Monday, March 26, 2012

More Maritime Mysteries: The Haunted Seas

More Maritime Mysteries: The Haunted Seas
By Scott Corrales
(c) 2012

My grandmother was not particularly into telling spooky tales; some of her stories of the “old days”, her formative years in a post-1898 Cuba and a childhood spent in pre-tourist Key West, Florida, had elements that would have served as grist for the mill of a mystery novelist.

One of these stories involved a disappearance that, to my knowledge, is still missing from books about mysteries of the sea. It does not appear in Vincent Gaddis’s Invisible Horizons, Ivan Sanderson’s Invisible Residents, or any of Charles Berlitz’s books on the so-called Bermuda Triangle. It concerns the passenger liner Valbanera.

It may seem hard for readers in the Internet age to imagine of a time when the only way of getting from one part of the world to the other was by ship. Passenger liners – not cruise ships – plowed the North Atlantic between the major ports of the Iberian Peninsula (La Coruña, Vigo, and Cádiz, among others) and the islands of the Caribbean, ferrying families relocating to the Americas or else returning to Europe with their fortunes safely made. Clipper ships might take a month to make the journey, being at the mercy of the ocean’s currents and winds, but coal-fired ships – steaming along at fifteen knots an hours – might make the crossing in a fortnight. Ships of the Compañía Transatlántica Española and the Pinillas Line were a common sight on the high seas, blowing their whistles at passing Cunard liners and sending their compliments to Southampton-bound captains. While no author of maritime heroics has turned his/her pen in this direction, the skippers of the Spanish Line, as it was known, played major roles as blockade runners in the 1898 war, attempting to run Admiral Dewey’s blockade of the Philippines.

Built in 1906 at Glasgow’s Connell & Co. shipyards, the Valbanera was a small passenger liner, clocking in at nearly five thousand tons (for comparison purposes, the RMS Titanic was forty-six thousand tons), it could convey twelve hundred passengers across the Atlantic with ease and was considered one of the Pinillas Line’s most comfortable ships.

In 1919, the Havana-bound liner was under the command of Captain Ramón Cordero, scion of a renowned seafaring family from southern Spain. We will never know if he was aware of the concerns of his passengers regarding the safety of his ship: the Pinillas Line had lost two other passenger vessels – The Apollo and the Principe de Asturias – and the Valbanera itself had been at the center of a scandal regarding a shipboard flu outbreak that resulted in dead passengers being thrown overboard.

The passenger liner reached Santiago de Cuba on 5 September 1919, unloading nearly a thousand workers from the Canary Islands who had secured employment opportunities as cane-cutters and millers in the prosperous sugar industry. The ship rounded Cape Maisi on Cuba’s easternmost end and entered the Old Bahama Channel, hoping to reach Havana four days later. Captain Cordero found himself in a race against the weather, as a hurricane raged ahead. His only hope was to make port before encroaching storm.

On the night of 9 September, passengers aboard another liner anchored in the Port of Havana while the storm raged around them were able to hear a ship’s whistle. The harbormaster at the Morro Castle was able to see a fleeting silhouette of a ship against the raging waters, and understood that it was the Valbanera. But the liner never entered the port: it vanished into the pages of maritime legend with nearly five hundred lives.

A search by the U.S. and Cuban navies – perhaps the first joint operation of such a nature – subsequently took place. The gunboats Cuba and Patria and the USS SC 203, an anti-submarine warfare ship, searched the waters after the hurricane had dissipated. Divers eventually found the Valbanera at Rebecca Shoals, between Tortuga and Key West. The official report stated that the ship’s name was clearly visible to the divers, but there was no trace of the passengers. The sunken ship was otherwise intact, with lifeboats still at their davits. What became of the 488 lives expected by desperate relatives in Havana? Had they jumped overboard, bodies would have been found on the sea, or washed up on the reefs and shoals.

Stranger still is the fact that the Key West naval station received a transmission from the Valbanera on 12 September at one o’clock in the afternoon, a request for weather information. Where had the ship been during the period of time between its disappearance outside the Havana on the 9th and the discovery of its wreckage on the 19th? Or had the message been caught in some sort of temporal aberration? The coral-covered wreck of the Valbanera rests under the waters of Rebecca Shoals, having taken its mystery with it.

Another disappearance that is seldom mentioned in books on mysteries of the sea is that of the "Castillo Montjuich vanished somewhere in the Atlantic in December 1963, without a distress call ever being received. The ship and its complement of thirty-seven sailors had set out from Boston with a cargo of corn bound for La Coruña.

