Dean of the FIU Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work Tomás R. Guilarte has offered intriguing scientific theories about why a ship carrying 309 crew went down in the famed Bermuda Triangle. The renowned neurotoxicologist sees a possible culprit in the dangerous cargo the vessel hauled from Brazil in 1918.
Guilarte joined host Wayne Abbott on History’s The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters on February 6, 2024. The episode, Eye of the Cyclops, dove into the potential causes that could have led to the disappearance of the USS Cyclops, which vanished without a trace on its way from the West Indies to Baltimore.
Ship engine troubles and surging seas were among the theories, as well as its cargo: 10,000 tons of manganese ore, a natural mineral used in the production of steel.
Guilarte serves as the director of the Brain, Behavior and the Environment program at FIU, which brings together faculty, staff and students to explore how exposure to environmental metals like manganese—found in manganese ore—affect brain health.
On the show, Guilarte zeroed in on how manganese ore could have played a role in the Cyclops’ disappearance. “First of all, it’s very dense and if you do not have the correct distribution, it could potentially tip the ship one way or the other,” he said.
Bulk cargo ships like the USS Cyclops were built to carry coal – a rock far lighter in weight than manganese ore. The dense, undistributed weight of the Cyclops’ cargo could have caused the ship’s oar to “act like a pendulum,” putting it at high risk of tipping over into dangerous waters.
Guilarte highlighted other dangers the crew may not have known about. Manganese dust is combustible, meaning it could explode if packed in a confined space. It also poses a danger to health.
“The interesting thing about manganese is that it’s toxic at high exposure levels,” Guilarte shared. Exposure to manganese dust or fumes has been linked to damage to the respiratory system, liver, and kidneys. It’s also been associated with neurological diseases like schizophrenia and manganism—a disorder resembling Parkinson’s disease with symptoms including tremors and muscle spasms, which could have influenced the ability of some crew members in performing their duties on the ship.