How the Bermuda Triangle Works

The Bermuda Triangle covers roughly 500,000 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean. See more pictures of the Bermuda Triangle .

You won't find it on any official map and you won't know when you cross the line, but according to some people, the Bermuda Triangle is a very real place where dozen of ships, planes and people have disappeared with no good explanation. Since a magazine first coined the phrase "Bermuda Triangle" in 1964, the mystery has continued to attract attention. When you dig deeper into most cases, though, they're much less mysterious. Either they were never in the area to begin with, they were actually found, or there's a reasonable explanation for their disappearance.

Does this mean there's nothing to the claims of so many who have had odd experiences in the Bermuda Triangle? Not necessarily. Scientists have documented deviations from the norm in the area and have found some interesting formations on the seafloor within the Bermuda Triangle's boundaries. So, for those who like to believe in it, there is plenty fuel for the fire.

In this article, we'll look at the facts surrounding what we do know about the area as well as some of the most commonly-recited stories. We'll also explore the bizarre theories like aliens and space portals as well as the mundane explanations.

­Many think of the Bermuda Triangle, also known as the Devil's Triangle, as an "imaginary" area. The U. S. Board of Geographic Names does not recognize the Bermuda Triangle and does not maintain an official file on it. However, within this imaginary area, many real vessels and the people aboard them have seemingly disappeared without explanation.

The Bermuda Triangle is located off the Southeastern coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean, with its apexes in the vicinities of Bermuda, Miami, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. It covers roughly 500,000 square miles.

The area may have been named after its Bermuda apex since Bermuda was once known as the "Isle of Devils." Treacherous reefs that have ensnared ships sailing too close to its shores surround Bermuda, and there are hundreds of shipwrecks in the waters that surround it.

The Bermuda Triangle Mystery

Image courtesy Amazon

Over the past 100 years, the Bermuda Triangle has seen what some say is a significant and inordinately high number of unexplained disappearances of planes, ships and people. Some reports say that as many as 100 ships and planes have been reported missing in the area and more than 1,000 lives have been lost. The U.S. Coast Guard, however, maintains that the area does not have an unusual number of incidents.

In 1975, Mary Margaret Fuller, editor of "Fate" magazine, contacted Lloyd's of London for statistics on insurance payoffs for incidents occurring within the Bermuda Triangle's usually accepted boundaries. According to Lloyd's records, 428 vessels were reported missing throughout the world between 1955 and 1975, and th­ere was no greater incidence of events occurring in the Bermuda Triangle than anywhere else in the world.

Gian J. Quasar, author of "Into the Bermuda Triangle: Pursuing the Truth Behind the World's Greatest Mystery" and curator of, argues that this report "is completely false." Quasar reasons that because Lloyd's does not insure small crafts like yachts and often doesn't insure small charter boats or private aircraft, its records can't be the definitive source. He also states that the Coast Guard's records, which it publishes annually, do not include "missing vessels." He requested data on "overdue vessels" and received (after 12 years of asking) records of 300 missing/overdue vessels for the previous two years. Whether those vessels ultimately returned is unknown. His Web site has a list of these vessels.

The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) database indicates (according to Gian J. Quasar) that only a handful of aircraft have disappeared off the New England coast over the past 10 years, while over 30 have occurred in the Bermuda Triangle.

The mystery of the Triangle probably took hold with the first well-publicized disappearance in 1945, when five Navy Avengers disappeared in the area. The cause of the disappearance was originally "pilot error," but family members of the pilot leading the mission couldn't accept that he had made such a mistake. Eventually they convinced the Navy to change it to "causes or reasons unknown."

The myth gained momentum after reporter E.V.W. Jones compiled a list of "mysterious disappearances" of ships and planes between the Florida coast and Bermuda. Two years later, George X. Sand wrote an article for "Fate" magazine, titled "Sea Mystery at our Back Door." The article was about a "series of strange marine disappearances, each leaving no trace whatever, that have taken place in the past few years" in a "watery triangle bounded roughly by Florida, Bermuda and Puerto Rico."

