The first time I entered the Bermuda Triangle was on a trip with my family from Miami to St. Croix. It was 1971, and I was not yet a teenager. I was, however, a voracious reader obsessed with stories of ancient extraterrestrials, Big Foot and the Bermuda Triangle, a 500,000 square mile triangular section of the western Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and Puerto Rico where ships and aircraft seemingly vanish without a trace.
We flew through the Bermuda Triangle on a small private plane, and my father, who knew little about aviation, was seated in the cockpit with his friend the pilot. Every now and then one of them would yell back at my brother and me with a dire warning about airplane dials going haywire or that we were somehow off course and lost.
After a couple of these shout outs, we realized they were teasing us. Joking aside, I was secretly hoping we might vanish into an alternate universe. And though I’ve traveled through the Bermuda Triangle multiple times since, my interest in the mystery has remained.
The first reported weirdness in the Bermuda Triangle was provided by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to the New World in 1492. He wrote in his log diaries about erratic compass readings, strange lights in the distance, patches of white water and even a large ball of fire crashing into the sea.
Columbus and his ships also encountered floating sargassum, the carpet of seaweed, fucus and tropical berries that grow in the Atlantic where four different currents interact to create an area of unusually calm water and a lack of wind that we know today as the Sargasso Sea. The seaweed was so thick in places that Columbus’s vessels had difficulty sailing through it, so much so his crew feared they would be dragged down to the ocean floor and drowned.
Spanish sailors exploring and settling the Americas spread these fears and stoked them with additional tales of unpredictable hurricanes and blood- thirsty pirates. British sailors added their warnings of the treacherous waters around the islands of Bermuda. As sea traffic increased so too did legends of the Sargasso Sea, including stories of ships immobilized in seaweed, slowly decaying with cargo intact and manned by skeleton crews.
The list of cargo ships, fishing vehicles and pleasure craft that are known to have vanished in what we consider the Bermuda Triangle is too long to list here. The unexplained disappearance in 1918 of the USS Cyclops, a 542-foot- long cargo ship, and six Navy airplanes in 1945 helped bring the yet unnamed area to public attention.
In March 1918, the Cyclops departed Brazil for Baltimore, MD, carrying more than 300 men and 10,000 tons of manganese ore to be used in making steel for the war effort. After resupplying in Barbados, the ship’s captain sent a message out indicating “fair weather and all well.” The ship never arrived in Baltimore. No SOS was picked up by any ships.
An extensive search found neither wreckage nor evidence of German submarines. The Navy called it one its most baffling mysteries, and it remains the single largest non-combat loss in U.S. Naval history. In 1941, two of the Cyclops’s original sister ships vanished without a trace along nearly the same route. Again, no SOS. No evidence of German U-boats.
In December 1945, five Navy bombers carrying 14 men took off from a Fort Lauderdale, FL, airfield to conduct practice bombing runs over the Chicken Shoals north of Bimini in the Bahamas. Flight 19, as the training mission was called, departed at 2:00 p.m. in ideal flying weather. About an hour into the mission, the radioman at the air station tower began to receive messages from the captain about compasses going crazy, low fuel, white haze and 75-mph winds. The radioman could hear the conversations between pilots about being lost but couldn’t communicate with them. Eventually all communications went silent.
The Navy scrambled planes to hunt for the five missing planes. Twenty minutes later, one of the rescue planes vanished off the radioman’s radar, and like Flight 19, went missing. The Coast Guard looked for survivors throughout the night, and the next day an enormous search began, involving almost 300 planes, four Navy destroyers, 18 Coast Guard vessels, several submarines, and hundreds of private planes, yachts, and boats. The search of 380,000 square miles of land and sea found nothing. Researchers have been trying to figure out the mystery ever since.
The 1950s and ‘60s were decades ripe for science fiction. The post-WWII years plus the Korean War, Cold War and then the space race created fertile ground for writers and filmmakers to spin tales about atomic energy, space travel, the supernatural, aliens and UFOs. Boats and planes disappearing made for good fodder.
The Miami Herald ran a piece in September 1950 about unusual plane and boat disappearances off the coast of Florida and the Bahamas. Two years later, Fate Magazine published a longer story about this and was the first to define the area where it happened and suggest the supernatural might be to blame.
The Bermuda Triangle got its official name in February 1964 when sci-fi writer Vincent Gaddis’s article entitled “The Deadly Bermuda Triangle” appeared in the popular pulp magazine Argosy. Other writers followed suit, and Bermuda Triangle obsession hit its peak in the early 1970s with the publication of several books, including the bestseller by Charles Berlitz, The Bermuda Triangle, which sold 20 million copies in 30 languages.
Hollywood and TV picked up on the Triangle zeitgeist with several films and made-for-TV movies, the campiest and most popular being Airport 77 about a private 747 carrying rich passengers and priceless art that veers off course in the Bermuda Triangle and crashes into the sea.
Milton Bradley put out a board game challenging players to take your fleet of ships across the lime-green waters of the Bermuda Triangle and brave the sinister mystery cloud that swallows ships and planes. Fleetwood Mac and Barry Manilow even put out songs titled “Bermuda Triangle.” I will say Manilow’s version sounds vaguely familiar to his hit “Copacabana.” Bermuda Triangle, don’t you go near. Bermuda Triangle, you’ll disappear.
Since Berlitz, scores of paranormal writers have suggested aliens, time warps and reverse gravity fields to explain the Bermuda Triangle. My favorite explanation blames crystal energy technology developed on the mythical city of Atlantis before it sank. Supposedly these crystals are still active on the seafloor, beaming up and causing mechanical malfunctions on boats and planes above.
Scientifically minded theorists have pointed out that the Bermuda Triangle is one of two places on Earth where a compass will point to true north instead of magnetic north and can throw off navigation if not properly accounted for. Others place the blame on waterspouts, rogue waves, microburst cloud bombs, the Gulf Stream and undersea waterfalls, treacherous reefs, or giant bubbles from methane gas eruptions from the ocean floor that rise and cause craters and sink ships. But that doesn’t explain Flight 19, does it?
More likely theories involve sudden storms, pilot errors, damaged planes and ships, or running out of fuel. According to the Coast Guard, nothing has ever been discovered to indicate any aircraft or vehicle losses in the area over the years were the result of anything other than physical causes. In other words, nothing extraordinary.
Fact or fiction, the Bermuda Triangle continues to mystify. And despite the best efforts of scientists to debunk the myth, people continue to cling to conspiracy theories. I get it. The thought of alien abduction or ocean flatulence is much more exciting than bad weather.