It was 2015 and fake news was a still-mostly-undetected virus spreading through social media. In September, a particularly absurd story made the rounds on Facebook: “BERMUDA TRIANGLE: SHIP REAPPEARS 90 YEARS AFTER GOING MISSING” read the headline from WorldNewsDailyReport.com, accompanied by a photo of a rusty boat floating off the coast of Cuba. The story, which claimed Cuban authorities had intercepted the ship which had somehow been floating around undetected for a century, was shared thousands of times on Facebook, reaching hundreds of thousands of users, according to social monitoring platform CrowdTangle.
The story claimed the ghost ship was the S.S. Cotopaxi, a real coal ship that went missing on November 29, 1925 while traveling from Charleston to Havana with 3,800 tons of coal and 32 passengers. The disappearance contributed to the enduring myth of the Bermuda Triangle—the section of the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Florida, and Puerto Rico blamed for dozens of disappearances. (In Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Cotopaxi somehow winds up in the Gobi Desert—perfectly in tact—after going missing in the Bermuda Triangle.)
The mystery of the Cotopaxi has been one of the more famous Bermuda Triangle tales even though its only appearances since 1925 have been fictional. But as that 2015 story spread across the Internet, one man knew exactly where the S.S. Cotopaxi was. The ship had been, it turns out, hiding in plain site the whole time.
As the World News Daily Report sailed across the Internet, marine biologist Michael Barnette was sent the link.
“People were forwarding that story to me and I’m just like, ‘No, the wreck is right there. It’s there!’” Barnette tells me. “As far as the Bermuda Triangle, I actually loathe the subject because I think it’s complete nonsense. I just … I don’t think there’s any factual basis for it. I think it’s just pop culture.
“That’s when I had my first inclination try to set the record straight. Just seeing all the tabloid-esque stories about [the Cotopaxi], and then how many people were buying into it.”
World News Daily has since added a disclaimer at the bottom of its homepage which reads: “World News Daily Report assumes all responsibility for the satirical nature of its articles and for the fictional nature of their content. All characters appearing in the articles in this website—even those based on real people—are entirely fictional and any resemblance between them and any person, living, dead or undead, is purely a miracle.”
But according to an archived version of the site, no such disclaimer was posted in 2015. So the ridiculous story found easy legs online. So much so, in fact, that the Associated Press issued a bulletin about the ship in 2018 after the story appeared on sites Online Newsfeed and The Readers File! The AP story reads, “A steamer ship that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle more than 90 years ago remains missing despite claims that the Cuban authorities intercepted the ship.” (The reporter bylined on the original World News Daily story didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
The thing is, Barnette knew exactly where the Cotopaxi was.
He’d seen the Cotopaxi on a scuba diving trip back in 2010 or so. He knew the Cotopaxi was off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida, and had been known for decades as “Bear Wreck.” For years, recreational divers had floated by the remains, thinking it was one of many unidentified shipwrecks laying at the bottom of the ocean.
“There’s not a lot of other wrecks of this type in the area. So, I thought it would be relatively easy to identify. And it really actually was,” says Barnette, who wrote about his finding in the 2013 book Encyclopedia of Florida Shipwrecks, Volume I: Atlantic Coast. But it hadn’t gotten much attention—certainly not as much attention as the spooky ghost ship in the fake news story.
Suddenly, in late January 2020, the Cotopaxi started making headlines again, with media outlets like CBS News, Popular Mechanics, and Newsweek writing about it. Barnette partnered up with the Science Channel to document his discovery on the new series Shipwreck Secrets, which premieres on February 9. So, finally, his discovery from a decade ago is getting its due.
In the doc, Barnette heads back out to the dive site, where the remnants of the Cotopaxi are mostly buried under heavy sand, 100 feet below the surface. And on land, British historian Guy Walters combs through the archives of Lloyd’s of London, the ship’s insurance brokers; old news clips; and a lawsuit brought by the relatives of the crew, claiming the ship was unseaworthy. The lawsuit had particularly valuable information: coordinates confirming Barnette’s findings, proving the heap of buried ship known as “Bear Wreck” is, in fact, the Cotopaxi.
Though from watching the doc, you’d think Barnette was stumbling across the Cotopaxi for the first time when he’d actually found it in 2010, it completes the story in a satisfying way. Barnette connects with the son of the captain of the Cotopaxi, providing the family some measure of closure for the first time in a century.
The boat and its passengers didn’t vanish into the thin air of the Bermuda Triangle. It had sent distress signals during a storm, which likely led to its sinking due to hatch covers which were in terrible conditions, according to the lawsuit.
“A lot of times there’s numerous shipwreck accidents or a missing aircraft and the Bermuda Triangle kills a story. That’s not the story—that’s an excuse, right? No one really wants to look for it. And then you say, ‘Oh, it’s lost in Bermuda triangle,’” Barnette says. “But, in actuality, there are very real circumstances that led to these sinkings or disappearances. And without actually finding the wreck, you won’t actually know the real cause and the real drama. The real story is what happened to the crew, the passengers.
“So yeah, it’s very satisfying to be able to put a real explanation to what happened.”