As more incidents occurred, the reputation grew and past events were reanalyzed and added to the legend. In 1964, "Argosy Magazine" gave the triangle its name in an article titled "The Deadly Bermuda Triangle" by Vincent Gaddis. Argosy magazine's tagline a "magazine of master fiction," but that did nothing to halt the spread of the myth. More articles, books, and movies have appeared, suggesting theories ranging from alien abductions to a giant octopus.

Next, we'll look at some early well-known incidents that have been attributed to the area.

Well-known Disappearances

The USS Cyclops anchored in the Hudson River on October 3, 1911.
The USS Cyclops anchored in the Hudson River on October 3, 1911.
Image courtesy New York Navy Yard/Navy Historical Center

Many Bermuda Triangle Web sites include long lists of missing ships and planes. But many of those were nowhere near the Triangle when they disappeared or they turned up later with rational explanations for their disappearances. For example, the Mary Celeste, found floating in 1872 with not a person on board and everything exactly as they had left it, is on nearly every list of losses blamed on the Bermuda Triangle. But in reality, it was many hundreds of miles from the Triangle at the time.

Here is a sampling of the some of the most notable incidents. As you'll see, some of these have reasonable explanations although they're still attributed to the strange and unknown powers of the Bermuda Triangle.

The U.S.S. Cyclops, 1918

During World War I, the U.S.S. Cyclops served along the eastern coast of the United States until January 9, 1918. At that time, she was assigned to the Naval Overseas Transportation Service. The Cyclops was scheduled to sail to Brazil to refuel British ships in the south Atlantic. She set out from Rio de Janeiro on February 16, and, after a brief stop in Barbados from March 3 to 4, was never seen or heard from again. All 306 passengers and crew were gone without a trace.

A U.S. Navy Grumman TBF Avenger
A U.S. Navy Grumman TBF Avenger

U.S. Navy Avengers Flight 19, 1945

The most famous Bermuda Triangle story is the mystery surrounding five missing Navy Avengers in 1945. The story of Flight 19 is usually summarized this way: a routine patrol set out on a sunny day with five highly experienced student pilots. Suddenly, the tower began receiving transmissions from the flight leader that they were lost, compasses were not working, and "everything looked wrong." They were never seen again, and extensive Navy investigations turned up no clues to explain the disappearance.

Lieutenant Charles C. Taylor led the mission, which included several planned course changes. They departed at 1:15 p.m. on December 5, 1945. At 3:00 p.m., Lieutenant Robert F. Cox was flying over Fort Lauderdale, Florida when he heard a signal that he thought was from a boat or plane in distress. He called Operations at the Naval Air Station to report what he had heard. Cox told Taylor to fly with the sun at his left wing and up the coast until he hit Miami. Taylor then said that they were over a small island with no other land in sight. If he was over the Keys as he had said, however, he should have seen several islands as well as the Florida peninsula.

With less than two hours' flying time until they ran out of fuel, Taylor described a large island to Operations. Assuming this was Andros Island, the largest in the Bahamas, Operations sent Taylor a heading that would take him to Fort Lauderdale. Apparently this heading was correct, because once Flight 19 assumed the new course, Taylor's voice began coming in stronger over the radio. Taylor, however, didn't believe this course was right and after a few minutes said that they "didn't go far enough east. Turn around again and go east. We should have a better chance of being picked up closer to shore." With this move, transmissions began to weaken as they flew out of radio range in the wrong direction. For unknown reasons, Taylor ignored the standard flying procedure of flying west if over water and east if over land.

Two PBM-5 Mariner seaplanes went out to search the area, but one exploded soon after takeoff. The other never located Flight 19.

Read on for more Bermuda Triangle disappearances.

