Exploration Mysteries: MV Joyita

Many call it the Mary Celeste of the Pacific. This refers to the mysterious circumstances under which passengers and crew vanished while the ship remained adrift in open waters. The MV Joyita, a small and seemingly ordinary merchant vessel, suffered from the same misfortune in the Pacific Ocean in the 1950s. 


The MV Joyita had a diverse seafaring portfolio. It started out in 1931 as a luxury yacht for noir film director Roland West. He named the vessel Joyita, which is a colloquial Mexican word for little jewel. It was in honor of his wife, Jewel Carmen, a famous silent film actress. West sold it in 1936 to a private owner before the U.S. Navy acquired it during the Second World War. It served as a patrol vessel around Hawaii until 1946. 

MV Joyita as seen from the front

MV Joyita from the front. Photo: Unknown


It changed hands in the following years until anthropologist Dr. Katharine Luomala eventually acquired it. She then lent the boat on a semi-permanent basis to a friend, Captain Thomas Miller. He captained the Joyita for many years, even to the point of living on the boat in hard financial times. He tried to start a fishing business with the vessel but this fell through. Luckily, he acquired a contract for transporting cargo. 

The cedar-and-oak Joyita was 21m long, with a beam of 5.2m and a draft of 2.3m. Before passing to Dr. Luomala, previous owners outfitted the Joyita with new features such as 18 cubic metres of cork lining for refrigeration and brand-new engines. It was a modest-looking and normally functioning ship. However, this all changed in October 1955.

The disappearance

On October 3 of that year, the Joyita left Apia Harbour in Samoa for the Tokelau Islands with 25 people on board, including a crew of 16 and nine passengers. A doctor, a government official, and two children were among the passengers. The ship carried mundane cargo like sacks of flour, sugar, and rice as well as construction material and oil drums. Nothing out of the ordinary. 

Unfortunately, the voyage got began badly. The day before, the ship’s port engine clutch failed, which delayed them a day. Astoundingly, Captain Miller disregarded the failed engine and continued with the only other working engine. The voyage to the Tokelau Island was supposed to take 48 hours. However, it turned out to be much, much longer than that. 

When the Joyita didn’t make port, the New Zealand Air Force began a search-and-rescue mission on 6 October. The planes scoured over 260,000 sq km of the Pacific, to no avail. Several weeks later, in November, Captain Gerald Douglas of the ship Tuvalu found it adrift and listing heavily at a 45° angle, over 970km off her original course, near Fiji. The scene was as eerie as it was puzzling. In poor condition, half submerged with shattered windows and a severely damaged bridge, no one knew what to make of it. Most importantly, its passengers were nowhere to be seen. 

More questions than answers

The life rafts and cargo were missing, along with the captain’s logbooks, navigational equipment, and guns. A doctor’s bag left behind housed a few medical instruments and a bunch of bloody bandages. The Joyita’s radio was tuned in to 2182 kHz, the international marine distress channel. All clocks were frozen at 10:25.

There were other oddities. Mattresses lay against the starboard engine and a makeshift awning covered the top of the deck. Fuel levels indicated the Joyita traveled 391km before its systems went down. The power was totally cut. 

MV Joyita in the water

The puzzling disappearance of the MV Joyita’s passengers remains unsolved today. Photo: Lost to the Sea/Facebook


Subsequent investigations discovered a leak from a corroded pipe that led to flooding in the bilges and lower deck. There were barnacles above the water line on the outside, which indicated that the vessel listed at this angle for an extended period of time. Joyita did not sink due to its increased buoyancy from the cork lining and its light payload. 

So what exactly happened? How did the ship end up in this state? Where did the passengers go? What made them leave the ship?


Going from the bloody bandages in the medical bag, either a passenger or crew member got injured. Since there was broken glass and the bridge was smashed to bits, some believe that the Joyita went through some kind of severe event, such as a rogue wave, waterspout, seaquake, or storm. However, this seems unlikely. Since the boat was almost unsinkable thanks to its buoyancy, the passengers would not have left, especially in the middle of a chaotic weather event. 

Many blame Captain Miller for this vessel’s demise. Many details of Miller’s personal life came out over the years, telling of Miller’s brilliance as a seafarer, but also his recklessness and callousness toward his crew. David Wright, who researched and wrote extensively on the mystery, quoted the experiences of former crew members Pulu Levao and Oksene Vaovasa. They described Miller as negligent, dismissive, and uncaring toward his workers. He also had heavy debt and tensions with his first mate Chuck Simpson. This ushers in the possibility of mutiny.

Miller did not seem to worry much about sailing in the Pacific on one engine. But when the ship started to take on water in the bilges, the passengers and crew could have thrown the cargo overboard to help the boat stay afloat. Miller may have tried to continue on anyway, to complete the voyage and collect his payment. He and Simpson could have fought, resulting in Miller receiving injuries.

He could have died or perhaps both went overboard. The rest of the crew and passengers could have panicked and decided to leave the boat to find land. Instead of finding land, they drifted out to sea.

a painting of the Mary Celeste ship

A painting of the Mary Celeste. Photo: Paul Begg



This theory makes some sense but does not account for the remaining crew members. They would not have panicked or left on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific. They would have known it was a death sentence.

Others believe that Japanese or Soviet troops or pirates might explain things. Some local newspapers in Fiji claimed that remnant Japanese forces, still active after their defeat in World War II, killed everyone on board. This unsubstantiated claim reflects anti-Japanese sentiment in the region. Others speculated that a Soviet submarine might have kidnapped them or pirates may have stolen the missing cargo and eliminated witnesses. None of these gained much traction.


Recently, the Tokelau community has demanded further investigations and closure into this mysterious incident. Tokelau community leader, Luther Alafia Toloa, is a descendant of one of the lost and hopes to close the matter for good. Hopefully, new evidence re-opens this case and grants him his wish.

For now, it looks like Captain Miller is at the epicentre. The puzzle pieces point to general dissatisfaction with his leadership and decisions. Until evidence either washes up on an island or turns up at the bottom of the ocean, we remain at the mercy of speculation. 

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.