An Enigma in the Norwegian Sea

A Spanish fishing vessel – the Piñeiro Correa – set out from the rich fishing waters off Massachusetts toward the Norwegian Sea. Registered at the port of O Morrazo in Galicia, Spain’s northwestern corner, Captain Alvaro Otero would never forget the day in which his routine was interrupted by something he would remember as one of the strangest experiences the sea had offered him: The date was 12 September 1977, and the Piñeiro Correa had already reached the Faeroe Islands.

Ship’s engineer Manuel Carballo recalls that the captain summoned the crew to the bridge at 21:00 hours to witness an extraordinary phenomenon: a structure resembling “ a large umbrella filled with unexplained lights, with a very bright light at its highest tip, issuing rounded spindles of color that faded as they fell into the ocean.” The engineer – who made an entry in his personal log – told journalist Juan Calvo of the O Faro de Vigo newspaper in a 2009 interview ( that “the colors were very hard to describe” and that the main light “turned off after being visible for 20 minutes.” The engineer further recalled that it was a clear night with a full moon and mild weather for that latitude, but that a storm broke out the minute the phenomenon was extinguished.

Throughout the entire experience, the fishing vessel’s crew had remained calm, beholding the strange phenomenon without any apprehension. Perhaps they could not sense the skipper’s growing disquiet as he realized the unknown luminous phenomenon was heading their way. Captain Otero ordered his second in command to put the Piñeiro Correa on autopilot, and then ordered the crew below decks once more. “My own recollection,” Otero told the reporter from O Faro de Vigo, “is similar to Carballo’s, but I remember that there was a central beam of light descending straight into the sea.”

The other witnesses to the event, whose names appear in the newspaper article, kept an unspoken pact of silence among them, as they knew the phenomenon they’d seen with their own eyes was atypical. The article notes that upon returning to their homeport at the end of the squid-fishing season, the crew contacted astronomy and navigation instructors at the Escuela Náutica Pesquera de Vigo (Nautical Fishing Academy of Vigo) for consultations. The instructors showed them an array of possible phenomena reported at sea, but none of the slides and photos matched what they had witnessed off the Faeroe Islands. There was no photo or cine camera aboard the Piñeiro Correa with which they could have captured the phenomenon for posterity. The crewmen remain convinced that they saw “something extraterrestrial.”

But the unknown appeared to dog the fishing vessel: the Piñeiro Correa was sold and renamed Cisne Blanco (White Swan), finding itself in Chilean waters many years later. Jesús Piñero, the only crewman left aboard from the old ship’s complement, now acting as boatswain, remembers a night when the crew was called up to the bridge. “There was something suspended above the sea with very large lights. It suddenly vanished and left a wake behind it. It wasn’t collective madness or a sea-story. Forty crewmen stood there, witnessing what is nowadays considered an unidentified flying object.”

Belief in the existence of a UFO base (or materialization point) in the Norwegian Sea, and another in the Baltic, has persisted for decades. In April 1988, a spokesperson for the Swedish Navy mentioned that his country had detected at least two dozen “mystery submarines” – a polite term for unidentified submarine objects. In the late 1950s a man named Lorentz Jonson allegedly witnessed a cigar-shaped object, fifty meters long, with portholes and reddish lights, disgorging smaller winged objects that promptly dove into the waters of the Namsenfjorden (north of the city of Trondheim).

NATO would be confronted with the unknown objects that haunt the Norwegian Sea only a few years after the Namsenfjorden incident. In February 1963, a Royal Navy frigate on maneuvers in those latitudes picked up an unusual contact on its radar: an object measuring 98 feet across at an elevation of 32,000 feet. No visual confirmation was obtained, but radar operators looked on in amazement as their instruments showed the object making an abrupt descent to the ocean’s surface.

One of the better-known stories regarding the presence of UFOs in the Norwegian Sea involves the 1972 detection of a mysterious object at the bottom of a fjord and proceeded to force it to surface. In a maneuver that lasted three days, involving dozens of Norwegian and NATO surface ships, depth charges were dropped into the icy waters, in hopes of bringing the mysterious object to heel. The astonishing result of this action was that all the electronic systems aboard the surface ship were inexplicably "knocked out". Red-faced, the Norwegians admitted that the USO had given them the slip.

The Unknown in Warmer Waters

An unusual story made the rounds of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 2008: aliens had supposedly abducted three fishermen.

The report, featured in the Diario de Yucatán (, put forth the possibility that three experienced fishermen aboard the 50 foot-long trawler “Carlos Humberto” had inexplicably vanished on 10 July of that year, “kidnapped or abducted by aliens in the high seas”, as the article explained. The word spread rapidly among Yucatán’s tightly-knit fishing community, to the extent that some masters were keeping their vessels closer to shore than usual. The situation escalated to the point that Gaspar Cimé, Harbormaster of the Port of Progreso, was forced to speak openly about the matter. “I think the rumor is a really a joke, but it is a fact that some fishermen believe in such things. We will continue searching for them. It’s very hard for a vessel of such size to vanish for no reason.”

