A local man's tragic tale nearly 25 years ago turns out to be a blessing in disguise for a group of researchers, who now get an up-close glimpse of the marine ecosystem near the Bermuda Triangle.
Walt Wyatt, of Enterprise, survived a harrowing experience at sea after his plane, a Beechcraft baron, crashed into the ocean, just West of the Bermuda Triangle. Wyatt, an Air Force veteran, set off in his twin-engine plane from Nassau to Miami, a trip he dared make without his flight instruments, which had been stolen. After getting assurance from the weather forecaster in Nassau, Wyatt used a compass to guide himself to Miami.
"I didn't realize it until I was into the flight a considerable distance that my compass was broken," Wyatt said. "Someone had tried to take it and had broken it, so I was getting bad headings."
Before long, bad weather had moved in and he was flying blind. The Coast Guard, which had been told by another plane that Wyatt was in trouble, intercepted him and was leading him to Miami when his plane ran out of fuel and began to descend.
"I opened the door so that when the airplane hit, the door would swing open. A lot of times an airplane will wrench and it'll trap the door shut and you can't get out, so you always open the door before you crash," Wyatt said.
The force of the plane hitting the ocean caused his head to hit the dashboard, leaving a gash. With a life vest in one hand, Wyatt stepped out on the wing of the plane. Within a matter of seconds, his plane was sinking into the ocean and the Coast Guard plane couldn't find him. His experience told him if he wasn't found within an hour, the probability he would be found dropped significantly. With a storm overhead causing the water to be choppy, the Coast Guard couldn't see him and stopped searching.
From bad to worse
Within an hour after getting into the water, the blow tubes on the commercial life vest came out, causing the vest to deflate. To provide some sort of flotation device, Wyatt took the vest off and put it underneath himself, with his fingers plugging the holes where the blow tubes were supposed to be.
Just like out of a movie, the water around him lit up with an eerie glow. The large amount of phosphorous in the water, churned by the heavy rain, caused a glow to illuminate the water, he explained. Then he began hearing the sounds of barking dogs.
"I wasn't hallucinating, but a lot of mariners at sea said they could hear dogs barking," he said. "I thought I heard dogs barking, so I would swim towards the noise."
Soon, sea leeches began attaching themselves to his legs, biting him. In rough water, with a life vest that didn't work, leeches biting him and strange sights and sounds, sleep was impossible, so Wyatt's mind began racing with thoughts.
"I started to resign myself to the fact that I might die. You start thinking about the people you're leaving behind and what they're gonna think about it and you find out that you're a fragile human being and that things like this do happen ... and then I prayed," he said.
Hoping someone would find his body, but realizing the chances were unlikely, Wyatt took his ID card and put it in the pocket of the life vest. If it were found, they would know it belonged to him, he thought.
As dawn broke, Wyatt's saltwater-ridden eyes were almost swollen shut, but he spotted sharks swarming around him, attracted to the scent of his bleeding head wound.
"I was lucky the water was rough," he said. "If the water had been calm they would have honed right in."
Around 8:45 a.m., Wyatt heard a Coast Guard plane fly overhead. He began waving his bright orange life vest, but the plane continued to fly back and forth, leaving him to wonder if they could see him. The plane had already dropped a flare into the water, but Wyatt couldn't see it because his eyes were so swollen. After about a half an hour, a ship pulled up next to him and his distressing adventure at sea was finally over.
From tragedy to discovery
In the expanse of ocean off the coast of Florida, Wyatt had no idea where his plane could be. It was one night that changed his life, one that took several months to heal physically and emotionally from, as the stress from that night caused his brown hair to turn white before eventually turning back to its natural shade of brown. It was a night he tried to put behind him, but one that wouldn't be forgotten. Nearly 25 years later, Wyatt, who is now an insurance agent, received a phone call about the plane he had lost that fateful night in December 1986.
Researchers from the Global Reef Expedition, a project of the Khaled bin Sulton Living Oceans Foundation, discovered the plane in April during an expedition to study and preserve coral reefs around the world.
After months of research into the history of accidents in the region, Alison Barat, director of communications with the Khaled bin Sulton Living Oceans Foundation, contacted Wyatt about the plane crash. Barat sent him several photos the research team took of the plane, which Wyatt identified as his Beechcraft baron.
"There are a lot of missing ships and boats out there in that area," Wyatt said. "To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has found it."
The Khaled bin Sulton Living Oceans Foundation was founded by Prince Khaled bin Sulton, the eldest son of Prince Sulton, Saudia Arabia's crown prince. After seeing the deterioration of coral reefs in the Red Sea, he founded the organization to conserve and protect the oceans. In order to do that, the foundation is creating detailed maps of reef systems so they can see throughout the years what happens to the reefs.
While studying satellite images of Cay Sal Bank, the scientists noticed circles of seagrass on the ocean floor. While seagrass itself isn't abnormal, perfectly round circles of the grass are, so the team decided to investigate, explained Dr. Sam Purkis, the principal investigator and a professor with the National Coral Reef Institute.
What they discovered is at the center of each of the circles of seagrass were man-made objects, such as ships, oilrigs and planes - like Wyatt's. Between the objects and the seagrass were halos of sand, creating a doughnut hole illusion from above.
Upon researching the site of Wyatt's plane, the team realized the plane was acting as a reef, providing a home for the sealife that normally find haven in a natural coral reef.
"The aircraft, when it sinks to the sea floor, becomes an aggregation device for fish. It provides a habitat for them, so you find a lot of fish in and around the debris," Purkis said.
The fish only travel short distances and fertilize an area surrounding the reef. The fertilized ring was providing a source of nutrients that, when mixed with the phosphorous in the water, allowed seagrass to grow and enrich the environment.
"The seagrass is a very important nursery habitat for baby fish, they like to grow up in seagrass," Purkis said. "Also, many fish lay their eggs in the sea grass and turtles eat it. It's just an indicator of a healthy, happy ecosystem."
Knowing his plane is helping the marine ecosystem makes the tragedy Wyatt went through worthwhile.