A triangular section of the Atlantic Ocean roughly defined by a line connecting the tip of Florida, the Bermuda Islands, and Puerto Rico, that is an area notorious for unexplained disappearances of boats, ships, and aircraft.
A September 16, 1950, Associated Press dispatch by reporter E. V. W. Jones contains the first recorded mention of mysterious disappearances between Bermuda and the Florida coast. The dispatch ran in various newspapers within the next few days. Two years later, in October, 1952, Fate magazine published an article by George X. Sand on the same subject that defined the targeted area as a triangle bounded by Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and Florida.
Morris K. Jessup’s The Case for the UFO: Unidentified Flying Objects (1955), Donald E. Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucer Conspiracy (1955), and Frank Edwards’s Stranger Than Science (1959) furthered speculation about the area’s disappearances, blaming them on aliens from outer space. The first published use of the name “Bermuda Triangle” appears in Vincent H. Gaddis’s article “The Deadly Bermuda Triangle” in the February, 1964, edition of Argosy. Gaddis’s article, along with his 1965 book, Invisible Horizons: True Mysteries of the Sea, brought widespread popular attention to the region for the first time. Since then, the Bermuda Triangle has gained global renown, but the U.S. Board of Geographic Names neither recognizes the name officially nor maintains an official file on the area.
The unexplained disappearances of vessels or crews that have given the Bermuda Triangle its mysterious reputation are said to have happened without warning during fair weather and have left no traces of either wreckage or bodies. When each incident is examined, however, mundane causes are often obvious, with facts frequently embellished or omitted for dramatic effect. Because the Bermuda Triangle’s shipping lanes are busy, and because aircraft crisscross its skies in large numbers every day, it is not surprising that, over the years, many disasters have occurred in its waters.
Probably the most famous and dramatic disappearance is that of Flight 19. At 2:10 p.m. on December 5, 1945, five Avenger torpedo bombers took off from the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Naval Air Station on a routine two-hour training mission in good weather. At 3:45 p.m., the flight leader and flying instructor reported that neither of his compasses was working. Voice communication stopped at 4:25 p.m., and the last radio signal was received at approximately 7:00 p.m. The most likely contributing factors to the disaster, aside from the malfunctioning compasses, were the flight leader’s unfamiliarity with the area, the lack of clocks in the planes to keep track of time, few clear radio signals, and four inexperienced pilots who were unwilling to openly contradict their superior. In addition, as the weather worsened throughout the afternoon, extreme turbulence and unsafe flying conditions were reported.
The flight leader had been asked to switch to the emergency channel, but he refused, because he did not want to risk losing contact with the other four Avengers. Thus, his initial assumption that they were flying over the Florida Keys instead of the Bahamas could not be corrected by direction-finding stations. Ironically, when the flight leader first reported himself lost, he was probably right on course above the Bahamas. Although the search continued for weeks, it turned up no sign of the bombers or the fourteen men aboard. It is likely that the planes went down in the ocean by 8:00 p.m., somewhere east of the U.S. coast and north of the Bahamas, after flying around lost for four hours.
Adding to the magnitude of the tragedy was the fact that another plane was lost that night. However, its fate is more certain. A Martin Mariner seaplane with a crew of thirteen was one of several planes sent out on the search mission. An explosion was observed from a ship shortly after the plane’s takeoff. Martin Mariners were nicknamed “flying gas tanks” because they tended to leak fumes. It is likely that a spark from some source ignited the plane’s fuel and caused the explosion.
Many other aircraft have disappeared over the Bermuda Triangle. In 1948, a British Tudor IV airliner, the Star Tiger, was en route to Bermuda from the Azores when it vanished without a trace some time after the pilot radioed Bermuda to ask for a bearing. Because the plane was never recovered, no cause for the disaster could be determined, but unpredictable winds could have driven the aircraft off course after contact was lost at 3:15 a.m., giving the sea time to sweep crash debris from the scene. A Douglas DC-3 also disappeared in 1948 while flying from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Miami, Florida. After the pilot reported being only 50 miles from the airfield in Miami, contact was lost, and the plane was never found, possibly sinking in the 5,000-foot depths of the Straits of Florida. In this case, the plane had been having trouble with its landing gear, batteries, and transmitter when it landed in San Juan and continued to have transmission problems as it left for Miami.
Although seagoing vessels have been lost in the Bermuda Triangle since the time of Christopher Columbus, most have vanished during severe weather or after a history of mechanical or personnel problems. Moreover, many disappearances associated with the area have actually occurred elsewhere. For example, the famous case of the Mary Celeste, encountered drifting without its crew in 1872, is often cited in stories about the Bermuda Triangle, but the ship was actually found near the Azores. The USS Cyclops, which sank in 1918 on a voyage from Barbados to Norfolk, Virginia, most probably lies, wrecked either by a storm or by its heavy load of manganese, on the ocean floor near Norfolk.
Many fantastic theories exist to account for the disappearances, ranging from alien abductions to black holes to mysterious magnetic anomalies. Ivan T. Anderson claims that “vile vortices” caused by magnetic aberrations create “time slips” that convey the disappeared to other locations on Earth, including an advanced civilization allegedly lurking under the sea. Charles Berlitz has identified this civilization as the mythical lost Atlantis mentioned in the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato. Vincent Gaddis suspects that small black holes may pull ships and planes into other times or universes. However, there is no proof to substantiate any of these theories.
