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“This compass doesn’t look right to me!”

Philippe Rouja and Nelly Ben Hayoun dive into the Bermuda Triangle

An underwater explorer with a sixth sense for shipwreck stories takes off his snorkel to unravel the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle with the out-of-this-world Nelly Ben Hayoun – aka the Willy Wonka of Design – and things get magnetic

Bermuda is a very strange anomaly.

We all gravitate towards things we can’t understand, magnets being one of them. They’re mysterious, magical and everywhere in the cosmos.

Humans produce magnetite – a permanently magnetic form of iron oxide – in our bodily tissues; the Earth’s core is a giant bar magnet; birds use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate; cows align their bodies with it when they rest (yes, really), and it can even affect our dreams. You could say that we have a magnetic sixth sense.

But it’s in the Bermuda Triangle that things get really weird.

Or do they? As Bermuda’s Custodian of Historic Wrecks (real job title), underwater explorer Dr Philippe Max Rouja tells tales of shipwrecks. The marine anthropologist creates stories so that we care about Indigenous coastal communities as much as environmental heritage.

Here, Philippe joins award-winning designer Nelly Ben Hayoun to clear up a few myths about the Devil’s Triangle

Nelly Ben-Hayoun: So, Dr. Philippe Max Rouja, as ‘Bermuda’s Custodian of Historic Wrecks’ you must quite regularly excaperience strange and dangerous phenomena. When you dive in Bermuda, do you have to be very careful because your instruments stop working in certain spots?

Philippe Max Rouja: I’ll start by saying that the Bermuda Triangle invites that much scrutiny because there’s so much that seems to happen around Bermuda. We lean towards a supernatural reason when we get caught up in a world of things that we can’t explain or understand. If looking for proof of a Bermuda Triangle phenomenon, you don’t need to look much further than the British Admiralty charts, the very charts that they use to navigate to Bermuda or in the Atlantic. Where they mention Bermuda, there is a warning in the bottom right hand corner that alerts mariners  to expect compass variations or magnetic anomalies of up to 14-degrees. So that’s quite a massive declination of your magnetic compasses when you’re trying to navigate! So we don’t have to go searching for otherworldly theories. 

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Nelly: And it’s believed that is why the Bermuda Triangle is really magnetic, because it’s sitting on 500-foot thick matter which is composed of around 500 billion tonnes of magnetite… 

Philippe: When you’re talking about magnetite, and the impact of essentially the three largest atolls in the Atlantic, Bermuda is a very strange anomaly. It has a volcanic history that is quite unique. Instead of magnetite, we actually talk about ‘Bermudite’ here, which is a version of magnetite that is very specific to the Bermuda seamount. It’s slightly lower in iron than magnetite, which is around 33%. Bermudite is as low as 16%. I’m a novice in this world, but the interesting thing is that while there’s a lower iron signature, it’s actually more concentrated, so there’s more of it. So Bermuda is a phenomenally big anomaly in the middle of the ocean.

Nelly: I work at the SETI Institute to search for extraterrestrial life. Pretty much every day we receive phone calls from people telling us that there are aliens – and that they are all in the Bermuda Triangle! There are so many conspiracy theories to do with the area. You spend your time looking for wrecks and all of the unfortunate people who find themselves getting lost because of the magnetic fields in your area. So what do you say to people when they visit you?!

Philippe: You know, as a Bermudian, we’re quite blasé about the whole Bermuda Triangle thing. It doesn’t really factor in our daily lives. But the amount of interest internationally that we get monthly is phenomenal. Every month I get two or three serious calls and enquiries about coming to Bermuda to do documentaries, and to talk about the Bermuda Triangle. And the interesting thing is that Bermuda can support it. It’s not that we embrace the mystery, but there are over 300 shipwrecks around Bermuda, starting in the mid 1500s, all the way into the mid 1900s. Bermuda has been a place where lots and lots of ships have met their final moments. By and large it’s human error. We forget that Bermuda is literally in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. This is the high seas!

We forget that Bermuda is literally in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. This is the high seas!

