Defying 70 years of fevered speculation, a sceptical scientist has dared to declare that the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle has been ‘solved’ – by claiming there was no mystery in the first place.
Karl Kruszelnicki has insisted the reason why so many ships and planes vanish without trace in the area between Bermuda, Florida, Puerto Rico is nothing to do with aliens or fire-crystals from the lost city of Atlantis.
Instead, the Australian scientist ‘revealed’, the high number of disappearances is explained by nothing more supernatural than plain old human error plus bad weather and the fact that lots of planes and ships enter that area of the Atlantic Ocean in the first place.
Mr Kruszelnicki told news.com.au that not only does the Bermuda Triangle – (aka ‘Hodoo Sea’, ‘Devil’s Triangle’, ‘Limbo of the Lost’ and other headline-friendly monikers) – cover a large, 700,000 square-kilometre (270,000 square-mile) swathe of ocean, it is also a particularly busy patch of sea.
“It is close to the Equator, near a wealthy part of the world – America – therefore you have a lot of traffic,” he said.
So, said Mr Kruszelnicki, when you then compare the number of disappearances to the large quantity of ships and planes passing through the Bermuda Triangle, you find there is nothing out of the ordinary about the area at all.
“According to Lloyd’s of London and the US Coastguard,” he said, “The number that go missing in the Bermuda Triangle is the same as anywhere in the world on a percentage basis.”
Mr Kruszelnicki, who has a fellowship at Sydney University for communicating science to the broader community, also said there were simple explanations for the disappearance that did the most to start the whole Bermuda Triangle speculation: the loss of “Flight 19.”
This was a flight of five US Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers that set off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on December 5 1945 for a routine two-hour training mission over the Atlantic.
After losing radio contact with their base, all five planes vanished. No trace of them or their 14 crew members was found.
Even more spookily, it was later claimed, a PBM-Mariner seaplane dispatched that night on a search-and-rescue mission to find Flight 19 also disappeared, along with its 13 crew.
In the absence of either knowledge or fact-checking, speculation about Flight 19 became a growth industry, especially after 1964, when the writer Vincent Gaddis advanced his theories in an article entitled The Deadly Bermuda Triangle.
“Whatever this menace that lurks within a triangle of tragedy so close to home,” he wrote, “It was responsible for the most incredible mystery in the history of aviation – the lost patrol.
“This relatively limited area is the scene of disappearances that total far beyond the laws of chance. Its history of mystery dates back to the never-explained, enigmatic light observed by Columbus when he first approached his landfall in the Bahamas.”
As well as pointing out that Lloyd’s of London would disagree with Gaddis’ statistical analysis, Mr Kruszelnicki also offered simple explanations for the loss of Flight 19.
For a start, he said, despite Gaddis suggestion the patrol vanished in ideal flight conditions, “It wasn’t fine weather, there were 15m (49ft) waves.”
Mr Kruszelnicki added that the only truly experienced pilot in the flight was its leader, Lieutenant Charles Taylor, and his human error may well have played a part in the tragedy.
“[He] arrived with a hangover, flew off without a watch, and had a history of getting lost and ditching his plane twice before,” said Mr Kruszelnicki.
Radio transcripts from before the patrol vanished, he added, made it clear that Flight 19 had become unsure of its position.
The transcripts show Lt Taylor thought his compass had malfunctioned and that he was above Florida Keys – a string of islands stretching to the southwest of the US mainland – when in fact later analysis by ground staff would show he was to the southeast, near an island in the Bahamas.
Mr Kruszelnicki said Lt Taylor overruled a junior pilot who said they should turn west, and insisted the patrol fly east, unwittingly taking them further into the Atlantic, above deep water where it might be harder to find sunken planes or bodies.
“If you read the radio transcripts,” said Mr Kruszelnicki, “Some of the junior pilots are saying, ‘Why don’t we fly to the west?’, and the pilot says, ‘Why don’t we fly to the east?’”
Even more damningly for the Bermuda Triangle ‘mystery’, said Mr Kruszelnicki, was the fate of the search-and-rescue seaplane that according to Gaddis and others also vanished.
“It didn’t vanish without a trace,” said Mr Kruszelnicki. “[It] was seen to blow up.”
There were several witnesses to the explosion; an oil slick and debris were found; and after the disaster, the US Navy grounded all other PBM-Mariner seaplanes. The aircraft had already gained the ominous nickname ‘flying gas tanks’.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Mr Kruszelnicki, a popular science pundit on Australian TV and radio, will succeed in his attempt to close down the Bermuda Triangle ‘mystery’.
Very similar efforts have been made in the past.
Lloyd’s of London has been saying that Bermuda Triangle disappearances occur at the same rate as everywhere else since at least 1975.
That, however, was a bad year for Bermuda Triangle debunking, because Charles Berlitz’s book The Bermuda Triangle, published in 1974, was on its way to selling 20 million copies in 30 languages.
By 1977 the Bermuda Triangle had gained such mass appeal that Steven Spielberg included references to it in his avowedly fictional film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which depicted the crews of Flight 19 as having been abducted by aliens.
Seemingly undaunted, Lloyd’s of London has regularly repeated its claims about the unremarkable nature of the Bermuda Triangle.
In 1997 a spokesman backed up the claim that “There are just as many losses as in other wide expanses of ocean”, by adding that insurance premiums for voyages through the Bermuda Triangle were no higher than for any other routine sea journey.
This, however, had little noticeable effect.
The theories have proliferated, despite the fact that Gaddis’ Deadly Bermuda Triangle article had been published in an American magazine that sometimes promoted itself as “the magazine of masterpiece fiction”.
And despite the fact that Berlitz’s bestseller linked the Mary Celeste to the Bermuda Triangle, even though the ship had been found abandoned off the Azores, on the other side of the Atlantic, and its New York-Italy route would have taken it nowhere near the triangle.
It is now possible to go online and find theories that dismiss such absurd notions as planes and ships disappearing into some sort of black hole or time warp within the Bermuda Triangle, and instead explain: “The Bermuda Triangle is situated more or less in the middle of an area of the Atlantic Ocean that once housed Atlantis.
“When Atlantis was destroyed it sank to the very bottom of the ocean. While the ruined temples now play host to multitudinous underwater creatures, the great Atlantean fire-crystals that once provided so much of the tremendous power and energy that was found in Atlantis still exist.
“And they are still emitting strong energy beams into the universe.
“From time to time, the force field emitted by these damaged Atlantean fire-crystals becomes very powerful and any plane or ship coming within the influence of this force field disintegrates and is transformed into pure energy.”
New theories are constantly being put forward, some with a kernel of scientific truth to them.
Some have attributed Bermuda Triangle disappearances to explosive releases of methane gas, trapped as methane hydrate inside an icy crystalline cage of water molecules beneath the cold seabed of the deep ocean.
Such blowouts, it has been suggested, could release a giant plume of gas that could cause the sea to bubble like it was boiling, sinking ships because the resulting foam was much less dense than the water on which vessels normally floated.
The gas could also rise into the sky, producing a mixture of 5-15 per cent methane that would explode on contact with a hot aeroplane engine exhaust.
One United States Geological Survey scientist consulted on this theory admitted a gas hydrate blowout could indeed sink ships in the manner described.
The only problem, he said, that the most recent naturally-occurring hydrate gas blowout off the south-eastern US “probably occurred at the end of the glacial episode … about 15,000 years ago or more, when the more technically advanced men’s ships were probably nothing more than hollow logs.”