One recent theory has suggested that some unexplained disappearances might have been caused by large bubbles of methane hydrate, found during exploratory oil drilling in the Bermuda Triangle in 1995. Methane hydrate is a gas created when ice and methane are mixed together under conditions of high pressure far below the seabed. When the temperature rises or the pressure is released by a seaquake or underwater slide, the bubbles of gas rapidly expand at a rate of about 1 liter of hydrate to 45 gallons of methane. If the methane bubbled up under a ship, it would create a huge hole that would cause the ship to drop suddenly and sink. Aircraft might also be affected. Because methane is lighter than air, it would continue to rise in the atmosphere, causing potential problems for anything flying through it. Engine failure, explosions, or other problems could occur. However, this theory, too, remains unproven.
Although many boats, ships, and aircraft have disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle over the years, Lloyd’s of London, an insurer of some of the missing vessels, has stated that there is no evidence that more disappearances occur within the Triangle than in any other similar expanse of ocean. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard maintain that environmental causes, mechanical failures, and human errors are to blame.
However, the Bermuda Triangle does have some unique environmental characteristics that are likely to have contributed to both the area’s disasters at sea and its eerie reputation. When Christopher Columbus sailed toward the vicinity of the Triangle in 1492, he became the first to record many of its most notable phenomena, among them the Sargasso Sea, an area almost the size of the continental United States, centrally located in the North Atlantic Ocean. The Sargasso Sea’s name is derived from the Portuguese word for the seaweed that clogs its waters. The seaweed is inhabited by unusual species of animals adapted to life on the weeds. This strange region is isolated by strong currents that cause it to slowly rotate clockwise and leave it with more salt and less wind, clouds, and rain than the rest of the North Atlantic. It is a repository for debris, wreckage, and spilled oil drifting in from all over the world, including derelict ships that have made it known as a ships’ graveyard. Because sailing ships could become stranded there for months, it is understandable that sailors learned to fear the region.
Columbus also noted curious compass variations in the Bermuda Triangle. Alleged magnetic variations have been blamed for some of the disappearances in the Triangle, but there is some compass variation almost everywhere, ranging from 0 up to 20 degrees, depending on longitude. During Columbus’s time, it was assumed that the compass pointed to the North Star, but Columbus realized that the compass must be attracted to something else, later thought to be the North Pole, but eventually found to be the north magnetic pole.
Navigators are trained to compensate for variation between the magnetic pole and the true pole as a matter of routine. Close to Florida, however, it is not necessary to compensate for magnetic variation because Florida happens to be in line with both the magnetic pole and the North Pole. With a magnetic variation of zero, getting lost is actually less likely than it would otherwise be. Mysteriously spinning compasses have also been implicated in disappearances, but compass needles frequently swing or spin with the motion of a boat or plane. Compass headings are calculated by averaging the high and low readings of the swinging needle.
Thunderstorms, tornadoes, waterspouts, and hurricanes can develop very suddenly in the Bermuda Triangle and are often more violent there than anywhere else on the globe. Contrary to the claims that the disappearances have occurred during fair weather, the reality is that most occurred during severe conditions. Columbus documented some of the storms common to the Bermuda Triangle, including a hurricane in 1502 in which ten ships were lost. Strong turbulence in and around storm clouds can cause aircraft to disintegrate, and freak waves up to 115 feet high can capsize and break apart even the largest of ships.
Unusually strong ocean currents like the Gulf Stream flow swiftly through the Bermuda Triangle. These currents frequently thwart successful search-and-rescue missions and add to the mystery of the Triangle by quickly dispersing wreckage. Many of the disappearances have occurred at night or near dusk, giving the currents hours to sweep away evidence of disaster. Unpredictable currents are also caused by the region’s topography, varying from some of the world’s deepest marine trenches to extremely shallow shoals that surround the islands, creating tricky navigational hazards.
Mechanical failure and human error can have even more disastrous results when compounded by severe weather conditions. Every year, countless inexperienced vacationers pilot boats and small aircraft between the islands off Florida’s coast. Simple navigational errors can cause these craft to become hopelessly lost at sea. Small boats can be capsized easily in even moderately bad weather, hence the frequency of small craft warnings. At night, small boats can be run over by large ships and sink without being noticed. Even large ships can capsize in high seas or because they are overloaded or top heavy. Boats can suffer hull damage in collisions with other ships, reefs, and other obstructions. Corrosion and metal fatigue can cause ships to break apart. Similar problems or structural failures in aircraft, such as a jammed rudder or loss of an engine or wing, are even more deadly. In addition, faulty wiring, leaking fuel, and combustible cargo can cause fires and explosions. Catastrophic equipment failures or damaged communications can make calling for help impossible. Even hijacking, sabotage, and insurance fraud are suspected of causing some unexplained disappearances.
Dennett, Michael. “Bermuda Triangle, 1981 Model.” The Skeptical Inquirer 6, no. 1 (Fall, 1981). Debunks claims made by Charles Berlitz regarding twelve incidents linked to the Bermuda Triangle. Innes, Brian. Unsolved Mysteries: The Bermuda Triangle. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999. One of a series for young readers that encourages critical thinking about unexplained phenomena. Kusche, Lawrence David. The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved. 2d ed. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986. A fascinating investigation into the creation of the legend of the Bermuda Triangle. The author’s background as both reference librarian and pilot lends credence to his efforts to untangle years of garbled accounts of disasters at sea. Oxlade, Chris. Can Science Solve? The Mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2000. An excellent and well-illustrated account of the Bermuda Triangle phenomenon, one of a series for young children focusing on the role of science in explaining the mysteries of nature.