so-called ‘wind bombs,’ the sad story of Flight 19 and the fantastical tales science is up against. Was this really the site of Atlantis and its ‘power crystals’? Well, let’s see.
A commonly-repeated fact about this mysterious region is that compasses and other ship/plane instruments get scrambled in the area. This is sometimes cited as a unique trait of the Bermuda Triangle, and a factor in some of the mysterious disasters and disappearances that have befallen travellers here.
The simple fact is, this isn’t an exclusive, inexplicable trait of the Bermuda Triangle. As reported by UCSB ScienceLine, there’s another area where this happens off the eastern coast of Japan. The variance is due to the fact that compasses will point to ‘true’ north rather than magnetic north in these places, a variation that can affect navigation and must be accounted for. It’s not as deadly a difference as you may think, though, as we’ll see later.
As we know, legends do tend to have some kind of basis in fact, however exaggerated and ludicrous they may become. We’ll be taking a look at some of those explanations later, but first, here’s one of the most famous tales of the Bermuda Triangle: Flight 19.
History has dubbed this “one of the most perplexing mysteries in aviation history,” and introduces five TBM Avenger bombers, on a routine training flight on December 5, 1945.
The flight’s leader, an experienced pilot, became disorientated, claiming that his instruments had failed, and he believed he’d ended up near the Florida Keys (some hundred miles away from his last known position in the Bahamas).
The group were last heard planning to ditch their planes as they ran out of fuel, before promptly… disappearing. This was one of the first events that brought the Bermuda Triangle’s mysterious ‘power’ to public attention, but is that a fair assessment?
As we’ve seen, Flight 19 was a routine training exercise that went terribly wrong. The remains of the crew and/or their craft (there were five planes altogether) were never recovered, and Bermuda Triangle believers still suspect foul play.
As History continues, an investigating Navy Lieutenant, David White, later reported,
“They just vanished… We had hundreds of planes out looking, and we searched over land and water for days, and nobody ever found the bodies or any debris.”
All kinds of fantastical theories have arisen about the case since. The report goes on, “Other books and fictional portrayals have suggested that magnetic anomalies, parallel dimensions and alien abductions might have all played a role in the tragedy. In 1977, the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” famously depicted Flight 19 as having been whisked away by flying saucers and later deposited in the deserts of Mexico.”
The truth? Well, it’s not the Close Encounters of the Third Kind thing. Presumably.
As the last entry demonstrated, dramatic stories from movies and books have given us a certain image of this foreboding, unexplained place. On approaching the area, you’d be forgiven for expecting to see warning signs, armed guards, Mission Impossible-style security, sharks with frikkin’ laser beams attached to their heads, the works.
In truth, though, there’s no specific definition of what and where the Bermuda Triangle is. As Volvo Ocean Race explains, “There's nothing official about the Bermuda Triangle.” It’s generally agreed to be a vague area between Florida, Bermuda and Puerto Rico, as I say, but beyond that? Nope. It doesn't really exist.
Here’s the thing. Movies like the Men in Black series might tell us that aliens live among us, disguised as people. They might tell us that we just don’t know about it, and would have our memories wiped if we ever did find out. As a child, that concept freaked me out to no end (particularly the scene with the alien teacher, which I started to believe in), but I’m super sceptical now.
In spite of all of this, we have no cast-iron evidence of extra-terrestrials. Not even friendly ones like E.T. It’s all theorising, like the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti. It’s a theory often directed at the Bermuda Triangle disappearances, but that’s all it is: one outlandish theory.
As I say, the Bermuda Triangle is not nearly as officially-documented as you might think. Allegedly alien landing sites and cryptozoological creature sightings around the world become famous simply because of that connection, but there’s nothing like that here. As Volvo Ocean Race explains...
The Bermuda Triangle has no specific boundaries or anything like that. It’s not an officially-designated area of the ocean like many others. It’s not neatly marked on maps, as you may think would befit its notoriety.
