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Shipwreck Secrets’ Michael Barnette exclusive: Why Bermuda Triangle may be B.S., more on new series

Shipwreck Secrets' Michael Barnette exclusive: Why Bermuda Triangle may be B.S., more on new series
Underwater explorer, Michael C Barnette (left) ROV operator, Quincy Andrews (center) and Marine Archaeologist Chuck Meade (right) inspect footage sent back from the ROV. Pic credit: Science Channel

A new treasure and artifact hunting series is coming to Science Channel this weekend, one that will delight the Curse of Oak Island crowd and anyone interested in maritime riddles.

This Sunday, join Science Channel for a fascinating look at a vessel that vanished at sea in the famous Bermuda Triangle area on Shipwreck Secrets.

Host and marine biologist and underwater explorer Michael Barnette spoke with us ahead of the premiere. He gave us fascinating insight on what to expect from this series that actively investigates the missing and the mysterious.

The first episode follows a team of explorers that seek to solve the ghost ship, SS Cotopaxi. The ship vanished in 1925 and has become one of the biggest mysteries associated with the Bermuda Triangle.

A few years ago, the story got a lot of attention after a false claim that the ship was found near Cuba.

What happened to the SS Cotopaxi?

On November 29, 1925, the steam-powered bulk carrier, manufactured in Detroit, set off on a trip from Charleston, South Carolina to Havana, Cuba.

No one knows where or how it vanished — not one body recovered. There were 32 passengers on board, lost at sea. It is one of the triangle’s biggest secrets.

A surviving family member, Douglas Myers in Long Island, NY, the grandson the SS Cotopaxi Captain William J. Myers, contacted Barnette, and the search became the first focus for Barnette and the series.

Now, almost 100 years later, a team of marine biologists and underwater explorers have identified the SS Cotopaxi off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida.

To help find the SS Cotopaxi’s underwater resting place, Barnette contacted British historian Guy Walters to help do some digging. Walters dug through the archived records of Lloyd’s of London, who were the insurance brokers of the SS Cotopaxi.

The men discovered that the ship had sent out wireless distress signals on December 1st, 1925, two days after it left Charleston. The signals were picked up in Jacksonville, Fla., placing the ship in the area of a shipwreck found nearly 35 years ago.

Now with more knowledge, Barnette headed to Florida with his dive partner, Joe Citelli, to dive the wreck. Then Barnette met with Al Perkins, an avid diver who collected wreckage souvenirs.

The series goes into detail with interviews and footage. Barnette also used the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum’s records, a non-profit organization dedicated to researching and preserving the 500-year long maritime history of the region.

Two of their leading maritime archaeologists — Chuck Meide and Brendan Burke — worked with Barnette to help solve the mystery. Their results, which you will see in the first episode, are astonishing.

What other maritime mysteries are explored?

The SS Justicia — A British ship sunk during World War I, torpedoed by a submarine near Malin’s Head, Ireland.

The Ghost Ships of Chuuk Lagoon — In 1944, American forces launched an attack on Japan’s primary World War II base in the South Pacific, and over a two-day bombardment, more than 60 Japanese Imperial Vessels ended up on the floor of the lagoon, partly in retribution for Pearl Harbor.

And the Lake Serpent — A 200-year-old schooner lies at the bottom of Lake Erie, which was an integral part of the North American trade route through the Great Lakes.

We spoke to Michael Barnette this week about the series Shipwreck Secrets:

Monsters & Critics: Your background is a marine biologist. But how did you translate that education and that skillset to becoming an underwater explorer?

Michael Barnette: Well, it was kind of a natural … Just obviously wanting to explore the ocean as a marine biologist. So I learned how to dive in college at the University of South Carolina.

Obviously, the scientific background, just the methodical approach, how you would research something lends itself very well, in addition. So I knew that I have to be methodical about how I try to identify something.

And I spent as much time as possible beforehand, usually in the archives. So researching as much as possible about potential shipwreck identities, getting newspaper articles, insurance records.

