Since the SS Cotopaxi disappeared in 1925, it has become one of the most famous stories associated with the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. On November 29, 1925 the steam powered bulk carrier set off on a standard trip from Charleston, South Carolina to Havana, Cuba. No one knows where or how it vanished and none of bodies of the 32 passengers on board were ever recovered. It is one of the triangle’s biggest secrets and even popped up at the end of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Now, almost 100 years later, a team of marine biologists and underwater explorers have identified the SS Cotopaxi about 35 nautical miles off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida. Their research and findings can be seen in the premiere episode of the new Science Channel series, SHIPWRECK SECRETS, premiering Sunday, February 9 at 8 p.m. Subsequent episodes will premiere on Sunday nights at 9 p.m.
To help pinpoint the possible location where the SS Cotopaxi sunk, marine biologist and underwater explorer Michael Barnette contacted British historian Guy Walters to help do some digging. Walters combed through ship records at the archives of Lloyd’s of London, who were the insurance brokers of the SS Cotopaxi. There he discovered something previously unknown about the SS Cotopaxi’s voyage. The ship had sent out wireless distress signals on December 1st, 1925, two days after it left Charleston. The signals were picked up in Jacksonville, Florida, placing the ship in the area of a shipwreck found nearly 35 years ago, known as the Bear Wreck.
Armed with this new information, Barnette headed to St. Augustine with his dive partner, Joe Citelli, to dive the wreck. Their dive as well as the use of an underwater drone to survey the ship, did not produce any corroborating evidence, however. From there, Barnette met with Al Perkins, an avid diver who has been diving the Bear Wreck since the 1980’s. On these dives, Perkins had collected souvenirs, one of which, a valve that was made by Scott Valve Company in Detroit, 12 miles from where the SS Cotopaxi was built in Ecorse, Michigan, perhaps an important piece to the puzzle.
Barnette then enlisted the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, a non-profit organization dedicated to researching and preserving the 500 year long maritime history of the region. Two of their leading maritime archeologists Chuck Meide and Brendan Burke are experts in discovering, exploring and identifying wrecks in the area. Barnette and Meide then dove to measure the wreck to see how the data compared with the original layout of the SS Cotopaxi. Everything they found was consistent with the original plans of the ship, such as the basic layout and dimensions of the site, the length of the wreck, the position of the machinery and other diagnostic features such as the number and dimensions of the boilers.
Further research was able to corroborate the wreck’s location compared to where the distress signals were sent out, leading Barnette to come to no other conclusion, other than that the Bear Wreck is in actuality the long-lost SS Cotopaxi.
SHIPWRECK SECRETS then visited with Douglas Myers in Long Island, NY, the grandson the SS Cotopaxi Captain William J. Myers where he was told that the ship had after nearly a century been identified.
Among the other stories looked at in SHIPWRECK SECRETS are the SS Justicia, a British ship sunk during World War I, that was torpedoed by a submarine near the notorious killing zone close to Malin’s Head, Ireland; the Ghost Ships of Chuuk Lagoon, Japan’s main World War II base in the South Pacific, but in 1944, American forces launched an attack and over a two day bombardment more than 60 Japanese Imperial Vessels ended up on the floor of the lagoon, partly in retribution for Pearl Harbor; the Lake Serpent, a 200-year-old schooner that lies at the bottom of Lake Erie, which was an integral part of the north American trade route through the Great Lakes.
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