On 9 August, a report in Mexico’s Noroeste ( reported that the “Carlos Humberto” had been found 142 miles away from the Port of Progreso, near Isla Pérez. There was no trace of the missing fishermen – Alberto Ojeda, Daniel Solis and Ildefonso Hernández. While one might theorize that drug smugglers attacked the trawler at night to kill the crew and use their “clean” boat to bring narcotics into U.S. waters, there was no sign of violence and the main prize of any “narcopirata” was in fact adrift and taking on water. Were the fishermen correct in suggesting that the crew of the “Carlos Humberto” had in fact been spirited away by forces unknown?

In 1991, Puerto Rican fishermen would’ve probably concurred with their colleagues on the opposite end of the Caribbean. A group of four fishermen were casting their nets in the early hours of the morning when they saw the lights emerge from the water. One of them, a man in his fifties, was so intimidated by the sight that he took refuge in the cabin of his fishing boat, refusing to discuss the matter ever again. Not of these sightings had their point of origin in the Caribbean Sea: a considerable number of originated inland, from the mountains, appearing first as streaks of light in the night sky, like meteors, until rings of light and a visible structure came into view as the object descended within 500 to 600 feet above their boats. According to Rollie Irizarry, a fisherman from the town of Cabo Rojo: "My dad said that he jumped into the mangrove swamp, telling his fishing buddy "if they're that good, let them try to catch us in the swamp!" They honestly thought that they were done for, when they saw the thing swoop down over their yawl." Many of the fishermen, who work the entire littoral of western and southern P.R., were taken aback by the incidents to the extreme of not wanting to discuss their cases with professional investigators.

Media attention was lavished on some of the strange marine activity, such as the incident that took place on November 11, 1991. On that evening, residents of El Tuque and Las Cucharas notified authorities that a UFO "was entering and leaving the sea" less than half a mile from the shore. The unknown vehicle engaged in its maneuvers from 11:30 p.m. until well past midnight.

In December 1996, there were unconfirmed reports that a police helicopter flying over the waters off the southern city of Ponce had reconnoitered a vast submarine "vehicle" clearly visible from the air. The structure was circular in shape and quite close to the surface. Its dimensions were staggering: the police estimated that the contraption was approximately a mile across.

The Mysterious Island

Any mention of “The Mysterious Island” will evoke memories of Jules Verne’s sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under Sea, in which a group of castaways find themselves on a nameless isle, aided by an unseen protector who turns out to be the elderly Captain Nemo. The rocky and uninhabited island that concerns us here is too small to serve as a haven for survivors as a shipwreck, and it is located near one of the world’s foremost tourist destinations.

The towering rock of Es Vedrá is popularly believed to serve as a sentinel that watches over the island of Ibiza, from which it was separated by events in the geological past. Riddled with caves and magnetic anomalies, fishermen say that carrier pigeons become confused when they fly over Es Vedrá, and shipboard instrumentation tends to go haywire.

The subject of unidentified submarine objects inevitably arises in connection with this alluring rock formation. These are seen by day and night, moving silently under the water, while others breach the surface and vanish into the night sky. In the late 1970s, the pilot of a small plane reported seeing a UFO over the isle; the unknown object responded to the single-engine plane in an unusually hostile manner, prompting the pilot to return to Ibiza.

In October 1970, Miguel Bañuls, a commander in the Spanish Air Force, was driving to his summer home on the island of Majorca (largest of the Balearic Islands) when a fiery UFO flew within inches of his car's roof, picking the vehicle up and turning it around to face in the opposite direction to which it was headed before vanishing into the night. Bañuls, who was accompanied by his wife at the time, chose not to continue to his intended destination.

For many years following the incident, Bañuls was left with the feeling that the UFO would somehow come back to get him.

In October 1995, when the Balearic Islands were in the throes of a sensational UFO flap, Bañuls decided to go fishing, and was never seen again. Scuba divers eventually found the man's shattered fishing boat as well as his fishing tackle underwater. One of the rescuers observed: "Something strange has happened here, and no-one is able to explain it. USOs have repeatedly been seen in this part of the world, most notably between ten and eleven o’clock on the night of 8 December1978, when a vast metallic platform was allegedly seen emerging from the Mediterranean Sea facing the island of Majorca. Numerous witnesses, including Francisco Ruitord, a local journalist, saw nine USOs emerge from the water and fly around the massive structure. Three other witnesses corroborated this sighting from northwestern Majorca. At the same time, luminous circles that left blue and orange lights in their wake were reported between Morro d’ en Llobera and Morrillo de Bordils.