ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Archaeologists with the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program have discovered a shipwreck off the coast of St. Augustine. They believe the wreck is the remains of the SS Cotopaxi, a ship long thought to have disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle nearly 95 years ago.
Nearly a century after the Cotopaxi’s disappearance, the ship’s discovery will be the centerpiece of a two-hour special kicking off Shipwreck Secrets, a new series appearing on the Science Channel. The episode starring the Cotopaxi will air at 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9.
The Cotopaxi was an American merchant steamship that left Charleston, S.C., on a routine voyage headed to Havana, Cuba. The ship left on Nov. 29, 1925, encountering tropical storm conditions off the coast of Florida the next day. The ship reported water in the hull. After the report, there was no distress call, and the ship was never heard from again. The ship was carrying coal and 32 crew members.
The ship’s disappearance has been the focal point of Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theories, and the ship even made an appearance in the 1977 fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
“It’s a neat shipwreck because it’s taken on some lore, some of the myth of the Bermuda Triangle, so it’s kind of a fun one," said Chuck Meide, director of the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, which researches shipwrecks off the coast of northeast Florida.
LAMP’s researchers helped verify the discovery of the wreck after they were approached by underwater archaeologist Michael Barnette.
“He thought it was the Cotopaxi. We looked at the evidence that he had compiled, which seemed pretty compelling," Meide said.
Meide himself went along with Barnette to confirm the ship’s identity. Blueprints showing the ship’s original plan helped them make the connection.
“I made sure to bring along the archaeologist’s tool -- the tape measure. We were able to take a few key measurements from the locations of the rudder and the locations of the boilers," Meide explained.
Meide said eyewitness accounts from when the ship left show the cargo hold was not watertight because it did not have the right hatches on board. From there, the ship is believed to have sailed into the path of a tropical storm. All 32 people aboard were killed.
Meide said, for now, the plan is to do some more dives periodically to keep an eye on the wreck to see if it’s being affected by hurricanes or other elements.
“It’s really expensive to bring up even small parts of a shipwreck," Meide said. “If we wanted to bring up a sizeable section of this ship, it would take millions of dollars to conserve."