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Monday, 13 February 2012

Mysterious mysteries of the mysterious: The Bermuda Triangle

Here's a joke reference with an audience of one. I should offer prizes
Many books have been published about the Bermuda Triangle over the years, with a lot of them attempting to solve the mystery. Titles like Limbo of the Lost and The Devil's Triangle came up with a variety of explanations that encompass everything from the sinking of Atlantis through ancient Incan magnetic technology to everyone's favourite: aliens. Oddly, not many book authors chose the explanation "Charles Berlitz just made it up," probably because that doesn't fill a page let alone fulfil a book contract.

Okay, so you're probably going to want a more detailed explanation than "it's bollocks" so I suppose I'd better write some more. Although the story of the Bermuda Triangle is quite interesting, the story of the story of the Bermuda Triangle (if you see what I mean) is much more fascinating. Wait - Charles Berlitz, the language course guy? Yeah, that one. I'll come back to him later.

Various Triangle boundaries - otherwise known as "desperately trying to get the data to fit the theory"
The first odd about the Triangle is it's location. One might presume from the name that it's in Bermuda and for most people it sort of is. Books about the Triangle tend to disagree with each other and the picture above shows various boundaries proposed by various authors. Note that some of them aren't even triangles and some of them don't even include Bermuda. Not a great start. The general consensus is that it extends from Miami down to San Juan (Puerto Rico) and up to the island of Bermuda.

In 1950, an AP press report on ships and aircraft lost in the area mentioned in passing the suggestion that the disappearances might be due to a mysterious cause. As one of the busiest shipping areas in the world, the amount of ships lost wasn't unusual and the AP report wasn't really taken up anywhere else. In 1952 an article in Fate magazine (a long-lived magazine about paranormal phenomena) entitled "Sea Mystery at Our Back Door" detailed the loss of several ships and planes in the area and made mention of the loss of Flight 19, which would go on to be one of the archetypal cases of mysterious loss in the area.

TBM Avengers - picture by Anynobody 
Flight 19 was a training flight of five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers which went missing off Florida in 1945. They were participating in a training exercise that was designed to teach dead reckoning - navigating without aids or instruments. The flight took off at 14:10 and flew out to a bombing practice area after which they were expected to follow a couple of other headings on their return to base. Fifty minutes into the flight, one of the students called for a compass reading and was told "I don't know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn." Further enquiries amongst the students lead Taylor, the flight leader, to report "Both of my compasses are out and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land but it's broken. I am sure I'm in the Keys but I don't know how far down and I don't know how to get to Fort Lauderdale." The weather worsened and radio contact with the flight became intermittent. The last message was heard from Taylor at 18:20 "All planes close up tight ... we'll have to ditch unless landfall ... when the first plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together." At the same time a tanker, SS Empire Viscount, radioed that she was in heavy seas and high winds north-east of the Bahamas, where Flight 19 was about to ditch. The aircraft were never found.

The article in Fate magazine ascribed a supernatural explanation to the missing aircraft and ships but was just the first of many. In 1974, Charles Berlitz published The Bermuda Triangle which became a best-seller and really brought the notion of the Triangle into the public consciousness. Berlitz was the grandson of Maximilian Berlitz, founder of the language company. As well as writing books on language, he had a keen interest in the paranormal and published a number of books on a variety of such subjects.

Berlitz became interested in the Bermuda Triangle, allegedly after hearing stories from passengers who refused to travel through the region. In his book, he included details of many disappearances and expounded a number of theories ranging from UFOs through to cosmic whirlpools although his favourite explanation was that it was somehow related to the lost city of Atlantis.

A year after the Berlitz book, research librarian Larry Kusche published The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: Solved. Kusche investigated and checked the details of every Triangle disappearance mentioned in previous books and found none of them warranted a supernatural explanation. He found that many of the disappearances simply hadn't occurred, many had happened well away from the Triangle, false details had been added to real events, different accounts of the same incidents contradicted each other and that many weren't mysteries at all.

Writers like Berlitz tend to cherry pick stories that fit their purposes and ignore any evidence to the contrary. Stories of yachts found adrift with no crew aboard sound mysterious and interesting and go right in the books, but the prosaic reports of moored boats being blown out to sea in storms tend get ignored in order to fill the pages. When the tanker the SS V.A. Fogg exploded and sank, it was reported in various Triangle books as being found with no bodies aboard except the captain huddled in his cabin clutching a cup of coffee. The US Coast Guard inspected the wreck, found several bodies and took extensive photographs which is ignored in favour of the more interesting rumour. That the Fogg actually sank off the coast of Texas and well away from the Triangle is also missing from the books by authors like Berlitz.

The most damning information in the Bermuda Triangle disappearances comes from Lloyd's of London. Lloyd's, as a leading shipping insurer, keeps extensive records of ships and their records do not show an unusual number of sinkings and disappearance despite the area being a busy shipping area and subject to tropical storms. Indeed, Lloyd's does not charge higher premiums for ships operating in the area.

The Bermuda Triangle simply doesn't exist and has been thoroughly debunked from the start. Despite everything in Berlitz's book being completely discredited less than 12 months later, neither he nor his publisher altered anything in it and reprinted it several times over the years. Many other Triangle books have been published since.

The rather funny 404 error page from diving website
So what is it about the Triangle story that makes it immune to rationality? The public have a strong interest in paranormal subjects and publishers are more than happy to feed them a steady diet of books expounding such notions; that they are easy to write and thoroughly profitable only adds to their publishing appeal. There is an innate fascination and a desire to believe in magical mysteries beyond science. That none of them have ever really been borne out, doesn't ever dampen people's enthusiasm for them.

What's extraordinary about Charles Berlitz's book is just how much is asks the reader to believe and yet so many are prepared to do so. Berlitz accorded the disappearances to a number of forces, but his favourite was that it was a by-product of the cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis. So Berlitz is asking readers to accept that Atlantis existed, was destroyed by a force unlike anything known to science and that a by-product of this force still exists thousands of years later and that it selectively seizes planes and ships for no apparent reason. Any one of those claims seems pretty iffy and bundled together they are impossible to believe and yet they are appealing enough for people to suspend rationality in their desire to embrace them. And that's the real mystery of the Bermuda Triangle.

PS Thanks to Soulreaper for suggesting this article


  1. The Bermuda Triangle is caused by a giant plastic cloud with magnets embedded in it. I know this from a crappy Milton Bradley game I had when I was a kid, which is at least as reliable a source as Charles Berlitz.

  2. I got the Triangle reference! I must be the audience of 1! Admittedly I think we were both sharing a flat when we watched TV Hell and saw an episode. Just looked up the wikipedia page on it and I can't believe they made 3 series of 26 episodes each.

    I never knew Berlitz was connected to the language people actually - so that's where he got the money to publish from!

    1. Well done, Matt! I didn't know if anyone would get that at all. Three series though! I'd no idea they kept it going that long