If there’s one thing I enjoy more than a good adventure yarn, it’s a good adventure yarn with a mysterious ending. Here are some of my favourite travel mysteries from around the world (and one from outside of it).
1. The Abandoned Mary Celeste
This now infamous ship was sighted on 4 December 1872 near the Azores on course for Gibraltar. The crew of the Dei Gratia, another vessel following a similar course, spotted the ship through a spyglass, noting that it was sailing “erratically, yawing slightly and her sails were torn”. As the Dei Gratia approached the eerily empty ship, its crew saw that there was no one at the helm or even on deck. The ship was taking on water but still seaworthy. The cargo of 1,701 barrels of alcohol was untouched and the ship’s clock was still ticking. The captain’s log was on board but no entries made since 24 November – some 10 days previously. There was no sign of a struggle – only a missing lifeboat and a frayed rope trailing from the stern of the ship.
There are myriad theories about the crew’s disappearance but none really hold up. The most popular seems to be a complicated theory based on vapour emissions from the barrels of alcohol forcing the crew to abandon ship – but those who first boarded the empty vessel reported no fumes. Piracy is out: the cargo of alcohol remained untouched. Mutiny? The captain, and his family who were travelling with them, were well respected amongst the crew. Likewise, the crew was well known for its discipline and professionalism. Drunkenness was suggested as a cause of an accident, yet the captain was a teetotaler and, again, there was no sign of a struggle.
Contrary to popular culture and fiction, there were no reports of “untouched breakfasts with still-warm cups of tea on the cabin table” – however, this mystery needs no embellishment. Eight crew and the captain’s wife and son were missing and there was no real answer why. Maybe the ship was just cursed…
2. Mallory and Irvine’s Ascent of Everest
What a story! The highest mountain in the world, some 30 years before it was definitively mastered, with equipment and technical support that today wouldn’t be suitable for a day trip to the Lake District. Were they or were they not the first men to summit Everest? It’s one of my favourite travel mysteries.
Sighted at 8,605m on 8 June 1924, at the infamous Second Step, just a few hundred meters from the summit, George Mallory and Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine were last seen tantalisingly close to their goal. An hour later an intense snow squall began and the two climbers were never seen alive again. No one could be certain if they had made it to the summit or not. Had they died on their ascent to the peak or their descent down the slopes? This was a mystery that, surely, nobody could ever solve…
That is, until 1999 when Mallory’s frozen body was discovered on the slopes below the Second Step. Surely now, after 70 years of wonder, the mystery would be solved. Mallory’s body showed signs of a severe fall. It was clear that after the incident that caused the injuries, Mallory would not have been able to continue if he was conscious let alone alive! One remarkable piece of evidence – or lack of it – was that the photograph Mallory had been carrying of his wife was no longer on his person. This is significant because prior to the climb Mallory had told his friends, family and climbing companions that he would leave the photograph on the summit if he was successful.
The climbing community is not convinced. Many argue that the Second Step was simply insurmountable in 1924 with the equipment available to Mallory. Today, there’s a permanent ladder attached to help climbers make the ascent. Another argument is that the time between the last sighting of Mallory and Irvine, and the arrival of the snow squall was simply not long enough for the duo to have made a successful summit. Who knows? Only Mallory and Irvine for sure, but until the mountain throws up some more clues, it’ll remain a mystery.
3. The Depopulation of Easter Island
No written records exist, but historians generally agree that Rapa Nui was first settled by Polynesians in seafaring canoes and catamarans some time between the 9th and 12th centuries. When Captain James Cook first arrived at Easter Island in 1774, his crew counted roughly 700 islanders living marginal lives with the canoes reduced to rotting timbers and rafts. Fifty years earlier, Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen had visited the island for a week and estimated a population of least 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants – possibly several thousand more – flourishing in a highly developed society. What happened for this society to collapse so quickly and so dramatically in less than half a century?
Deforestation and cannibalism is the famous theory. Jared Diamond’s Collapse suggests the island’s trees were destroyed by Polynesian colonists and their commitment to building ever larger and more lavish Moai statues to honour their gods. The trees were used to build and transport the great stone idols. As the ecological crisis worsened, the population tried to build more and more statues to appease their angry gods, thus worsening the ecocide situation and eventually turning to cannibalism.
