Some places in this world seem to draw to them mysterious forces beyond our understanding, little corners of the world that for whatever reasons have mysteries gravitate to them. Running through the expanse between the Australian state of Victoria and the island of Tasmania is a stretch of sea called the Bass Strait. The strait measures 300 km (190 mi) wide and 200 km (120 mi) from north to south, and although known for rough currents and winds it is a major shipping lane, and also sees a lot of air traffic, so it is not a particularly remote or uncharted place in modern times, yet the Bass Strait has long had a reputation as a place of mysterious phenomena and strange vanishings for centuries. Indeed, such is its reputation for weirdness, UFOs, and its hungry habit of swallowing ships and planes that this swath of sea has earned its nickname “The Bass Strait Triangle.”
The ominous reputation of the Bass Strait goes back to its very discovery in 1797, when the vessel Sydney Cove, one of the first ships to ever visit the east coast of Australia, wrecked on Preservation Island while delivering goods from Calcutta to Port Jackson. A salvage operation was launched to collect the ship and the handful of survivors who were castaways on the island, and one of these rescuers, the ship Eliza vanished off the face of the earth. The salvage operation led to the discovery of the Bass Strait, collected the first scientifically studied specimen of a wombat, and cemented early the strait’s reputation for disappearing ships. Over the ensuing decades the area would become notorious for ships just disappearing into thin air, and the 19th century had many notable instances of this through the 1800s, such as the British warship HMS Sappho, which vanished with 100 people aboard and left behind not a scrap of wreckage, as well the vessel Harlech Castle, and many, many others. Indeed, the strait became so notorious for ships going missing that few dared to make the north to south journey until Melbourne was established in 1835, and even then at least seven major vessels vanished without a trace travelling to the new port in rapid succession between the years of 1838 to 1840, their wrecks and crews never found. This was perhaps most likely due to poor sea conditions, hidden dangers such as reefs and the rocky coast, all compounded by inadequate charts, but it is still a high concentration of vanishing vessels compared to other areas at the time, and rumors were already brewing that this was an unlucky, possibly even cursed, treacherous place of mystery.
The early 1900s would see ships continue to disappear in the strait at a good rate, such as the coal ship SS Federal in 1901, the German cargo ship SS Ferdinand Fischer in 1906, and numerous other smaller vessels. In 1920 one of the more notable ship vanishings would occur here, with the disappearance of the schooner SS Amelia J, which went missing soon after entering the strait. During the ensuing major search and rescue effort launched by the military, another vessel in the operation, the SS Southern Cross would also vanish, as would a military Airco DH.9 aircraft. Oddly, some crew members involved with the search aboard the HMAS Swordsman would report having seen strange lights in the sky during the search operation.
It was not only ships that would vanish here, as in addition to the disappearance of the Airco DH.9 there were other major aircraft vanishings in the Bass Strait. In 1934 the airliner Miss Hobart flew off the face of the earth with 11 people on board during a routine flight in perfect flying conditions and despite the fact that it was at the time a new, state-of-the-art Havilland DH86 aircraft. Not even a scrap of it was ever found, and making it all eerier was that the plane’s final transmission is the pilots explaining that the plane was surrounded by an unusual buzzing sound before contact was lost. Just one year later, in 1935 another airliner, the aircraft Loina went missing under very bizarre circumstances. In this case, the Loina was actually making its final approach into Hobart with two pilots and three passengers aboard, but the plane’s radio communications suddenly went silent for no discernible reason right after the pilot informed of their approach and the plane disappeared. Wreckage of the Loina would be found with a piece of floor holding an intense scorch mark just a few centimeters across, although what this means is anyone’s guess. None of the bodies of any of the five people aboard were ever found.
It was around this time that the strait became associated with a good amount of UFO activity, with strange things frequently reported from the skies here. Indeed, throughout World War II there were accounts of pilots encountering UFOs, such as one pilot who claimed to have been followed by a large bronze disc, another who was followed by a large dark shadow, and many others. These strange sightings may or may not have something to do with the large number of military planes that went missing over these waters during the war, but they disappeared at a good clip. At least 17 military aircraft were lost here while on training flights out of airbases such as RAAF Base East Sale near Sale, Victoria, with wreckage never being found in most cases. Is it just coincidence that this was going on during so much UFO activity? It is hard to say, but UFOs definitely feature in arguably the most famous disappearance associated with the Bass Strait.
