American Oceans

History’s Most Famous Shipwrecks

Shipwrecks can be tragic, yet critical discoveries that help us understand the past and piece together historical elements that are unknown or poorly understood.

a famous shipwreck sitting at the bottom of the ocean

They tell the tales of conflict, survival, and cultural exchanges from times past. 

Many ships have fallen victim to accidents and attacks that sent them to a watery grave.

While not always, sometimes there’s an opportunity to explore the shipwrecks, which often get viewed as captivating stores of antique treasures. 

Let us take you through the mysteries of these mind-boggling shipwrecks while providing historical and cultural context, and some intriguing facts you may not have known.  

The Titanic

the titanic at port

Many people are familiar with the Titanic, as it is amongst the most famous shipwrecks around the world.

Deemed to be “unsinkable” and luxurious, the world’s largest passenger ship, and indeed largest cruise ship, set sail for its maiden voyage to New York City, but hit an iceberg on April 14, 1912, while trying to cross the North Atlantic ocean. 

They say it could stay afloat even if four of the 16 watertight compartments suffered a breach. Unfortunately, five compromised compartments filled with water claimed the lives of around 1,517 people in three hours.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the remains got found (about 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada), thanks to the efforts of a French and American co-expedition. 

Today, multiple companies allow tours of the wreckage from the British ship, but it’s pretty costly, ranging from $60K-$250K.

Scientists worry the RMS Titanic remains won’t last much longer due to metal-eating bacteria sea life that will likely cause it to dissipate completely. 

The Spanish Armada

an illustration of the spanish armada clashing with the english navy

In 1588, King Phillip II sent the Spanish Armada to invade England. The ship was known to be vast and powerful.

The crew aboard consisted of 30,000 men, and the fleet was 130 ships. The idea was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, reinstate the Catholic monarchy, and end the Dutch revolt against the Spanish conquest. 

Because of boisterous thunderstorms and waves, many of the ships were wrecked on the coasts of Ireland and Scotland (Streedagh Beach in Sligo).

About 5,000 crew members died during this shipwreck, mainly from the La Juliana wardship. 

Local divers came across three wrecked fleet vessels in 1985, known as  La Juliana, La Santa Maria, and La Lavia. Due to its protected status, no one can dive in the area without a license.

The Lusitania

an illustration of the lusitania sinking

The Lusitania, a British passenger ship, set sail in 1906. It was a high-class vessel noted for its speed.

During the first world war, in May 1915, the British ocean liner traveled from English to New York City. Reports were that a German U-boat was near the Irish coast, and the Lusitania should steer clear of that area. 

However, the captain didn’t need these warnings, and the ship sank on May 7th because it got struck by a torpedo fired from a German submarine. Various sources estimate that 1,200-1,900 people got killed.

Today, the shipwreck is in its final resting place about 11 miles off the southern coast of the Irish lighthouse at Kinsale, beneath 300 ft of water.

Multiple dive clubs and institutions have obtained licenses to explore what’s left of the ship.

They mention that visibility is low beyond 100 feet. Any scuba diving in this area requires permission from the owner and the authorities. 

The Fleet of Kublai Khan

a statue of kublai khan

Another one of the most famous shipwrecks of all time is the destruction of Kublai Khan’s fleet. Kublai was Genghis Khan’s grandson and wanted to invade Japan; his first attempt was in 1274. 

He gathered 500 small boats and 300 ships, but a typhoon decimated one-third of his fleet as it inched closer to the Japanese coast.

Though discouraged, Khan would reattempt the same voyage seven years later in 1281. However, the fleet got destroyed by a storm again. 

In waters near Takashima Island in Matsuura, there was a 66-ft long vessel discovered under almost 100 feet of water and three feet of sand.

Marine archaeologists discovered over four thousand artifacts, such as cannonballs, bricks, and stone anchors. Because little is known regarding the ship’s remains, no one dives to visit the site. 