However, recent academic and archaeological research has suggested that Polynesian colonisation and deforestation actually happened centuries apart. The argument that the inhabitants used slash and burn tactics for farming has also been debunked – again, there is no archaeological evidence of this. Likewise, stories of cannibalism and violence were almost certainly created by European explorers and are largely blamed on a sensationalised hoax story first published in a French tabloid newspaper in the 19th century.
The most recent theory is that the island’s population declined rapidly due to the introduction of rats – brought on the Polynesian colonists’ canoes and rafts. The rats set about destroying the roots of trees and bushes and thus removing the population’s main food supply. The problem with all the theories of ecocide is that every other inhabited Pacific island is full of expert fishermen. Why would it be any different for the population of Easter Island? Something doesn’t add up…
4. Amelia Earhart – Lost in the Pacific
Most know the story of how in 1932 Earhart was the first aviatrix (female aviator) to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Earhart then set her sights on circumnavigating the globe in 1937. The first attempt failed early on after technical problems. However, her second attempt – this time flying west to east – was far more successful. After completing over 22,000 miles (35,000 km) in her Lockhead Electra with her co-crewman, Fred Noonan, Earhart had just 7,000 miles to complete by crossing the Pacific Ocean from Lae, New Guinea, to the USA with a planned stopover at Howland Island, midway across the vast ocean.
However, their approach to Howland Island was unsuccessful. Radio problems and sporadic cloud cover meant Earhart was unable to locate the island in the midst of the Pacific. Flying at just 1000ft, Earhart’s last confirmed radio contact was at 8:43 am: “We are on the line of position 157 dash 337… We are now running north and south.” Then, just silence.
The overarching theory and most convincing is that Earhart’s plane crashed somewhere in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, sank and was never seen again. Millions of dollars worth of searches spanning 70 years and using state-of-art technology have never thrown up any clues as to where the wreckage may be located.
Another popular theory is that if Earhart and Noonan continued on the line of 157-337, then she could have eventually crash landed on or near to Gardner Island – a small uninhabited reef island. When Micronesian tribesman arrived on the island in 1938 they claimed to have found evidence of someone living on the island and the remains of a human. Later investigations suggested that wreckage from a plane had also been discovered. This suggests that Earhart survived for some time after the crash but unfortunately was not located by the multiple searches, leaving her to die a drawn out death of starvation, thirst and disease.
Other more mythical theories suggest Earhart was taken hostage and executed by the Japanese; worked as a spy for Franklin D Roosevelt; changed her name and eloped to New Jersey; turned back and crashed at Rabaul (northeast of mainland Papua New Guinea) in an attempt to reach an airfield there; and even one that suggests she appeared on the Japanese propaganda radio broadcast programmes during World War II known as Tokyo Rose!
Whatever happened to Earhart and Noonan is probably best described by Tom D. Crouch, Senior Curator of the National Air and Space Museum. He once said the Earhart/Noonan Electra is “18,000 ft. down” and added: “The mystery is part of what keeps us interested. In part, we remember her because she’s our favourite missing person.”
5. Salish Sea Human Foot Discoveries
This one is the weirdest of the seven travel mysteries. Really freakin’ weird! So, right up in the north of Washington state, USA, and the south of British Columbia, Canada, there’s the Salish Sea in the Strait of Georgia. It’s a pretty quiet and chilly part of the world, not known for gangsters and cartels. However, since 2007, detached feet have been washing up on the beaches of the Salish Sea.
Some of the owners have been identified: one belonged to a woman who jumped from Pattullo Bridge in New Westminster in 2004; another to a local fisherman who went missing in 1987; one belonged to a Vancouver-area man who was reported missing in January 2008 and died of natural causes. Some have been identified as either female or male, others only identified as ‘human’. Some of them have been matched up too: two left feet matched with two right feet.
Nobody can really explain how a load of feet came to be washed up on a fairly unique and remote beach. One theory suggests the feet are from victims of boating accidents and plane crashes while another attributes them to victims of the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. The currents in the Strait of Georgia are particularly unpredictable so it’s very difficult to make accurate and consistent conclusions as to their origin.
