“Ghostship found 95 years after disappearing is leaving researchers shaken [Music] [Applause] There wasn’t GPS or radar a hundred years ago, so when things went missing, they tended to stay missing. Records report ships, planes, and cars that all disappeared, leaving behind no trace except a sense of confusion and an unsolvable mystery. But one vessel that went missing way back in 1925 made a century-long search a bit easier when it actually returned after having vanished for almost a hundred years.
When the SS Cotopaxi showed up once again, it left researchers everywhere scratching their heads. On the cold November morning that the SS Cotopaxi set sail with its cargo full of coal, everyone on board expected a relatively easy voyage lasting just a couple of days.
They were wrong. The ill-fated carrier, named for a volcano, was set to go from Charleston, South Carolina, and disembark in Havana, Cuba. Along with the hefty cargo, 32 crew members were on board the ship. However, after the boat still hadn’t arrived in Havana several days after departure, people grew concerned. Still, residents of the port city held out hope that somehow passengers were just delayed and might still arrive safely.
After days turned into weeks and weeks stretched into months, the friends and family of those on board had to resign themselves to the awful truth that they might never find out what happened to their loved ones. Although researchers tried for years to answer the elusive question of what on earth had occurred that day and where the Cotopaxi had gotten off to, they failed to produce any meaningful results.
For a while at least, however, due to the particularly confusing nature of this ship’s disappearance, the mystery surrounding the SS Cotopaxi became a staple of popular culture. Movies, shows, and myths all tackled the enigma throughout the years. In fact, the Cotopaxi became so infamous that it was even featured in the classic Steven Spielberg movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In this film, the ship is shown resurfacing in an unlikely place: in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
Over the years, the mystery of the vanishing deepened when rampant rumors surfaced that the vessel had been found empty, floating along near the St. Augustine coast where it had first set sail. These reports were quickly debunked, however. 95 whole years after the boat’s initial disappearance, a group of daring researchers finally discovered the real truth about the dark fate of the SS Cotopaxi. They risked everything to find the answer.
A team of divers and scientists, including shipwreck secret host Michael Barnett, combed through all the evidence they could, searching documents to uncover the reality of what went down all those years ago. While scanning these piles of documents, the researchers came upon papers provided by the boat’s insurer.
This quick lead led them down the path to a startling discovery. They found that a distress call had been sent from the Cotopaxi on December 1st, a couple of days after it left shore. Apparently, passengers and sailors were caught up in a tropical storm, and the ship was taking on water. That wasn’t all; other info included in the logs, such as the ship’s exact route and the location that the fruitless distress signal had come from, led them directly to the site where the ship last made contact with the outside world.
What they learned next shook them to their core. The coordinates of the distress call led the researchers straight to a shipwreck that lay beneath the watery depths. However, this was no newly discovered wreck; it was found 30 years earlier and left unidentified, simply named the “Bare Wreck.” With the help of professional divers, scientists used corroborating information such as the ship’s dimensions, orientation of its machinery, and even the size of its boiler to confirm that the wreck was, in fact, the SS Cotopaxi.
The experts’ minds jumped to one theory. While many conspiracy nuts associate this mystery with the supposedly supernatural legacy of the Bermuda Triangle, where many vehicles went missing without a trace, the Bare Wreck was technically located outside of it.
Regardless of how close the wreck was to the triangle, Barnett refused to indulge in what he saw as big men. “Personally, I believe it’s all folklore,” he argued. For what it’s worth, the Coast Guard doesn’t believe in the other-worldliness of the Bermuda Triangle either. They officially stated there’s no evidence that mysterious disappearances occur with any greater frequency in the Bermuda Triangle than in any other large, well-traveled area of the ocean.
However, one academic does think that this region could be more dangerous than others. His studies, though, focused on a particular scientific explanation for the accidents rather than a supernatural one.
Yes, oceanographer Simon Boxall believes that northern and southern storms meet in the Bermuda Triangle, leading to monster waves that can reach up to a hundred feet in height, causing the proliferation of deadly accidents. Still, he couldn’t explain the shipwreck, particularly a famous disaster that happened further north.
