The Bermuda Triangle and the Devil's Sea
Today we're going to hit the high seas, and venture into a matched pair of alleged danger zones where ships and airplanes are said to disappear at an alarming rate. Some believe that the Bermuda Triangle and its twin, the Devil's Sea south of Japan, are merely regions where natural forces combine to form a genuine navigational hazard; while others believe that some unknown agent is responsible for sweeping the hapless travelers from the face of the Earth. Today we're going to dive into the waters to see how deep the mysteries really are. Let's begin with:
The Bermuda Triangle
It's perhaps the best known of all the world's regions said to be strangely treacherous. The triangle goes from Miami to Bermuda to Puerto Rico, and despite a huge amount of normal shipping traffic passing through it every day, stories persist that some force there lurks to pull ships and planes to a watery grave.
The most common appearance of the Bermuda Triangle today is on television documentaries and popular books that purport to take a "science-based" look at the phenomenon. They give the appearance of skepticism by dismissing the paranormal explanations like psychic energy, Atlantis, or alien abductions, and instead focus on natural phenomena that could be responsible for disappearances. These include rogue waves, undersea methane explosions, or strange geomagnetic fluctuations. They test these explanations with scale models and sophisticated simulations.
But in fact, this representation of being scientific is wrong. To investigate the Bermuda Triangle scientifically, we would start with an observation, and then test hypotheses to explain it. Popular programming today tends to skip the very first step: actually having an observation to explain.
One of the first things you learn when researching the Bermuda Triangle responsibly — which means including source material beyond the TV shockumentaries and pulp paperbacks that promote the mystery wholeheartedly — is that transportation losses inside the Bermuda Triangle do not occur at a rate higher than anywhere else, and the number of losses that are unexplained is also not any higher. Statistically speaking, there is no Bermuda Triangle. The books and TV shows are trying to explain an imaginary observation.
The United States Coast Guard, which is the primary safety authority in the area, has this to say:
That's not to say that losses don't occur there. They do. They also occur everywhere else on Earth. Some are unexplained. A similar percentage of losses worldwide are also unexplained. Unexplained doesn't mean unexplainable; it simply means that insufficient evidence remained to allow to cause of the loss to be determined, which is, sadly, all too common with ships and planes that go down at sea.
So then, how and why does the story exist at all?
The answer is that it never did, until 1945 when a flight of five Navy training planes (the infamous "Flight 19") ran out of fuel and ditched, and were unfortunately never recovered (see the complete Skeptoid episode on Flight 19). An author, Vincent Gaddis, dramatized this in the fiction magazine Argosy in 1964 with a story titled "The Deadly Bermuda Triangle", the first time the name is known to have been used. But it remained a relatively unknown footnote until 1974, when paranormal author Charles Berlitz published his mass market paperback The Bermuda Triangle. It was the perfect book for the New Age movement of the 1970s, and quite suddenly the Triangle became a giant fixture in urban legendry.
Update: A listener has found several references to Bermuda Triangle appearing in print. —BD
It fell to a skeptical researcher, Larry Kusche, to attempt to debunk Berlitz's assault on the public intellect, which he did most thoroughly with his book published the following year titled The Bermuda Triangle — Solved. Unfortunately, as we see so often, the market took little interest in the humdrum assertion that something amazing and paranormal did not in fact exist, and it was Berlitz's version that has remained the icon of the story.
On his summary of the Bermuda Triangle, researcher Robert Carroll writes of Kusche's efforts:
And so despite the fact that unexplained losses have happened there — just as they happen everywhere — it turns out that the Bermuda Triangle is nothing more than an invention, and subsequent embellishment, by imaginative authors.
The Devil's Sea
It goes by many names: the Devil's Sea, the Dragon's Triangle, and the Taiwan Triangle; and, just as is the Bermuda Triangle, it's even sometimes called the Devil's Triangle. Its location varies a bit depending on which author you read, but the triangle usually runs from Taiwan up to the volcanic island of Miyake-jima just south of Tokyo, to about Iwo-jima or thereabouts. Miyake-jima and Iwo-jima lie along the Izu-Bonin volcanic arc, a line of underwater volcanoes and islands that's part of a system stretching 2500 kilometers from Japan to Guam. Some, like Charles Berlitz, say that the Devil's Sea is every bit as dangerous and mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle.
In his 1989 book The Dragon's Triangle, Berlitz listed numerous Japanese ships and sailors lost over a number of decade decades inside the Devil's Sea. In Dan Cohen's 1974 book Curses, Hexes, & Spells it's reported that legends of the danger of the Devil's Sea go back for centuries in Japan. Its most famous casualty was the No. 5 Kaiyo-Maru, a scientific research vessel, which disappeared with the loss of all hands on September 24, 1953 (a date often wrongly reported as 1952 or 1958).