More Disappearances

A Douglas DC-3, the same model that disappeared over the Bermuda Triangle in 1948
A Douglas DC-3, the same model that disappeared over the Bermuda Triangle in 1948
Image courtesy U.S. Library of Congress

DC-3 Flight NC-16002, 1948

On December 28, 1948, Captain Robert Lindquist of flight NC-16002 was piloting DC-3 commercial flight NC-16002 from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Miami, Florida. He radioed Miami when they were 50 miles away and requested landing instructions. Miami radioed back with the instructions, but got no reply. The plane never arrived and was never heard from again. Although many reports state there was no radio trouble and that the weather was clear, the accident investigation report from the Civil Aeronautics Board says differently.

According to the report, the plane had electrical difficulties from the beginning and its batteries needed a recharge so it could communicate with the tower. But rather than charging the batteries prior to takeoff, Lindquist instructed the ground crew to refill the water in the batteries and replace them in the plane. He originally canceled his flight plan because of the battery difficulties, and was directed to remain in San Juan until he established radio contact with the tower and reinstated his flight plan. But 11 minutes after takeoff, Lindquist radioed to the tower that they were proceeding to Miami. The tower never received the transmission, but CAA Communications in San Juan did. All attempts to contact the flight were unsuccessful. In the flight's final radio communication, Lindquist stated that they were 50 miles south of Miami.

The Civil Aeronautics Board report analysis includes the assumption that some failure in the electrical system made the aircraft's radio and automatic compass inoperative after the final communication. It also assumes that because Captain Lindquist didn't communicate with the tower, he didn't know about changes in the weather. The wind direction had changed, which would have made his plane drift left of its actual course by as much as 50 miles. Since the captain's location was an estimate based on his flight time, speed, and weather conditions, he could easily have been off-course. The plane had fuel for seven and a half hours of flight. At the time of his last communication, he had been flying for a little more than six hours. He may have then crashed into the Gulf of Mexico after running out of fuel. No debris was found, but the crash could have occurred in an area where the water is extremely deep and any evidence of the crash would disappear quickly.

The S.S. Marine Sulpher Queen

Debris from the S.S. Marine Sulphur Queen
Debris from the S.S. Marine Sulphur Queen

The S.S. Marine Sulphur Queen was a tanker was bound for Norfolk, Virginia from Beaumont, Texas carrying 15,000 tons of molten sulphur in heated tanks. Its last communication took place on Feb. 3, 1963, when its captain radioed a routine position report. The message placed her near Key West in the Florida Straits. She never reached Virginia.

Three days after the position report, Coast Guard searchers found a single life jacket floating 40 miles southwest of the tanker's last known position. It's likely that leaking sulphur may have caused an explosion. Escaping sulphur gas could have poisoned the crew and prevented them from sending a distress call. Officers on a Honduran banana boat reported to the Coast Guard that their freighter ran into a strong, acrid odor 15 miles off Cape San Antonia, the western tip of Cuba, just before dawn on February 3.

The area was known for being infested with sharks and barracuda, so it wasn't surprising that no bodies were ever found. The U.S. Coast Guard History Archive lists the following items eventually found from the Sulphur Queen: two pieces of board bearing the name of the ship, eight life jackets (some with rips believed caused by sharks teeth), five life rings, one shirt, one piece of oar, one oil can, one gasoline can, one cone buoy and one fog horn.

The 440th Airlift Wing flew the Fairchild C-119 "Flying Boxcar," nicknamed for its big cargo hold.
The 440th Airlift Wing flew the Fairchild C-119 "Flying Boxcar," nicknamed for its big cargo hold.
Image courtesy Air Force Reserve Command

Milwaukee's 440th Airlift Wing, Plane 680, 1965

On a clear night in 1965, a seasoned flying crew from the Air Force Reserve Command's 440th Airlift Wing flew from Milwaukee on the heavily traveled Yankee Route, on their way to Grand Turk Island in the Bahamas. They landed as scheduled at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida at 5:04 p.m. and spent two hours and 43 minutes on the ground. Then they took off at 7:47 p.m. and headed south to the Bahamas, but never reached their destination.

