Cotopaxi Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Vanished steamer referenced in Close Encounters of the Third Kind found off Florida coast

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Feb 18, 2020, 9:27 PM EST (Updated)

A Bermuda Triangle mystery nearly 100 years old has finally been solved with the discovery of rusted wreckage for the legendary lost steamship named Cotopaxi, which vanished in a storm off the coast of Florida in 1925 with all 32 souls lost.

For geeks of a certain age or cinephiles with sharp eyes, the S.S. Cotopaxi is referenced in Steven Spielberg's 1977 sci-fi classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as the colossal derelict vessel which magically reappears listing on its side in the middle of the Gobi Desert. The movie's research team investigates this miraculous and surreal event as part of the world's increased UFO phenomena and contact with extraterrestrial beings, realizing it had been missing for decades without a trace.

Named for one of South America's most active volcanoes located in the heart of the Andes Mountains, the doomed steam-powered cargo vessel shipped out of Charleston, South Carolina en route to Havana, Cuba, on Nov. 29, 1925.  

Now a scientific crew headed up by underwater explorer Michael C. Barnette has found what they're convinced is the debris of the Cotopaxi, lying in a watery grave just 35 miles of the shores of St. Augustine, Florida in an area known as the Bear Wreck. The team documented their discovery on Science Channel's Shipwrek Secrets, as previewed below.

Barnette, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, first spotted the debris 15 years ago during an investigatory dive, but couldn't find the definitive proof of its identity. A dozen dives later, he compiled detailed measurements of the wreck and compared them to actual blueprints of the Cotopaxi, but was still unsure.

"As a diver, we want to identify these shipwrecks," he told NPR News. "So you get excited when you actually do that, but then you sometimes go through [an] emotional roller coaster whereupon that realization of what this vessel is, you also learn what it signifies: in this case, the grave of 32 men."

Accompanied by members of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, a nonprofit agency dedicated to researching and preserving the region's rich maritime history, Barnette and the group's chief archaeologists recently returned to the wreckage to hunt for more clues. They eventually confirmed that the wreck was in the correct position from where original S.O.S. signals were sent out on Dec. 1, just days after shipping out, and picked up by a radio station in Jacksonville. 

"It really does help bring closure," he added. "Now we know exactly where the ship went down, where his remains lie, the cause of the sinking. It was not due to sea monsters or whirlpools or aliens or any such thing in the Bermuda Triangle."

For more details on this amazing discovery with a nerdy link back to one of our favorite sci-fi films, check out the episode on the S.S. Cotopaxi airing in a new Science Channel series "Shipwreck Secrets," that premiered Feb. 9.


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