There wasn’t GPS or radar 100 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 one 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 was to set sail with its cargo full of coal, everyone onboard 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.
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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 out into months, the friends and family of those onboard had to resign themselves to the awful truth that they might never find out what had 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 the 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.
Columbia Pictures – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Over the years, the mystery of the vanished ship 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.
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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 Secrets hostMichael Barnette, combed through all the evidence they could, searching documents to uncover the reality of what went down all those years ago.
The Science Channel – Shipwreck Secrets
While scanning these piles of documents, the researchers suddenly came upon papers provided by the boat’s insurer. This quickly led them down the path to a startling discovery.
Anne Koerber – LSHTM
They found that a distress call had been sent from the Cotopaxi on December 1st, a couple 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.
Warner Bros – Poseidon
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 lost 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 ship wreck 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 “Bear 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 associated this mystery with the supposedly supernatural legacy of the Bermuda Triangle, where many vehicles went missing without a trace. But the Bear Wreck was technically located outside of it.
Regardless of how close the wreck was to the Triangle, Barnette refused to indulge in what he saw as a big myth. “Personally, I believe it’s all folklore,” he argued.
For what it’s worth, the Coast Guard doesn’t believe in the otherworldliness of the Bermuda Triangle either. They officially stated, “There is 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.”
United States Coast Guard
However, one academic does think that this region could be more dangerous than others. His study, though, focused on a possible 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 shipwreck, particularly a famous disaster that happened further north.
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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 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 shipprovided support during the Battle of Fort Peter as well as the attack on St. Marys, 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’d 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.
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Dated April 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 to trek to a fur-trading post some 600 miles away though quickly perished from starvation and exposure.
More than 100 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 in if found.
The answer to that question came two decades later, when 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.
Searching 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 taut and readable.
Visions of the North
“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 was this possible? According to the researchers, the Arctic conditions created the perfect environment for preservation. Between the zero-degree water temperature, lack of natural light, and sedimentation, the artifacts had very little chance to decompose.
This exploration marks the first many in an effort to recover all artifacts from the wreckages. 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 Le Jeune d’Allegeershecque.
Since the fateful sinking of the Terror and the Erebus, more than a handful of other ships have also met a watery grave.The SS America, for instance, was originally sold to become a hotel off Phuket, Thailand, though it never made it there.
While its base was still in excellent condition, the ship could no longer run properly and was set to be towed across the ocean for 100 days. But, the towlines broke, and, despite the crew’s best efforts, the ship was left adrift.
On January 18, 1992, it ran aground off the west coast of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands where it slowly disintegrated over time. Only a relatively small section of the bow, as well as the keel of the vessel, were still visible at low tide.
2. Desert Ships in Mo’ynoq, Uzbekistan: The last place you’d expect to find a shipwreck is the desert, but there are plenty to be found outside of Mo’ynoq, Uzbekistan. It was once a busy Soviet fishing port on the Aral Sea — once one of the four largest lakes in the world — but today, nothing but desert remains.
What once was a 26,300 square mile body of water has dried up when the rivers feeding it were diverted for irrigation purposes. It has since shrunk to less than 10% of its original size and is considered one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters of all time.
The ships are located 100 miles from the current shore, creating a surreal sight for anyone who finds them. While the ships themselves don’t seem to be haunted, Mo’ynoq has become a ghost town of abandoned fish industries. Pretty eerie…
3. SS Antilla in Aruba, The Caribbean: This German cargo ship was launched in 1939 but didn’t live a long life… it was built for trade between Germany and the Caribbean and thus named after the Dutch islands, which are referred to as “The Antillen.”
On May 10th, 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands, so the Dutch government immediately ordered the seizure of all German ships. However, before the Dutch marines could execute their attack, the Germans began to scuttle, or purposely sink, the Antilla.
One crewman locked himself in the engine room, opened her seacocks, and climbed out through the funnel, while others set fire to several parts of the ship. Sixty years later, she became a popular scuba diving spot.
4. HMS E5 in the North Sea, The Netherlands: The Antilla was not the only ship that led a short life due to warfare. The English E-class submarine was on its way to rescue survivors of a wrecked trawler in the North Sea when it met its fate.
It was 1916, in the middle of World War I, and Germany had planted underwater mines all around their coast as well as those of the Dutch Wadden Islands. Even submarines had a tough time navigating around this threat.
In 2016 divers found the wreck of E5 off the Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog. Her hatches were open, which suggests the crew tried to escape. The disappearance of its 29 sailors was finally solved.
5. M.P. Émelie in Baie-Saint-Paul, Canada: Captain Eloi Perron built what at first felt like the love of his life in 1956 and piloted it along the St. Lawrence River until 1975. It was eventually sold and resold several times until it was stranded 90km north of Quebec City.
There she lay for decades, rotting away until finally, in 2015, a fire accidentally set off by a thief trying to cut through the copper in the boat’s hull destroyed what was left of it, leaving only the frame. It pained Perron to see it whenever he visited Baie-Saint-Paul.