Another big question is “why just the feet?” Well apparently it’s not as odd as you think. The ankles are particularly weak areas of the body and therefore when a body decomposes it’s not unheard of for only a foot to turn up. However, not to have found any other body parts is pretty unusual and finding a second foot has been given the odds of “a million to one”. So imagine how downright mysterious it is that another 11 should wash up in the same place.
6. The Wow! Signal
Here’s one to file under interstellar travel. Late in the evening of 15 August 1977 at one of SETI’s (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) large radio telescopes, American astronomer Jerry R. Ehman detected a radio signal like no other detected before. The signal lasted over 72 seconds. Every radio detection generates an alphanumeric code on a computer printout – this signal generated an alphanumeric code of ‘6EQUJ5’. Ehman, astonished, simply circled the code in red pen and labelled it “Wow!”
The signal was intense and thus almost certainly artificial – as in not natural and intentionally broadcast. The signal was received at 1420 MHz which is a ‘protected spectrum’ bandwidth reserved for astronomical purposes in which terrestrial transmitters are forbidden to transmit. There is a possibility that it was an Earth-sourced signal that was being reflected back to Earth by a piece of space debris. There’s also a theory that it could’ve been from one of the hundreds of satellites orbiting the Earth. The problem with this is that after over 35 years of continuous listening and searching, the signal has never been detected again. The recording and alphanumeric code have also been released and made public and nobody has claimed to be its owner or source.
One thing that scientists can agree on, is that if the signal was indeed extraterrestrial, then the producers of such a signal are likely to be of an extremely advanced civilisation. The signal would have required an extremely strong transmitter; something vastly more powerful than anything available on Earth.
Where does this leave us? Until the signal is detected again, or one similar to it, it will remain a curiosity – a tantalising hint of what a signal from an extraterrestrial world might look like. The ‘Big Ear Telescope’ (as the receiving telescope is known) is now defunct, but SETI’s search for signs of an extraterrestrial civilisation continues with the hope that one day we will solve the Universe’s greatest mystery: Are we alone?
7. The Bermuda Triangle
What could be more captivatingly mysterious than the Bermuda Triangle? Over the years, literally dozens of aircraft and ships have disappeared in mysterious circumstances in this area of the Atlantic Ocean. Officially, the area does not exist. You won’t find it on sea charts, the US Navy does not observe it and US Board on Geographic Names refuses to recognise its position on maps. The Bermuda Triangle is not even identified as being one of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s 10 most dangerous waters for shipping. However, the stories and mysteries just keep piling up – here are just a few to whet the appetite.
In 1918, USS Cyclops went missing without a trace with a crew of 309 after departing the island of Barbados, resulting in the single largest non-combat loss of life in the history of the US Navy. Some blame storms, capsizing due to overloading, or enemy attack. However, no mayday signal was ever received and German authorities have always denied any knowledge of the vessel.
A year later in 1919, the schooner Carroll A. Deering was found hard aground in North Carolina, completely deserted. At roughly the same time the SS Hewitt disappeared in similar unexplained circumstances.
In 1945, five planes from Flight-19 – on a routine exercise in the area – disappeared with no trace, with no wreckage ever found. What’s more, one of the rescue aircraft deployed to look for them also vanished without a trace. Again in 1948, another aircraft disappeared while on a flight from Puerto Rico to Miami. No trace of the aircraft or the 32 people on board was ever found.
Many natural and supernatural explanations for the repeated mysterious disappearances have been floated but never any concrete answers found for why such an area of the globe would be so fatal and yet so unexplainable. The supernatural explanations include interference from UFOs or even leftover technology from the mythical lost continent of Atlantis! More ‘down-to-earth’ explanations include erratic compass variations caused by unusual local magnetic anomalies, the Gulf Stream currents causing problems for shipping or ditched planes, the violent weather regularly reported in the area, methane hydrates in the atmosphere and good old-fashioned human error.
Maybe the Bermuda Triangle doesn’t exist at all and it’s all a series of unfortunate coincidences. As with all the above travel mysteries, what really makes a good puzzle is the not knowing…