Learning about ship architecture, features and fittings on a ship so I know when I’m looking at underwater.

And so you can be as efficient as possible with the limited amount of time you have on a shipwreck site. So kind of it worked out pretty organically. It’s worked out pretty well.

M&C: When did you first have that inkling, or realize that you really … You wanted to be more of an explorer. And your interest really was in the lost ship. There’s how many sunken vessels in all the oceans? 

Michael Barnette: Yes, There has been obviously a lot of estimates. There hundreds of thousands, if not millions of shipwrecks out there. And most of them have not been identified.

A lot of times they’re just, people have been fishing them … A lot of these wrecks have been found…found in the loosest sense. I mean, they might have been found through geological surveys, bathymetric surveys.

Fishermen may have known about these. Fish like wrecks. And so fishermen like fish. So a lot of times, they know where the wrecks are. They don’t know what the wrecks are. So that’s what we take into in play is, I want to know what those wrecks are. I want to know that name, I want to know the history, I want to know everything I can about them.

M&C: With regards to the Bermuda Triangle, which factors heavily in the Cotopaxi, aka The Bear Wreck… The Bermuda Triangle, it just seems like a shallow, narrow triangulated area. And it’s just prone to tropical storms. And of course the strong currents. Do you think it’s just one of those perfect confluences, that unnatural thing? Or do you think it’s an unnatural thing?

Michael Barnette:  Well, I think all these disappearances and mysteries associated with Bermuda Triangle are perfectly explainable.

Give enough information, you can solve anything. And I think the Bermuda Triangle’s totally arbitrary. I mean, the three points, if you actually look at it on a map, it actually is … The majority of that area is in the vast ocean way offshore.

And all these wrecks, we know about that are associated with the Bermuda Triangle don’t even fall within those boundaries. So it’s comical. And my pet name for the Bermuda Triangle is the bullsh** Triangle. Because I just think it’s total bunk. It’s total fiction. I mean, I like it. I mean, it’s compelling to me. I love science-fiction. But in the real world, it has no influence whatsoever.

And you’re exactly right. I think the weather conditions off of Florida. As you lived down here, you know in the afternoon, we get some very powerful thunderstorms. Especially off the East Coast of Florida, where this happens, we get hurricanes. You have coral reefs. You have a lot of things. And then today you have just basic human error.

People make navigational mistakes. Vessels are left in disrepair. There’s all sorts of accounts that come into play when you’re on the ocean. And the ocean is very unforgiving. So if you’re not at your top of your game and something goes sideways, you’re going to find out your limitations very quickly.

M&C: How did Douglas Myers, William Myers’ grandson get hold of you? Or how did you find him to give him the closure that he was looking for? Did he contact you to give you an idea to do the Cotopaxi?

Michael Barnette: Yeah. That was actually the production team. They did their due diligence…We had the names of the crew. And they did their detective work trying to do background checks, and try to find names.

I think we tracked down a gentleman that had the same name. And just probably, I think we cold-called him. And said, “Are you related to a captain of the Cotopaxi? Are your family from Charleston, South Carolina?” And at first, I think the guy thought we were cranks, trying to scam them or something.

But then we explained what happened. If you think about it, it’s a very weird call to make to someone, and to receive that. But to his credit, he listened to us and heard us out. And it was interesting to hear more about his family. He knew quite a bit, and so he brought a lot to the table about his family history and his perspective from what he knew about the event.  It was great to have that human aspect to the story.

M&C: Let’s talk about Guy Walters, the historian. Was he someone that you knew ahead of time? Or did production bring him into the party after the fact?

Michael Barnette: No, production brought him in after the fact. Which is very useful. A lot of times shipwreck identifications can be sometimes very a eureka moment. You find an artifact with the name on it. And sometimes it’s a knockdown, drag-out fight.

And it takes a team to bring all information into play and to reveal the identity of the wreck. In this case, we had some of the basics … I had the basic components for years. But Guy brought a wealth of new information, more detail. Like all the testimony in the litigation.