The seamount that Bermuda sits on is 9,000 feet high.So you’re in the middle of the major oceans, there’s no continental shelf. There’s no area of calm. It can be flat and calm, and it can be incredibly rough. So there’s a bunch of factors that are quite incredible. And that is supernatural in nature because it’s a big natural thing with lots of natural phenomena happening out there on the grandest scale.

Mary Celestia by water colourist Edward James. The ship sunk in 1864 off shore of Bermuda

Nelly: When you live in Bermuda, do you feel anything rare in a human sense on a day-to-day basis – because of the amount of magnetite and magnetic power in this area? 

Philippe: I like to imagine that Bermudians have a certain magnetism. There’s only 60,000 of us. 

Nelly: Actually, I wanted to tell you, I do feel a magnetic field emanating!

Philippe: I hate to say it but Bermudian men and women have a certain reputation as being very charming, friendly and nice. It’s well-established that these sorts of magnetic particles are in humans, they’re in all the animals of the world, there’s bacteria that consume it and there’s some really interesting sort of ideas around the way birds navigate too. As a Bermudian, the interesting thing is when you get lost in a place that’s this small. When underwater, I have definitely had this experience of looking at my compass, while doing a dive in a place that I’m very familiar with. We survey the harbours in Bermuda a lot because there’s a lot of shipwrecks there and I can be looking at my dive buddy, a good friend of mine, Stewart, and saying, “This compass doesn’t look right to me!” And I look at his compass, you know, and it’s doing something else. These are anomalies that can be attributed to either a thinner part of the crust. When new diving instructors come through and do tours on the South Shore, we say to people, “Don’t rely on your dock computers, which is fine, because the coral is so lush, and beautiful and so unique that you could find your way easily.”

I like to imagine that Bermudians have a certain magnetism. There’s only 60,000 of us.

Nelly: Explain how you became Bermuda’s Custodian of Historic Wrecks? I mean, it’s an amazing job title! Did you make your own job title? 

Philippe: No! Bernuda has more shipwrecks per capita than any country in the world. So they need to be managed. I mean, that’s what it comes down to. And I luckily grew up here  in the diving fraternity and went away and studied to become an anthropologist, and it made sense to come home. But you’re right. It’s a ridiculous job title and a fantastic one at the same time. 

Nelly: So you applied for that job, right? 

Philippe: Yes, it’s a full on government position.

Nelly: That’s amazing. Can you give us an example of a story from your findings underwater?

Philippe: One of our more recent discoveries is of a perfume from the 19th century. It’s actually by a French perfumer, Piesse. He designed the notation scale that everyone uses in perfumery today. We found one of his bottles of perfume intact and full, which gave us a chance to retell his story. They did a complete analysis on a Civil War shipwreck. It was after a hurricane that part of the ship was exposed and they found the perfume and bottles of what we think is wine. They’ve made a fantastical replica at a local boutique perfume store called Lili Bermuda and it’s amazing. So, you can tell, we have a lot of interesting stories. 

Dr. Philippe Max Rouja clears the non-historic layers of sand during the rescue archaeology investigation of the bow of the shipwrecked Mary Celestia, South Shore Bermuda

What’s so good about this?

Shipwrecks are cool, but so are the fish they protect spawning in and around them. As local perspectives resonate deeper with people, telling the best stories we can about wrecks helps us care about both human beings and marine life. Thanks to Dr Philippe Max Rouja’s work, Bermuda stands on the forefront of an innovative new movement in environmental conservation to include shipwrecks in marine protected areas.

Interested in learning more about Bermuda shipwrecks? Dive into the Bermuda Challenge 100 website.

Meet Nelly Ben Hayoun

Faster-talking than the speed of light, louder than a sonic boom and sparkier than a volcano, award-winning director and experience designer Nelly Ben Hayoun has simulated all of the above with Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios, which is considered one of the world’s best design studios. Her University of the Underground is a tuition-free charity with board members such as Pussy Riot, Noam Chomsky and Massive Attack, and her new “alien festival”, Tour de Moon, encourages creativity within the nightlife sector. Check out the Bowie-lover’s The Nelly Boum Show on Worldwide FM, where the French space enthusiast catapults us through her flights of fancy-made-real in mind-blowing, imagination-sparking conversations like this one.

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