This is a real problem, too, when it comes to determining whether particular events actually occurred in the Bermuda Triangle as we know it at all.
The mysterious story of Flight 19 is often regarded as one of the biggest, earliest events that brought this supposedly-cursed area to the world’s attention. Helped along by the media and the scale of the ensuing investigation, it certainly did that, but did you know that the whole thing could date back much further than the 1940s and 50s?
According to Today I Found Out, “The Bermuda Triangle’s bad reputation started with Christopher Columbus. According to his log, on October 8, 1492, Columbus looked down at his compass and noticed that it was giving weird readings. He didn’t alert his crew at first, because having a compass that didn’t point to magnetic north may have sent the already on edge crew into a panic.”
Is this the true north phenomenon at work again? Fact and fiction are becoming even more muddled.
What with all the bizarre mysteries and conspiracy theories surrounding the Bermuda Triangle, you might well think that it would be the sort of place travellers would largely avoid. Reading some of the curious stories about the place would be enough to dissuade any nervous traveller, right?
If you struggle with the idea of sailing or flying at the best of times, this probably isn’t a trip for you. Regardless of all this, though, the fact remains that this is one of the busiest stretches of ocean in the world. For business and pleasure alike, this is the gateway to Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean Islands, after all.
Now, you might have an image of the scope of the Bermuda Triangle in your mind. That’s part of the crux of its legend, I suppose. If it’s a relatively small area, and lots of mysterious accidents and incidents are taking place within it, that’s got to be more than a coincidence, right? That indicates that there’s something about said area.
That’s not the case at all, though. We’ve already seen that the Bermuda Triangle is a very busy area, but it’s also a very darn big area. As UCSB Geography reports,
“Depending upon which account you read...the size of the Bermuda Triangle ranges from 500,000 square miles to 1,500,000 square miles.”
That’s a lot of water.
Ah, yes. Now this one’s particularly telling, right here. Insurance companies, like everyone else in the bad old world of 2018, aren’t too keen on giving away money. That is not a life anybody’s about right now. Not at a time when just making rent and living on a diet of slices of bread straight from the bag is tough enough.
Said companies aren’t afraid of the supposed dangers of the Bermuda Triangle, though. UCSB Geography goes on, “The marine insurer Lloyd’s of London has determined the Triangle to be no more dangerous than any other area of ocean, and does not charge unusual rates for passage through the region.”
So, yes. Theories and counter-theories continue to be debated, as we’ll see later. The bottom line is that there’s no sheer evidence one way or another in some cases, which is where much of this is coming from.
If interfering aliens aren’t your cup of tea, how about rogue waves? We’re going to get into the notoriously shonky weather in this region soon, but before that, The Daily Mail presents the ‘rogue waves’ possibility.
According to researchers at the University of Southampton in August 2018, these freak storm waves can be up to 100ft high.
This is just one of the natural possibilities, because… well, what in heckola would happen to a ship caught in that?
On the subject of those gigantic rogue waves, what would happen to a ship that was unfortunate enough to encounter them? Fortunately, we have an answer to that. For the purposes of their research, the University of Southampton built a replica of the USS Cyclops, a vast ship that was lost in the Bermuda Triangle back in 1918 (300 lives were also lost, as The Daily Mail reports).
The replica ship was assailed by man-made ‘rogue waves’ for the documentary The Bermuda Triangle Enigma, and it was demonstrated that the ship was soon completely enveloped by the waves. Was this what happened to the real ship?
We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, though. Let’s back up for a moment, and take a closer look at the sad story of the U.S.S. Cyclops.
In March 1918, this vast collier (a cargo ship that would primarily carry coal) was on route from Brazil to Baltimore when it vanished without a trace.
According to Fox News, it was last seen in Barbados. “Two months after the ship failed to reach Baltimore,” they report, “Roosevelt, who then was an Assistant Navy Secretary, announced the Cyclops and all of its crew were presumed lost at sea, resulting in what remains the largest loss of life in Navy history unrelated to combat.”