Probably the most well-known and bizarre of any of the cases here is that of Frederick Valentich, who on October 28, 1978 departed on a training flight over the Bass Strait in Australia aboard a Cessna 182 Skylane light aircraft, on his way to King’s Island. During the flight, Valentich radioed Melbourne air traffic control to tell them that he was having engine troubles and that he was being followed by what first appeared to be some sort of large aircraft with four bright lights on it about 1,000 feet above him. He was then told that there were no other aircraft scheduled to be in that area at the time, nor were any showing up on radar, but Valentich insisted that he was witnessing one and that it was moving at very high speeds and getting closer, seemingly toying with him as it made several passes overhead. Valentich would say:
Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne, it seems like it’s chasing me. What I’m doing right now is orbiting and the thing is just orbiting on top of me also. It’s got a green light and is sort of metallic like, it’s all shiny on the outside.
When he was asked what model of plane it was Valentich couldn’t really determine it, not even if it was a civilian aircraft or a military one. All he was able to make out was that it had a “long shape,” that it was metallic and had lights, and that it was incredibly fast and maneuverable. At one point the strange craft then seemingly vanished, and Valentich complained that his engine was rough-idling. The mysterious aircraft then apparently appeared again out of nowhere, and Valentich made his last spooky transmission, the transcript of which follows:
My intentions are – ah – to go to King Island – ah – Melbourne. That strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again (open microphone for two seconds). It is hovering and (open microphone for one second) it’s not an aircraft.
The microphone is then left open for a full 17 seconds, during which time a strange, metallic scraping sound can be heard before the transmission goes dead. An air and sea search was launched soon after the incident, which covered 1,000 square miles without finding any trace of either Valentich or his plane and their fate remains a mystery to this day. It is especially odd, as flying conditions at the time were considered ideal, and Valentich had had enough fuel left to cover a further 800 kilometers. Considering the bizarre and baffling circumstances surrounding Valentich’s vanishing and the incredibly odd last radio exchange with air traffic control, the case has gone on to become almost legendary, with all manner of debate and theories flying about it.
On the more rational end of the spectrum we have the idea that Valentich simply got disoriented, and that the object he saw was merely the lights of his own plane reflected upon the water as he flew upside down before crashing. After all, he was not a particularly experienced pilot, with only about 150 total hours’ flying time under his belt and he had failed to get a commercial pilot’s license on several occasions, but this theory has been disputed due to the fact that flying conditions at the time were so perfectly clear. This has led to the theory that he committed suicide and intentionally crashed his plane into the sea, but there is no evidence of this, and even if he did want to kill himself why come up with the whole elaborate story he gave air traffic control? Some have suggested that Valentich staged his own disappearance, and this was all the according to his plan. This is somewhat supported by the fact that Valentich’s aircraft was never once actually picked up on radar, meaning he might not have even been where he said he was.
There is also of course the theory that Valentich really did encounter a UFO out there and that it had a role to play in the disappearance. Indeed, at around the time of the vanishing there had supposedly been a rash of UFO sightings in the area, and there were several eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen a UFO with a bright green light in the same area and at around the same time as Valentich’s strange incident. One of the weirdest claims made along these lines is that a man named Roy Manifold managed to capture a picture of a strange object in the sky with what looks like an exhaust trail as he was photographing the sunset off the coast with a time lapse camera just 20 minutes before the incident. Manifold claims that he did not notice the object until after the pictures had been developed and whatever it is appears to be moving fast. His son, Jason, would later claim to have been outside shortly after the picture was taken and heard the sound of a Cessna engine but seen nothing at all in the clear sky, after which the sound abruptly ceased “as if someone had turned a radio off.”
What is going on here? Whatever the case may be, neither Valentich nor his plane have ever been seen again and there has never been an explanation for the eerier metallic scraping noise heard before that final transmission ended. The case has been the subject of countless articles, books, and intense discussions, and we seem to be no closer to really knowing what happened. What happened to Frederick Valentich? Did he crash? Did he disappear on purpose or commit suicide? Was he abducted by aliens? We may never really know for sure. This all incidentally coincided with an intense wave of UFO sightings going on over the Bass Strait, along the coasts of Tasmania and Victoria in 1978 and 1979. People all over the place were reporting unexplained phenomena at a good rate, including a couple of motorists being trailed by a bright light hovering right over the road, a taxi driver forced to stop by a luminous green ball directly in front of him, and a local woman who spotted a “doorway of light” in her yard. Interestingly, in the following year, in December of 1979 a yacht called the Charleston was sailing through the strait along with five people aboard on its way to Sydney. It never arrived, and a complete search of the region turned up nothing of the ship or its crew and they remain missing.
What is is about this stretch of water that draws so many mysteries to it? Is this just the unpredictable sea and weather conditions conspiring against us, with the string currents carrying the remains away? Or is there something more at work? Could the good amount of UFO phenomena reported from here have some connection? There have been lots of ideas thrown around on why there have been so many ships and planes that have blinked out of existence in the Bass Strait, including pirates, portals, magnetic anomalies, ley lines, aliens, interdimensional phenomena, or a mixture of all of the above. We may never know, and the Bass Strait holds its mysteries close.