I knew the background of the litigation and the basic broad strokes. But having that actual information, the testimony, and seeing the quotes there in black and white has really brought in alive. And you realize, “Wow, this ship was doomed before it actually left the dock in Charleston.”

So that was very useful information. And then we had the archaeologists, maritime historians at St. Augustine Lighthouse Museum trying to get some credibility. Because obviously, I’m a Marine biologist. I’m a scientist. But I’m just a diver in the scheme of when it comes to archaeology. I’m not a professional archaeologist. So it’s great if I could present my case to them. And if they agree based on my findings, it brings more validity to our theory.

M&C:  One of the things that I really enjoyed about your premiere episode was the Detroit factor. And then a lot of people don’t realize that Detroit was a maritime influencer and was quite the manufacturer of ships. Not just for the Great Lakes, but for the Atlantic seaboard and beyond. Talk about that, if you would. 

Michael Barnette: That is what I love about doing this research about shipwreck is you learn so much about not just individual shipwrecks, but you learn about shipbuilding history.

You learn about world politics, world economies. In this case, you’re exactly right. We have in the closing days of World War I, we had the U.S. industry trying to bring all resources to bear to help the war effort. And this included the Great Lakes Lake Born shipbuilding industry.

They mass-produced these vessels. And these were known as lakers because they were limited in size by the Welland Canal to get out in the Seaway. And this is one of those lakers. And having that information. And when I first dove the wreckage it kind of head that length and everything.

So I get that feel, that vibe to it. And then we had that artifact, which you probably saw that tied into a manufacturer of other appliances for shipbuilding that was right down the street from Great Lakes Engineering Works. That was a very useful piece of evidence that helps reinforce the story.

M&C: Clinch Field Navigation, can any of the surviving family get closure from this negligent company?

Michael Barnette: Unfortunately not. And obviously, that … Clinch Field is no longer around. It’s been absorbed through other companies. And it just is out of commission now.

But honestly, it’s a different era than now. And company responsibility is obviously much different than it was between then and now, where we have a lot of times companies, they got away with a lot of stuff.

And in this case, if this case happened today, maritime law has changed quite a bit as well. I mean, the information in that testimony is pretty damning stuff.

I have a lot friends that are professional mariners. I’ve kind of bounced this stuff off of them. They said, “Yeah, that boat would never left the dock.” Because of all the requirements today for safety and requirements from the U.S. Coast Guard and other entities. So that’s … Yeah, unfortunately, to answer your question, there is no really recourse for the families today on this case.

M&C: People romanticize, and they embellish the stories of missing ships and lost sailor lore, and all of the ghost stories that come forth. And even like the recent film, The Lighthouses has a touch of the supernatural to it. Does your series aim to underscore these missing ships with actual scientific research, and kind of debunk the paranormal aspects that people want to assign to these things?

Michael Barnette:  Well, yes. It’s funny you ask that question. It’s a very good one. As a scientist, I mean, I have a love-hate relationship with the Bermuda Triangle. Because as a scientist, I just laugh, and I scoff at it. Because there’s no basis in reality for any of the claims that people have made about it.

But at the same point, the Bermuda Triangle keeps a lot of these stories in the public … In the back of their mind. So it keeps some of these missing vessels and missing aircraft alive in a way. So for that, I guess I have to thank the Bermuda Triangle that these stories.

And then when we actually are able to identify a wreck that has been associated with the Bermuda Triangle…There’s a great interest as you noticed in the media today about this story.

So, yes, I have to learn to live with the Bermuda Triangle, I guess. But yeah, I think … My pet name for it is still the Bullsh** Triangle. So if that reveals my true feelings about it.

Shipwreck Secrets airs Sunday, (premiere is February 9) at 8 PM ET/PT on the Science Channel. Then the new series Curse of the Bermuda Triangle follows at 10 PM ET/PT also on Science Channel.

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
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