Wreck's Identification 95 Years After Ship's Disappearance Puts Theories To Rest

Feb 9, 2020
Originally published on February 13, 2020 1:29 pm

Lore had it that the SS Cotopaxi was swallowed by the infamous Bermuda Triangle after the steamship, and all 32 crew members on board, inexplicably vanished in 1925.

In the sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, aliens are responsible for the ship's disappearance.

But a team of divers has identified the ship and debunked the fictions, theories and conspiracies that emerged over the years. And unlike in Close Encounters, the ship wasn't found in the Gobi desert, but rather 35 miles off St. Augustine in Florida.

The Cotopaxi had set off on its normal route between Charleston, S.C., and Havana, carrying a cargo of coal, when it was caught in a powerful storm, Michael Barnette discovered.

The wreck isn't located within the boundaries of the Bermuda Triangle — a region in the Atlantic Ocean with its corners at South Florida, Bermuda and Puerto Rico that has been blamed for unexplained disappearances.

Barnette first spotted the wrecked ship 15 years ago, but proving that it was indeed the Cotopaxi became the real challenge. He knew a ship had gone down off St. Augustine, but it had been in the sand for a long time and he needed a well-trained eye to identify the wreckage.

"It's almost like a crime scene or aircraft accident crash site where you're trying to put all the pieces back together, because it's not a Hollywood film set," Barnette told NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday.

Barnette, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, laid out his mission to get to the bottom of the "Bear Wreck" in the Science Channel series Shipwreck Secrets, which is set to air on Sunday.

He and his diving partner took extensive measurements of the ship and compared them with the blueprints used to build the Cotopaxi.

It took them about 12 dives to get all the measurements they needed. They even found pieces of old coal, which is what would have been in the Cotopaxi's cargo holds. But to definitively confirm that the debris was the Cotopaxi, Barnette had to dig through more historical documents.

He came across a lawsuit, filed by family members of the lost crew members against the company that owned the ship. A carpenter who had been hired to repair hatch covers gave testimony saying that many similar ships had a design flaw: Water that washed across the deck would leak into the cargo hold, and the flooding could cause the vessel to capsize and sink.

There also was the record of a distress call from the Cotopaxi: Again, the evidence lined up. Its coordinates pointed not to the Bermuda Triangle but to the north and west — about 20 miles from that suspicious wreckage off St. Augustine.

Barnette is confident and pleased with his discovery — but also humbled by the magnitude of what was lost.

"As a diver, we want to identify these shipwrecks," he said. "So you get excited when you actually do that, but then you sometimes go through emotional roller coaster whereupon that realization of what this vessel is, you also learn what it signifies: in this case, the grave of 32 men."

For Gregory West of Charleston, identifying the Cotopaxi meant the end of a family mystery. His great-uncle, Robert Fulcher, was one of the ship's crew members.

The grave of Robert Fulcher, who died in the 1925 Cotopaxi shipwreck, lies among those of family members, at Saint Lawrence Cemetery, in Charleston, S.C.
Gregory West

"It really does help bring closure," he said. "Now we know exactly where the ship went down, where his remains lie, the cause of the sinking. It was not due to sea monsters or whirlpools or aliens or any such thing in the Bermuda Triangle."

Still, West isn't ruling out the supernatural completely. A few nights following news of the discovery, he flipped on the TV to a movie channel to find an eerie coincidence.

"It started 15 minutes earlier — it was Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he said. "So I had a kind of a freaky moment — maybe Uncle Roberts calling me."

: 2/09/20

An earlier audio version of this story incorrectly stated the Cotopaxi disappeared in 1923. In fact, the ship was lost in 1925.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As character) I don't believe it. It's the Cotopaxi. Why is it here?

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

That scene from "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" shows a steamship that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle, being discovered in the Gobi Desert. Spoiler alert, the aliens did it, but the Cotopaxi is a real ship. And now we actually know where it is. Diver Michael Barnette made the discovery.

MICHAEL BARNETTE: It was not re-found in the Gobi Desert, but 35 miles off St. Augustine. And also, it was interesting to note that the vessel they used - obviously, they are using a ship's model, but it's modeled off the wrong vessel. It doesn't look anything like the Cotopaxi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The real thing was smaller and carried coal. Its normal route was between Charleston, S.C., and Havana, Cuba. In 1923, on the way to Havana, there was a distress call. The Cotopaxi had run into a powerful storm with 32 crew members aboard.

BARNETTE: There was no survivors. There was no lifeboats or anything, no trace whatsoever on the ship.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So for about the last decade, Barnette's been trying to figure out what happened. First, he had to untangle the legends and lore. Was the Cotopaxi swallowed by the Bermuda Triangle or aliens, a victim of the Flying Dutchman? Well, he knew a ship had gone down off St. Augustine, Fla., but it had been in the sand for a long time and it needed a well-trained eye to make any sense of it.

BARNETTE: It's also a crime scene or a aircraft accident crash site where you're trying to put all the pieces back together because it's not a Hollywood film set. Usually it looks like an underwater junkyard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michael Barnette and his diving partner took extensive measurements and compared those to the plans used to build the Cotopaxi. It took about 12 dives to get all the measurements they needed. They even found pieces of old coal, which is what would have been in the cargo holds. But to really confirm that this debris was indeed the Cotopaxi, Barnette had to dig through more historical documents. There'd been a lawsuit filed by family members of the lost crew against the company that owned the ship. A carpenter who was hired to repair hatch covers was interviewed in court.

BARNETTE: He gave stark testimony saying that a lot of these were damaged or missing entirely, meaning that any water that wash across the deck will go into the cargo hold and be impossible to pump out and potentially allow the vessel to capsize and sink.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then there was the record of the Cotopaxi's distress call. Its coordinates pointed not to the Bermuda Triangle, but to the north and west, just about 20 miles from that suspicious wreckage off St. Augustine. The evidence lined up. Barnette is confident and pleased and also humbled.

BARNETTE: As a diver, you know, we want identify these shipwrecks, so you get excited when you actually do that. But then you sometimes go through emotional rollercoaster where upon that realization of what his vessel is you also learn what it signifies, in this case, the grave of 32 men.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For Gregory West, a native Charlestonian, identifying the Cotopaxi meant the end of a family mystery. His great uncle, Robert Fulcher, was one of the ship's crew.

GREGORY WEST: Now we know exactly where the ship went down, where his remains lie. The cause of the sinking, it was not due to sea monsters or whirlpools or aliens or any such thing as the Bermuda Triangle. Really does help bring closure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, Father West isn't ruling out the supernatural completely.

WEST: When I got home last night, and I turned on the television in the kitchen - and I'm not making this up. It opened to an app that's a movie channel. And guess what the movie was that was playing already that it started 50 minutes earlier? It was "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." So that was kind of a freaky moment (laughter). Maybe Uncle Robert's calling me (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Father Gregory West and Michael Barnette on the mystery of the Cotopaxi being solved.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.