What happened? That mysterious old Bermuda Triangle has been blamed time and again, as have supernatural possibilities, but perhaps the truth is something more mundane. Something like these possibilities.
As we all know, sensationalism sells. We’ve known this for hundreds upon hundreds of years, back in the days when so-called ‘Miracle tonics’ would claim to cure any and all ills. Even if it was just juice and a little dye in the bottle.
Unscrupulous headlines, tabloids and magazines still do much the same thing today. You’re more likely to get invested and make a purchase if there’s something fantastical on the cover, after all. This has been the case with a lot of coverage of Bermuda Triangle-related incidents (as Pacific Standard put it, “many of the claims made about the Bermuda Triangle’s unusual-ness are exaggerated and sometimes erroneous”).
Some of the possible explanations for these events are decidedly un-natural, and this is exactly what gives the area its mystique. As always, though, there are those who seek to ruin everybody’s wildly-theorising fun by trying to present a rational, natural alternative.
One possible Definitive Answer™ (there are quite a few of these coming up, so brace yourselves) suggested by meteorologists is the phenomenon known as ‘airbombs.’ As reported by The Express, these are very rare and unusual cloud patterns and associated conditions.
“Using radar satellites to measure what was happening beneath the clouds, [experts] found that sea level winds were reaching almost 170 miles an hour – powerful enough to generate waves of over 45 feet high – as 'airbombs' are forced to come crashing down towards the ocean.”
Such clouds have apparently also been documented near Britain, but those in the region of the Bermuda Triangle are reportedly much bigger.
Now, I’m not convinced that aliens are nabbing people from their ships and dumping them off in the Gulf of Mexico, but there’s one thing we can’t deny: there have been a lot of incidents and accidents in the Bermuda Triangle.
Outlandish theories and explanations are fun, but let’s not discount one of the simplest and most inevitable of all: simple human error. Nobody’s infallible, however experienced they are, and some want to just hop right in without the necessary experience and equipment.
“Not to be underestimated is the human factor,” the Coast Guard (via Today I Found Out) have stated. “A large number of pleasure boats travel the water between Florida’s Gold Coast (the most densely populated area in the world) and the Bahamas. All too often, crossings are attempted with too small a boat, insufficient knowledge of the area’s hazards and lack of good seamanship.”
There’s nothing mysterious about this possibility.
A lot of the possible natural explanation we’ve looked at so far focus around one thing: vicious, changeable and utterly unpredictable weather. Of course, veteran sailors and navigators aren’t really going to be phased by a storm or two, but… well, what happens here can be just a little beyond a casual storm.
As we saw with that reconstruction of the rogue waves and the air bombs, the kind of conditions you may end up facing here are unlike much else on Earth. Who needs supernatural forces when Mother Nature herself can just swoop right in and ruin your entire day in a microsecond flat?
Earlier in this rundown, we took a look at the Bermuda Triangle’s odd effect on compasses.
There have been reports of the area interfering with the navigational systems of ships and planes, as we’ve seen, but the truth is that this effect often isn’t as dramatic as you may think.
Extra care is needed in these sorts of situations, of course, but this isn’t a factor exclusive to the Bermuda Triangle area. With regards to other instruments, we all know how temperamental technology can be at times. Mexico’s infamous Zone of Silence may not be the technology-goes-haywire mystery it’s cracked up to be either.
Oh, Mother Nature. You crafty, unpredictable trickster you. Why is it that, sometimes, some places just seem to get all the luck (good and bad)? Why does Australia get all the neatest native animals, like the kangaroo, koala and laughing kookaburra? On the flipside, why does the Bermuda Triangle get all the shonky and super-dangerous conditions?
Not only can the weather be a huge threat, but the waters here are some of the deepest on Earth. As Volvo Ocean Race suggests, there’s a sheer drop-off to some very deep trenches. If the remains of a vessel found itself at the bottom, it’d be tough to find even with today’s technology.