On February 15, 2018, Perron passed away from old age. A week later, his son was informed that the wreckage had completely disappeared! The ship left the world with its true owner.
6. Ghost fleet in Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia: Formerly Truk Lagoon, this area is littered with planes, ships, cars, tanks and bodies — victims of WWII. For two days in 1944, Allied bombers rained destruction on the beaches of the Caroline Islands in the South Pacific.
Often referred to as “Japan’s Pearl Harbor,” Operation Hailstone was so successful that the lagoon became a kind of cemetery. Approximately 250 Japanese aircrafts and over 50 ships were destroyed and sunken.
An estimated 400 Japanese soldiers were killed in one ship alone, trapped in the cargo hold. The fleet was largely forgotten until the late 1960s, when wreck divers brought attention to the site. Japan then made recovery efforts and removed many bodies for burial.
7. The SS Mohegan, Cornwall, England: The sinking of SS Mohegan is one of the biggest tragedies and mysteries of the Atlantic Transport Line ever to occur. The ship hit another, the Manacles, on her second voyage, on 14th October 1898.
Some people on board noticed the ship sailed too close to the coast and the Eddystone Lighthouse was too far away. When the ship struck Vase Rocks, the engine room immediately flooded and the steam gauges broke. Everyone ran onto the deck.
The crew managed to prepare two lifeboats, one of which capsized. It took only 12 minutes for the sea to swallow the Mohegan. Lifeboat Charlotte launched right away but only managed to save 44 passengers — no officers or crew. The recovered bodies were buried in a mass grave in St. Keverne.
8. Empire Strength (Romania): An old, decrepit ship rests just off the coast in the Black Sea. One kayaker, with a GoPro strapped to his head, bravely explored it.
Mike / Wikimedia
On the side of the hull, there’s a small crack. You can’t fit a boat inside of it, but this experienced adventurer was no stranger to navigating tight confines.
RM Videos / Youtube
The ship wore a coat of thick rust, but this fearless explorer continued his journey into the opening. With sharp edges and hidden pieces lurking below, this was no task for the casual kayaker.
Furthermore, in an unstable structure like an old ship, you never know what might be ready to crumble. Anything he touched could nudge something out of place and bring down some wreckage…
RM Videos / Youtube
Using his hands instead of his paddle, the kayaker guided himself fully into the ship. The interior was dark, but luckily, light poured through cracks. The inside wasn’t in any better condition than the outside.
There was definitely an eerie vibe to the ship that time had worn down into looking like an evil villain’s vaulted lair. Girders ribbed the walls and ceiling, while enormous gears and pistons blocked certain pathways.
Comments on the kayaker’s original video relayed mixed feelings about his journey. One person posting, “I noticed the Harland & Wolff logo on the main engine. Possibly the whole ship was built by this British shipyard, the builders of the SS Titanic.”
Others compared the structure’s interior to other familiar settings in shipwreck films and video game franchises. However, most comments seemed upset that the guy sometimes had his feet hanging outside the kayak!
Perhaps more interesting than the interior of this dilapidated ship, however, was the history of the ship itself. It spent years navigating waters all around the world before it was finally abandoned…
The vessel actually served within the UK’s Ministry of War Transport as an Empire Ship; it was used for giving the country’s wartime fleet a little extra umph. These ships were usually either built or captured from enemies.
RM Videos / Youtube
Before and during World War II, the United Kingdom boasted the largest fleet of merchant ships, but the war claimed 4,000 of them. German U-boats and the Luftwaffe patrolled the water, looking to sink enemy vessels…
Built in 1942 in a shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the ship weighed 7,355 tons! And though you probably couldn’t tell from its current state, this ship actually survived the fighting of WWII.
Despite the glory of Empire Strength‘s appearance and apparent might, its role wasn’t the most glamorous: it transported frozen meat from Argentina in 1944 and 1945, making stops at ports in North Africa, Algiers, Cuba, and Australia.
Just 26 years after it was built, EmpireStrength—whose name at one point had been changed to MV E Evangelia—ran aground just 16 miles south of the largest port in the Black Sea. Unable to move, it was abandoned and left floating in its current spot.
At first, locals raided the ship for anything of value, but now the MV E Evangelia has been reduced to nothing more than a few good photos and exploratory opportunities…
Still, the ship in its current state serves as a one-of-a-kind tourist attraction. Some people even brave the waters and swim out to the wreck—though that seems like a good way to cut yourself on a ship fragment!
Apparently, there’s even a way to get onto the deck, but it involves navigating rusty pipes and climbing up a ladder to a dark, windowless shaft. That seems, uh… safe? Yikes!
Thanks to one courageous kayaker, who documented his exploration, we were all able to experience a journey through a piece of history. We’re thankful he didn’t just take a trip to a nearby sandbar!
Check out the video this adventurous man recorded first-hand while paddling into the unknown. You’ll be quite surprised to find all the history that’s still intact!
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