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Pop Quiz: Astonishing Tales of the Sea

Donate How well do you know your Skeptoid? Today's pop quiz focuses on tales of the sea.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Urban Legends

Skeptoid Podcast #725
April 28, 2020
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Pop Quiz: Astonishing Tales of the Sea

So you think you know your urban legends? Today, once again, we're going to test your knowledge to see how well you've been paying attention to Skeptoid. In this round, we're going to look at tales of the sea: that romantic genre of storytelling dealing with Davey Jones, sunken pirate ships, and ghostly apparitions dripping salt water. Put your finger on the pause button if you need time to think for each of these ten questions of nautical trivia.

1. The Mary Celeste

What storybook of nautical campfire tales would be complete without the Mary Celeste, perhaps the most popular story of the sea? It was found creeping along under sail in the Atlantic in 1872, in perfect condition, but with the crew and passengers all missing. A friend of the captain's was sailing another ship on the same route, and upon making the tragic discovery, brought her into port in Gibraltar. Soon, a solid theory developed for what happened, which holds to this day. Was it:

A. Something to do with dangerous or flammable cargo
B. An insurance fraud scheme between the two captains
C. A probable act of piracy by either mutineers or pirates?

Reveal the answer

2. The Philadelphia Experiment

This famous urban legend tells of an experiment aboard a US Navy ship that went awry, causing the ship to disappear and reappear, leaving some sailors materialized inside its steel and others driven mad. We now know how the story was made up from whole cloth by a loner named Carl Allen who lived with his parents after having served briefly in the US Merchant Marine during World War II. Among the more wilder parts of his story is that he had been personally tutored in the physics of invisibility by which famous scientist?

A. Nikola Tesla
B. Robert Oppenheimer
C. Albert Einstein

Reveal the answer

3. Into the Maelstrom

Various maelstroms are found throughout the world — many with terrifying stories attached to them of sucking ships down to their doom. The best known is the Moskstraumen in Norway. It was made famous to English readers by which author?

A. Edgar Allen Poe
B. Herman Melville
C. H. P. Lovecraft

Reveal the answer

4. The Sargasso Sea

The infamous Sargasso Sea in the middle of the North Atlantic has long fed sailor's yarns of ships being trapped until their crews starve and die. Which of the following hindrances to navigation is true of the Sargasso Sea?

A. There are no special problems sailing through the Sargasso Sea
B. The dense growth of sargassum seaweed can stop sailing ships
C. A lack of wind in the Sargasso Sea can stop sailing ships

Reveal the answer

5. The Lost Ship of the Desert

There are always tales of an ancient ship inexplicably found buried in a landlocked desert, most famously, that of a Viking Longship reported protruding from a canyon wall in the American Southwest's Carrizo Badlands by a prospector in 1933. Although his story was both temporally and geologically impossible, he did write down directions to find it on a paper that survives today. Where can that letter be found today?

A. The Julian Pioneer Museum in Julian, California
B. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC
C. The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California

Reveal the answer

6. The Ellen Austin

A ghostly tale frightened sailors aboard the full-rigged ship Ellen Austin in 1881: She encountered an abandoned yet seaworthy ship out at sea and sent a skeleton crew aboard to salvage her. They became separated, but found each other again — the skeleton crew having vanished. A second crew was sent over, but this time, both crew and ship were never seen again. How plausible is this story of encountering an abandoned yet perfectly seaworthy vessel in the 19th century?

A. Abandoned yet seaworthy vessels would almost never be encountered
B. Abandoned yet seaworthy vessels would be encountered quite frequently
C. The Mary Celeste is the only reliable case of an abandoned yet seaworthy vessel

Reveal the answer

7. Flannan Light

Christmas of 1900 was when three lighthouse keepers mysteriously vanished from the Flannan Isles Lighthouse. The island itself was cloaked in strange tales of magical beings and bizarre rituals held by ancient religious sects. Off what country's mainland are the Flannan Isles located?

A. Ireland
B. Wales
C. Scotland

Reveal the answer

8. The Fate of Fletcher Christian

Another great tale of the sea is the famous mutiny on the Bounty, after which the lead mutineer, Fletcher Christian, took the Bounty to Pitcairn Island. There a motley crew of mutineers and seventeen Tahitians settled permanently and scuttled their ship. Nineteen years later, an American whaling ship arrived at Pitcairn and found a population of all women and children with a single adult man. Was he:

A. Fletcher Christian
B. Another mutineer
C. a Tahitian man

Reveal the answer

9. Captain Kidd

It seems as if all the stories of the most notorious buried pirate treasures all belong to Captain William Kidd, the illustrious 17th century privateer. Today you can hardly turn on a TV show on HISTORY or the other pseudo-history networks without hearing them connect some treasure of Captain Kidd's to some urban legend or ancient mystery. Which of the follow statements is true of Captain Kidd's treasure?

A. Kidd buried one known treasure, but it netted nothing for modern treasure hunters
B. Kidd buried treasures that have yielded millions for modern treasure hunters
C. Kidd is not known to have buried any treasure

Reveal the answer

10. The Flying Dutchman

When it comes to stories of ghost ships, one tale rules them all: that of the Flying Dutchman. In some versions it's name of the ship; in others, the name refers to its captain. Both are condemned to weather stormy seas for all eternity, never seeing their home port. Which of these is true?

A. The source for the stories remains unknown.
B. The Flying Dutchman was the nickname of a 17th century captain with the Dutch East India Company
C. The story originated with Richard Wagner's 1840 opera Der Fliegende Holländer

Reveal the answer

So how did you do? As always, tweet me your score at @BrianDunning. If you got five or fewer right, you need to turn off the TV and listen to more Skeptoid. If you got nine or ten right, then congratulations, you truly do know your nautical lore! Just remember that whenever you hear virtually any maritime legend, you can rest assured that it's been gilded with plenty of exaggerated nonsense — because if it wasn't, it wouldn't be half as much fun.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Pop Quiz: Astonishing Tales of the Sea." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 28 Apr 2020. Web. 24 Apr 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Dash, M., Moore, S. "The Vanishing Lighthousemen of Eilean Mór." Fortean Studies. 1 Jan. 1998, Volume 4.

Lee, A. "Solved: The Mystery of the Mary Celeste." UCL News. University College London, 20 May 2006. Web. 17 Dec. 2011. <>

LiveScience Staff. "Mystery of the Sargasso Sea Solved." LiveScience. Tech Media Network, 22 May 2007. Web. 11 Jan. 2010. <>

Paine, R. The Book of Buried Treasure. London: Metropolitan Magazine Company, 1911. 26-118.

Pipon, P. "Capt. Pipon's Narrative of the Late Mutineers of H.M. Ship Bounty Settled on Pitcairn's Island in the South Seas; in Sept 1814." Fateful Voyage. James Galloway, 4 Apr. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2011. <>

Poe, E. Tales. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845.

Sigsbee, C. Wrecks and Derelicts of the North Atlantic, 1887 to 1893 Inclusive: Their Location, Publication, Destruction, etc. Washington, DC: United States Hydrographic Office, 1894.

Vallee, Jacques F. "Anatomy of a Hoax: The Philadelphia Experiment Fifty Years Later." Journal of Scientific Exploration. 1 Oct. 1994, 8: 47-71.

Van Hunks. "The Flying Dutchman, Ghost Ship of the Cape." African Ghost Hunting Safaris. Van Hunks, 11 Jun. 2003. Web. 25 Jun. 2014. <>

Weight, H. Lost Ship of the Desert: A Legend of the Southwest. Twentynine Palms: The Calico Press, 1959.


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