Heck, while we’re at it, let’s stack the odds even further against the bold sailors and navigators of the Bermuda Triangle. The weather’s volatile, the water is deeper than a which came first, the chicken or the egg debate… what else can we do?
We can add some super dangerous methane deposits, that’s what. They’re caused by sea creatures decomposing, and Volvo Ocean Race picks up the story from there:
“The methane accumulates as super concentrated methane ice, and if a pocket ruptures, the gas surges up and erupts on the surface without warning. If a ship is in the area of the blowout, the water beneath it would suddenly become much less dense...
It could sink and sediment could quickly cover it as it settles onto the sea floor.”
Then, yet again, that popular theory is debunked by Helen Czerski, oceanographer and physicist, in this video from Tech Insider. The bubbles would disperse, she claims, and the airtight compartments under ships would prevent this from sinking them.
So, that’s a pretty darn bleak picture I’ve painted right there. Regardless, though, it’s important not to get sucked into the doomtastically doom-y part of it all. We’ve already been through the fact that this is one of the busiest areas of ocean in the world. It’s not all freak storms, 100ft waves and disappearances into an angry bubble of methane.
A natural consequence of more ships and planes passing through the area is more unfortunate incidents involving them. As Live Science concludes, “normal ocean processes and simple human error are the likely culprits, and the Bermuda Triangle is no more mysterious, suspicious or dangerous than any other stretch of open ocean.”
As a complete amateur when it comes to navigation and such, I can’t imagine anything more frightening than your compass and other systems failing while visibility is poor. As we saw with the Flight 19 incident, this was one factor that may have contributed to what happened.
Even so, though, we can’t just go ahead and blame the ‘true north’ thing for some of these accidents. As Today I Found Out suggests, “magnetic variation is something ship captains (and other explorers) have known about and had to deal with pretty much as long as there have been ships and compasses. Dealing with magnetic declination is really just “Navigation by Compass” 101 and nothing to be concerned about, nor anything that would seriously throw off any experienced navigator.”
A lot of the mystery and intrigue around the Bermuda Triangle is buoyed by the sensational stories. It’s so easy for a story to be embellished and exaggerated with each telling, especially when that’s exactly what people want to hear.
The term Bermuda Triangle itself was coined by Vincent H. Gaddis is 1964, who published an article about the ‘pattern of strange events’ that had taken place in the area. This kicked off a wave of hype, which peaked early in the 1970s. You know how it is, when a faux sighting (the famous Surgeon’s Photograph of the Loch Ness Monster back in the day, for instance) gets public attention.
As we’ve already established, there are some people who hop right on board with all the wild conspiracy theories, fanning the flames, and there are others who want to… well, unleash the full force of the firehose of boring logic all over those flames.
Larry Kusche, with his 1975 publication The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: Solved, definitely had his proverbial firehose out.
Kusche argued that other writers hadn’t done their research, had exaggerated, and that some events they described hadn’t even happened within the Bermuda Triangle.
As Today I Found Out puts it, they had “presented misinformation—such as not reporting storms that occurred on the same day as disappearances, and sometimes even making it seem as though the conditions had been calm for the purposes of creating a sensational story.”
So, there it is. There are some natural and entirely rational explanations for some of the disappearances in this region, and some events have been explained away. Nevertheless, the Bermuda Triangle does have its curious reputation all around the world, and there are those who just can’t let go of their theories.
And what theories they are. According to one that The Daily Star presents, the Bermuda Triangle is actually the location of Atlantis, swallowed up at the end of the last Ice Age. It was powered by futuristic crystals, the story goes, which still send periodic waves of energy up through the water. It’s this energy that causes the mysterious disappearances.
Needless to say, nobody’s quite 100% convinced of that.
Resources: History, Volvo Ocean Race, UCSB Geography, Pacific Standard, Atlas Obscura, Live Science.