There was no indication of trouble and all radio communication was routine. When they didn't land, radio traffic controllers started calling Plane 680 but didn't receive a response. Only a few scraps of debris were found, and those could have been tossed out of the cargo plane. Among those on board was an expert maintenance crew, so if there was a mechanical problem on the flight, there were plenty of people to take care of it. There was no explanation for the disappearance of Plane 680.

Farfetched Theories

The "Bimini Road," or the "Atlantis Stones," a rock formation off the coast of Bimini Island in the Bahamas.
The "Bimini Road," or the "Atlantis Stones," a rock formation off the coast of Bimini Island in the Bahamas.

Aliens and Atlantis

As an area with one of the highest incidences of UFO sightings, it's no wonder that alien abductions have been a popular explanation for disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. But abductions aren't the only theory; some also have theorized that the Bermuda Triangle area is a portal to other planets. But why this area?

Many believe that the Bermuda Triangle area is home to the lost city of Atlantis and remnants of its advanced technologies. Famous psychic Edgar Cayce said that Atlantis had many modern-day technologies, including a death ray weapon, which he claims ultimately destroyed the city. Some even say that the people who lived there were an alien race from the Pleiades star cluster.

Cayce had predicted that researchers would discover the western edge of Atlantis near the coast of Bimini, in the Bahamas, and they did find a "road" of stones there in 1968. The initial researchers and archeologists who studied the site, known as the "Bimini Road," immediately regarded it as naturally occurring. Recent investigations, however, have found evidence that appears to support the idea that the stones were shaped and placed there as a wall. The additional finding of a possible underwater city near Cuba adds fuel to the fire for those supporting the Atlantis idea.

According to legend and speculation, the city of Atlantis relied on the power of special energy crystals that were extremely powerful. Cayce supported this idea, and the discovery of a great underwater pyramid and crystal by Dr. Ray Brown in 1970 reinforced it. Brown was scuba diving in the Bahamas when he claims to have found a large pyramid made of mirror-like stone. He entered the pyramid and saw a brassy metallic rod with a multi-faceted red gem hanging from the apex of the room. Directly below this rod was a stand with bronze hands holding a crystal sphere four inches in diameter. Brown removed the crystal and kept it secret until 1975, when he exhibited it at a psychic seminar in Phoenix, Arizona. He reported that when gazing into the crystal form, you can see three pyramidal images, one in front of the other with each decreasing in size. Some people have seen a fourth pyramid in front of the other three after entering into deep meditative states.

Brown believes that the fractured lines seen when looking at the crystal sphere from the side may be electrical in nature, similar to a form of microscopic circuitry. The speculation is that these energy crystals are in an altered state of some kind and send out rays of energy that either confuse navigational instruments or disintegrate vehicles all together.

Magnetic Abnormalities

Image courtesy Amazon

"The Fog: A Never Before Published Theory of the Bermuda Triangle Phenomenon," by Rob MacGregor and Bruce Gernon include reports of an "electronic fog" that both men experienced while flying in the Bermuda Triangle. On December 4, 1970, Gernon and his father were flying to Bimini in clear skies when they saw a strange cloud with almost perfectly round edges hovering over the Miami shore. As they flew over it, the cloud began spreading out, matching or exceeding their speed. At 11,500 feet, they thought that they had escaped the "cloud," only to discover that it had formed a tunnel. It appeared the only way they could escape the cloud was to go through the tunnel. Once inside, they saw lines on the walls that spun in a counterclockwise direction. Gernon's navigational instruments went haywire and the compass spun counterclockwise.

Gernon reported that he "realized that something very bizarre had happened. Instead of the clear blue sky that we expected at the end of the tunnel, everything appeared a dull, grayish white. Visibility appeared to be about two miles, but there was absolutely nothing to see - no ocean, no horizon, no sky, only a gray haze."