With such a dramatic history, you'd expect there to be all sorts of books on the subject, especially in Japan. But it turns out that the eager researcher is disappointed. A search for books, newspaper, or magazine articles on the Devil's Sea comes up completely empty, until a full 20 years after the loss of the Kaiyo-Maru. Apparently, the story — even the very existence of this legendary named region — was not invented until very recently.
Enter cryptozoologist and paranormal enthusiast Ivan T. Sanderson, well known for his Bigfoot searches, but perhaps not as well known for his Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, New Agers and other paranormalists would hang out at Sanderson's estate, nicknamed The Farm, and read, write, and research. In his group's newsletter Pursuit in April of 1971, Sanderson wrote of something he called "vile vortices", twelve spots around the globe that he believed could be portals to another dimension. In 1972, the article was reprinted in Saga magazine under the title "The Twelve Devil's Graveyards Around the World". In addition to the north pole and the south pole, Sanderson proposed ten triangles circling the globe, all the same size, shape, and orientation as the Bermuda Triangle. Five, including the Bermuda Triangle, are supposedly spaced equidistantly around the Tropic of Cancer (about 23.5° N) and the other five staggered between them along the Tropic of Capricorn (about 23.5° S). The Devil's Sea is another of the five northern triangles, with another enclosing the volcanoes of Hawaii.
Sanderson's vile vortices are just one of any number of theoretical grid systems overlaid onto the Earth by New Age enthusiasts over the years. An icosahedron, a shape made of twenty equilateral triangles, can be roughly fitted over Sanderson's grid, if you use a little imagination. Other grid systems suggest a dodecahedron, a twelve-sided figure with pentagonal sides. There's the Becker-Hagens "planetary grid system" of 1983, and the so-called "Russian grid" which represents the Earth as a crystalline shape. Take virtually any ancient site — the Great Pyramid, Machu Picchu, Tiwanaku — and you can be sure that a New Ager has written a book drawing ley lines through it and calling its position on the Earth spiritually significant.
It was at Sanderson's "Farm" that Charles Berlitz researched and wrote parts of The Bermuda Triangle, and from Sanderson's vile vortices that he drew the inspiration for the Devil's Sea. It was only upon his book's 1974 appearance, which did discuss the Devil's Sea in addition to the Bermuda Triangle, that the literature suddenly became flooded with accounts of this new mystery region, and with tales that it had been feared for centuries. Try as I might, I was not able to find any reference to the Devil's Sea (or any of its other names) in any books or newspapers, either in English or in Japanese, prior to Berlitz's and Sanderson's publications. Such a search reveals that nearly all published references are from the early seventies, immediately upon the heels of Sanderson's 1971 and 1972 articles.
In short, there is no Devil's Sea, and there never was, outside the imagination of Ivan Sanderson and the authors who wrote about his vile vortices.
As he did with Berlitz's Bermuda Triangle book, Larry Kusche — in Skeptical Inquirer magazine — also took on the task of setting the record straight about the alleged disappearances of Japanese military boats cited by Berlitz in his 1989 The Dragon's Triangle. Kusche did find that what Berlitz had called military vessels were actually fishing boats, and they'd been lost at the same rate that fishing boats have always been lost in and around Japan, whether they were inside Sanderson's vortex or not. Deep sea fishing has always been dangerous, and sometimes fishing boats sink. No mystery needed.
It turns out that the 1953 loss of the No. 5 Kaiyo-Maru was not mysterious either. Its crew of nine scientists and 22 crew were on hand to document a very active submarine volcano called Myōjin-Shō which erupted from 1952-1953, creating an island that repeatedly appeared and exploded. The boat was evidently simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, and was destroyed by volcanic ejecta, creating something of a national tragedy. Debris from the ship was later found, proving that it had not gone to some alternate dimension in some author's mind.
And so we find that most popular attempts to solve the Bermuda Triangle and Devil's Sea mysteries are mere fool's gold; they are searches for answers to a question that is made up, and has none. As with so many mysteries we examine here on Skeptoid, the actual discovery is to look past the fictional questions posed by the marketers, and instead understand the reasons why the legend exists at all, and how it came to be such a phenomenon. Finding the right answer is not always as important as asking the right question.
Correction: An earlier version of this wrongly conflated two passages from Berlitz' The Devil's Triangle and has been corrected.
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