Constructed in 1813, the Terror was a British naval ship that specialized in destruction. Armed with two heavy mortars and ten cannons, the bombing vessel was jam-packed with the kind of firepower that truly gave meaning to its name. It wasn’t long for the world. The Terror played a key role in the War of 1812, taking part in the bombardment of Stonington, Connecticut, in 1814. A year later, the ship provided support during the Battle of Fort Peter, as well as the attack on St. Mary’s, Georgia.
After the war, the Terror was decommissioned until 1828, when it was called to serve in the Mediterranean. The vessel suffered damage near Lisbon, Portugal, shortly after beginning its patrol and was removed from service thereafter.
But the Terror found new life in the mid-1830s when it was recommissioned as a polar exploration vessel. With its sturdy frame and powerful engine, the Terror seemed capable of traversing even the most treacherous of Arctic terrains. This confidence was put to the test in 1836 when Captain George Back helmed the Terror on an expedition to Hudson Bay.
Despite being well-equipped for the journey, the vessel wound up trapped in sea ice for ten months before returning to port. The Terror’s second expedition in 1840 under James Clark Ross proved more fruitful as the ship, and its companion vessel, the HMS Erebus, completed a three-year journey to Antarctica. Mount Terror, a dormant volcano on Ross Island, was even named in the ship’s honor.
In May 1845, Sir John Franklin led the Terror and the Erebus on an expedition across the Northwest Passage, a feat that had never been accomplished before. The journey looked promising at the start, though after being spotted in Baffin Bay in August, the ships vanished without a trace.
A series of search efforts were launched to locate the missing ships, though neither the vessels nor Franklin and his crew were ever found. Then, in 1859, a note was discovered in a stack of rocks on King William Island that revealed the startling fate of the expedition.
Dated 1848, the note explained that both the Terror and the Erebus had become trapped in ice in the Victoria Strait, forcing the crews to abandon ship. The survivors attempted a trek to a fur trading post some 600 miles away but quickly perished from starvation and exposure.
More than a hundred years after the note’s discovery, the remains of a number of crewmen were located on King William Island. Autopsies of the bodies showed that, in addition to hypothermia and lack of food, the men also suffered from lead poisoning and botulism, likely a result of tainted rations.
In the late 20th century, Inuit researchers discovered that cannibalism may have played a role in the demise of the Terror and Erebus crews. Cut marks on the skeletal remains of several crew members suggested that the men may have resorted to eating one another to survive. Yet, one question remained: where were the ships, and for that matter, could they even be salvaged after spending more than a century beneath the frigid waters of the Arctic? There was no telling what condition they’d be found.
The answer to that question came two decades later when the wreck of the Erebus was discovered off the coast of King William Island in 2014. Then, in 2016, the Terror was located 45 miles away in a body of water aptly called Terror Bay. Archaeologists were eager to explore the lost wrecks, though it wasn’t until 2019 that they acquired the technology to do so.
Using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the researchers began a systematic exploration of the ships, surveying the various cabins and compartments of the vessels. The archaeologists were blown away by how well-preserved everything was. Cabinets were closed and filled with liquor. Furniture sat in place, and even paper maps remained intact and readable. “The impression we witnessed when exploring the HMS Terror is of a ship only recently deserted by its crew, seemingly forgotten by the passage of time,” said ROV pilot Ryan Harris.
The captain’s cabin proved to be the biggest treasure trove, containing maps, a tripod, and several thermometers. Cabinets filled with plates and cutlery were also discovered, their contents still polished and colorful despite spending decades beneath the sea. But how is this possible? According to the researchers, the Arctic conditions created the perfect environment for preservation. Between the zero-degree water temperature, the lack of natural light, and sedimentation, the artifacts had very little chance to decompose.
This explanation marks the first of many in an effort to recover all artifacts from the wrecks. By analyzing these objects, researchers hope to learn more about how and why Franklin’s expedition met its tragic end.
“The excellent condition of the ship will, I hope, mean that there will soon be answers to so many questions about the fate of the Franklin expedition, shrouded in mystery since 1845,” said British High Commissioner to Canada Susan Lejeune.