When Gernon contacted Miami Air Traffic Control to get radar identification, the controller said that there were no planes on radar between Miami, Bimini and Andros. After several minutes, Gernon heard the air traffic controller report that a plane had been spotted directly over Miami. Gernon didn't think he could possibly be over Miami Beach, because it usually took 75 minutes to get to Miami and only 47 minutes had passed. At this same time, the cloud tunnel began to peel away in what he described as ribbons of fog. The instruments began operating normally and Miami Beach was directly below them. This loss of time, confirmed by their watches and the plane's clock, made Gernon believe that the electronic fog had time travel qualities.

Bruce Gernon, Don Pelz and other pilots have described emerging from a strange cloud tunnel while flying over the Bermuda Triangle.
Bruce Gernon, Don Pelz and other pilots have described emerging from a strange cloud tunnel while flying over the Bermuda Triangle.

Gernon experienced the fog one more time in flight with his wife. Many other pilots have had similar experiences in the area. Gernon believes that powerful electromagnetic storms from within the Earth break through the surface and come into the atmosphere where they soon disappear, leaving electronic fog. According to Gernon, a Swedish scientist has found that magnetism is weaker in the triangle than anywhere else on Earth, which may be why the fog happens more there than anywhere else.

For more on this theory, listen to this Paranormal Podcast interview with Bruce Gernon. When Don Pelz of Indiana heard of Gernon's experience, he contacted him about his own. He had also seen the doughnut shaped clouds 10 years ago and was able to retrieve radar images of what Gernon calls a "time storm." You can view them at Pelz's Web site.

Compass Malfunctions

In this 2004 map of magnetic declination, the agonic line (in black) passes through the Midwest and the Gulf of Mexico.
In this 2004 map of magnetic declination, the agonic line (in black) passes through the Midwest and the Gulf of Mexico.

In almost every account of the mystery surrounding the Bermuda Triangle, you'll see reference to the fact that it is one of only two places on Earth (the other being the Devil's Sea off the coast of Japan) where a compass points to true north rather than magnetic north. Theorists say that this causes compasses to malfunction and ships and planes to get off-course.

A compass works because its magnetic needle is attracted by the magnetism of the Earth, which draws it to point to the constantly shifting Magnetic North Pole. The Geographic North Pole, on the other hand, is static and is located about 1200 miles north of the Magnetic Pole. The variation between the two readings is known as magnetic declination (or compass variation), which can change by as much as 20 degrees as you move across the globe.

The agonic line is an imaginary line where true north and magnetic north are in perfect alignment - there is no magnetic declination. At points west of the agonic line, a magnetic needle will point east of true north (positive declination). At points east of the agonic line, a magnetic needle will point west of true north (negative declination). Extended lines that mark the constant magnetic declination away from the agonic line are called isogonic lines.

In the early 18th century, Edmund Halley noticed that the agonic line was slowly moving westward. Since then, scientists have noted a westward drift of the agonic line with an average velocity of about 0.2 degrees per year. The drift is not equal in all places, however. It is stronger in the Atlantic Hemisphere than in the Pacific Hemisphere. Navigators must always compensate for magnetic declination when charting their courses.

While the agonic line once passed through the Bermuda Triangle, it now falls within the Gulf of Mexico, rendering claims that it can contribute to disappearances in the Triangle inaccurate. Calculation errors anywhere could cause a plane or ship to go off-course. This theory also assumes that experienced pilots and captains passing through the area were unaware of magnetic declination, which is unlikely.

One of many blue holes around the Bahamas
One of many blue holes around the Bahamas

Blue Holes

Blue holes are water-filled caves and cavities with blue coloration. These caves may be simply a hole in the ground in the interior of islands (inland blue holes) or holes in shallow waters on the banks (marine or ocean blue holes). British scuba diver Rob Palmer directed a blue holes research center in the Bahamas for a number of years. In July 1997, he failed to surface after a dive in the Red Sea and was presumed dead. Some think that the blue holes may be related to (or even formed by) micro-wormholes believed to exist in the area and might even be transit points for UFOs arriving here from other dimensions.

