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Random Thoughts About Sailors

I’ve taken a cruise before. It wasn’t one of those gross, over-commercialized Caribbean cruises, either. This one went around the Pacific, starting in Seattle and running through Asia and Australia before exploring the South Pacific and ending at San Diego. I didn’t get to do the whole cruise because it was planned for my parents, but Dad had the bad taste to die in Russia and the cruise company let me use the rest of his ticket. Since I didn’t give a rat’s ass about him but saw an opportunity to see the world, I took them up on the offer and met the ship in Hong Kong.


Many a captain and crew have vanished without a trace.
Ship's Wheel

That was an interesting flight. Yes, I was the middle seat on a fifteen-hour international flight from San Francisco. Here was this big, fat American sitting in the midst of two much smaller people who used me for a pillow as they slept most of the flight. It didn’t really matter to me, because I spent most of the flight high on anti-anxiety medication because I hate flying.


Hong Kong is a pretty cool place to visit. I spent one night in a hotel in downtown near the docks, where I caught up on the sleep I didn’t get on the plane. Mom came to pick me up and take me to the docks the next day, and then we took a tour of the city that included a journey to the top of the mountains, a stop at the beach, and a sampan ride at the bay. That evening there were fireworks over the water. I think Hong Kong is my favorite city in the world.


We traveled several places on that tour. This included Singapore, a trip through a very busy and pirate-filled shipping line in Indonesia, several stops in Australia, then onto Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa, and Kiribati. I would learn later that I have actually set foot on a newly discovered continent, because New Caledonia is part of it.


The thing that really got me on that trip were the times we were out on the open sea. The ocean stretched for miles in every direction, and I wondered how the ship’s crew navigated in all that water. It was the most I’d ever seen of the ocean. Morbidly, I realized that you could fall overboard and disappear in these thousands of miles of water, never to be seen again.


Sailors are used to such stretches of water. I wonder if they ever sit on deck on their ships and think about the vastness of the ocean, and where their minds travel if they do.


I think of all the mysteries on the sea. There have been several cases of “ghost ships.” These are ships where the entire crew has died for some reason or another. There are several reports from the 1800s of sailors encountering entire ships full of skeletons, with no idea what killed the crew.


There was one incident in the late 1940s where two different ships received a distress call from a Greek freighter traveling through the South Pacific. The call was sent in Morse code, and the signals grew slower and weaker over time, until stopping altogether. The crews of the two other ships finally found the Greek vessel drifting silently on the ocean, and everyone on board was dead, all with terrified expressions on their faces. Among the dead was the signaler, who was found slumped over at his station with his finger still on the button.


No one knows what happened to the ship. It was towed into port and examined from all angles. There was no sign of a leak in the ship’s cargo or anything wrong with the ship itself. Autopsies of the dead showed only that they died of natural causes.


A similar thing was said to happen with a Dutch vessel sailing through Indonesian waters in about the same time period. In this case, the signal reported that the crew was dying and the signaler eventually died himself. Again, the crew was found completely dead, with looks of terror on their faces, and the cause of death was listed only as “natural.” There was no examination of the ship or its crew because it caught fire and burned up rapidly before reaching port.


There are a lot of similarities between the two cases, though, and I want to look at those here. Whatever killed the crews, there was enough time for someone to signal for help before dying themselves. In both cases, the sailors were found with looks of terror permanently plastered on their faces. Both took place in the Pacific Ocean in strongly volcanic areas. Also, the weather was reported as unbearably hot on both days that the incidents occurred, with unusually still waters.


So what could completely exterminate the crews of two substantial freighters in the middle of nowhere. Well, let’s look at the fact that waters were unusually calm and the areas were strongly volcanic. Let’s temporarily move on from these two ships to an incident in Cameroon in 1986.