Next, we'll look at a few plausible theories for disappearances within the Bermuda Triangle.

Plausible Theories

Sea surface roughness in the Gulf Stream, captured by NASA's Terra satellite on April 18, 2004.
Sea surface roughness in the Gulf Stream, captured by NASA's Terra satellite on April 18, 2004.
Image courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

Most rational explanations for the incidents in the Bermuda Triangle, including the explanations given by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, include human error and environmental effects. The area is one of the most highly trafficked for amateur pilots and sailors, so more traffic leads to more accidents and disappearances.

Weather Patterns and Topography

The area is subject to violent and unexpected storms and weather changes. These short but intense storms can build up quickly, dissipate quickly, and go undetected by satellite surveillance. Waterspouts that could easily destroy a passing plane or ship are also not uncommon. A waterspout is simply a tornado at sea that pulls water from the ocean surface thousands of feet into the sky. Other possible environmental effects include underwater earthquakes, as scientists have found a great deal of seismic activity in the area. Scientists have also spotted freak waves up to 100 feet high.

The underwater topography of the area may also be a factor. It goes from a gently sloping continental shelf to an extremely deep drop-off. In fact, some of the deepest trenches in the world are found in the area of the Bermuda Triangle. Ships or planes that sink into these deep trenches will probably never be found.

The Gulf Stream, where the Triangle is located, is extremely swift and turbulent. It can pose extreme navigational challenges, especially for inexperienced sailors. The Gulf Stream has been reported to move faster than 5 mph in some areas - more than fast enough to throw sailors hundreds of miles off course if they don't compensate correctly for the current. It can also quickly erase any evidence of a disaster.

Crystalline methane hydrate deposits
Crystalline methane hydrate deposits
Image courtesy Office of Naval Research

Methane Gas Hydrates

This theory appears to hold promise for at least some of the disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. Scientists at Cardiff University have discovered the presence of large concentrations of methane gas trapped in the ocean floor. This gas is due to dying and decomposing sea organisms. The sediment contains bacteria that produce methane, which accumulates as super concentrated methane ice, called gas hydrates. The layer of ice traps the methane gas, and scientists are studying it as a potential energy source.

Within seconds of a methane gas pocket rupturing, the gas surges up and erupts on the surface without warning. If a ship is in the area of the blowout, the water beneath it would suddenly become much less dense. The vessel could sink and sediment could quickly cover it as it settles onto the sea floor. Even planes flying overhead could catch fire during such a blowout. Although he doesn't agree with the methane hydrate theory as an explanation for the Bermuda Triangle, Bill Dillon, a research geologist with the United States Geological Survey said that, "On several occasions, oil drilling rigs have sunk as the result of [methane] gas escape."

The U.S.S. Winston S. Churchill follows a suspected pirate vessel in 2006.
The U.S.S. Winston S. Churchill follows a suspected pirate vessel in 2006.
Image by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Kenneth Anderson courtesy U.S. Department of Defense


While historical pirates like Blackbeard or the fictional Captain Jack Sparrow of "Pirates of the Caribbean" may not be likely candidates for disappearances, modern pirates might be. In the 1970s and '80s, drug runners often pirated boats to smuggle drugs. This theory could also bear some truth during wartime. Check out How Pirates Work for more information about piracy and real-life pirates.

Although these theories (among others) probably account for disappearances in the area known as the Bermuda Triangle, many people still prefer to believe that aliens, electronic fog or another supernatural phenomenon must be the cause. As long as those theories exist, the Bermuda Triangle will remain a source of fascination and mystery.

For lots more information on the Bermuda Triangle and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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