There is a lake in Cameroon known as Nyos. This lake is a maar, meaning it was created by a volcanic explosion that blasted through the soil and created a large pit, which eventually filled with water. Unfortunately, the volcanic activity had not ceased when this occurred, and gases leaking out of the ground pooled at the bottom of the lake, particularly carbon dioxide.


One day, a loud rumble was heard from the direction of Lake Nyos. To this day, no one knows if it was an actual eruption, an earthquake, or a rock slide into the lake. Whatever it was, it caused the lake to turn over, bringing orange sediment to the surface and releasing a massive cloud of volcanic gas. This toxic avalanche of carbon dioxide flooded into unsuspecting villages, smothering over 1600 people.


What does any of this have to do with two dead ships in the middle of the Pacific? Plenty, it turns out. Survivors of the Lake Nyos incident reported inexplicable terror and hallucinations as they were poisoned by carbon dioxide. In fact, some of the dead victims of the incident were found with looks of terror permanently fixed on their faces. Carbon dioxide in large concentrations is known to cause hallucinations and disorientation.


There are some nasty qualities to carbon dioxide in large amounts. Like its cousin, carbon monoxide, it is odorless and colorless, which means it can’t be detected by the average human until it’s too late. Both gas species are also heavier than air, which means they collect in low depressions and wait for unsuspecting victims to become trapped in gas pockets.


Keep these two details in mind: both ships’ crews died in volcanic areas when the sea was still. They were at sea level, going through still air in the middle of a volcanic zone. It is entirely possible that these two ships were doused with a large pocket of carbon dioxide released from a nearby volcano, or from the ocean itself. The pocket of gas could have been a fleeting matter, dissipating before other ships came to the rescue hours later.


This would explain everything. That includes the terrified looks on their faces, as they expired with both hallucinations and a sense of terror at not knowing what was going on. It is also very difficult to diagnose carbon dioxide poisoning in autopsy without some knowledge of exposure in the first place. Most would be written off as cardiac arrest or “natural causes.”


I propose that these two ships were not downed by some mysterious, supernatural cause, but by a natural phenomenon already known in the Pacific. Such gas releases could occur without ever being associated with an eruption. If there was a turnover of the ocean itself, it could have released gathered volcanic gas from below the surface.


This kind of thing happens all the time. In Indonesia, before a major incident at Krakatau in 2018, divers discovered the sediment on the caldera floor bubbling with hot volcanic gas coming directly from the magma source. You can still find this video footage on YouTube, just go to “Extreme Pursuit” and look for their diving expedition near Krakatau.


Of course, there is also speculation that one of the cases of the dead ships didn’t happen at all. The Dutch vessel in question is not on record books of the time. There are also reports that the case was actually a short fiction story created for a European newspaper.


That still, however, leaves the Greek vessel. This case was no fictional story made up to impress the media. It is on the record books and it did occur. So what do you think? Was it a gas pocket from some nearby or underwater volcano? Was it some unknown disease? Did the ship itself release toxic gases that eventually dissipated before other crews came to the rescue? That was a long time ago and we may never know what became of that vessel and its crew.


There are a lot of mysteries on the sea. Sometimes the crew and passengers of a ship are not found dead, they aren’t found at all. Everything aboard the ship is found to be in place, right down to meals sitting on dishes waiting to be eaten and coffee brewing for breakfast. The only things found missing are usually the ship’s log book and the passengers and crew.


Probably the most famous of these is the Mary Celeste, whose entire crew vanished mysteriously in the waters off of Portugal. The vessel was found drifting aimlessly in the Atlantic Ocean, with no sign of trouble other than the missing people. The only things missing, other than the people, were the ship’s log book and one life boat. There are many theories as to what occurred aboard this ship, but nothing has been proven.


I could go on and on about the mysteries of our open oceans, but if I did, we’d be here forever. You have everything, from dead or missing crews to strange lights to phantom ships to the Flying Dutchman. You can go down a serious rabbit hole looking them up, and I highly recommend it. Just be warned, you don’t want to do this just before bed. Not if you care about sleeping.

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