The Andrea Doria

The Andrea Doria was an Italian ocean liner that took 46 lives when it sank in 1956 on its way to New York City. The famous ship was traveling through heavy fog when it and the MS Stockholm collided. 

The Swedish warship hit Andrea Doria on its side, though reports are that both ships tried to avoid the crash. The ship hitting the other was disastrous.

Two divers, Joseph Fox, and Peter Gimbel found the wreckage. The location is in Massachusetts, off Nantucket Island, by the lightship. The ship is in 160-240 feet of water, and there are strong currents to reach it. 

The visibility is low, but many people still attempt to see the remains, as this luxury ship is a popular choice for recreational scuba divers.

However, be mindful that exploring the “Mount Everest” of scuba diving is a challenging endeavor that has taken the lives of 22 people thus far. 

The Endurance

For over one hundred years, no one knew where to find the wreckage from the Endurance. It was as though Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship disappeared without a trace. However, it got stuck beneath floating ice sheets in the Weddell Sea.

Shackleton wanted to cross Antarctica in 1914, but Endurance got stuck in all the ice and steadily drifted toward the north until it eventually sank after getting crushed in 1915.

There were 28 crew members stranded with him, but Shackleton gathered life jackets and lifeboats and managed to travel 800 miles to get home with no one losing their life along the way. 

Luckily, in 2022, a group of archaeologists and scientists set out to find the ship’s location. They found the wreck at 10,000 feet, about four miles from where the vessel had been suspected of sinking. Because of the depths, people cannot visit the Endurance shipwreck. 

Queen Anne’s Revenge

Queen Anne’s Revenge was a French slave ship captured and overtaken by the legendary pirate Blackbeard, feared by many.

It is one of the most famous ships in history. They used the vessel to pillage the British, Dutch, and Portuguese ships as they headed to the Caribbean.

However, in 1718, the French ship met its fate. In North Carolina, the ship ran aground, though Blackbeard manages to escape via a smaller ship, taking most of the treasure he’s accumulated with him.

The famous boat sunk but was rediscovered in 1996 in 28 ft of water, nearly one mile offshore. 

Since then, more than 300,000 artifacts have been salvaged, giving us a glimpse into pirate life during the 18th century.

Only 300 scuba divers get to visit Queen Anne’s Revenge each year, from September to November, only if the waters are calm. 

The Antikythera Wreck

On Antikythera wreck, a small Greek island, sponge divers discovered an archaic wreck in 1900.

Multiple investigations after the initial discovery revealed that this was a prominent Roman vessel that sank somewhere between 70 to 60 BC as it traveled to Italy

Unfortunately, the ship went down with many valuable pieces of precious metal, fine artwork, and corroded inventions.

The most notable piece reassembled from the ruins was the first analog computer, named the Antikythera Mechanism. 

The jewelry, marble sculptures, and bronze statues make this wreck among the most prized in history, and it is regarded as a floating museum.

Much of what was found can be seen in Athens, at the National Archaeological Museum. Visitors are not allowed to explore the wreck without special licensing. 

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror

When trying to find the Northwest Passage (alternate route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans)  in 1845, Sir John Franklin led a British odyssey to the Arctic that ended in tragedy. The two ships he commanded, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, would never reach the goal.

Both shops got entangled in sea ice, and the crew members had to abandon the ships, which ultimately sank. None of the men ever got found despite the many rescue missions. 

After close to two hundred years of looking, Terror ( found in 2016) and Erebus (discovered in 2014) were finally seen by Canada’s King William Island. Located on the Arctic Ocean seafloor, pieces of the ship are still intact. Public access is not permissible at this time. 

The Mary Rose

Mary Rose, a Tudor warship sent by King Henry VIII, set sail in 1511 for the first time.

This famous ship endured many battles against Scotland, Brittany, and France, but sank when battling the French in 1545. The death toll is around 500 men, as only 35 survived the wreck. 

Though it took centuries, in 1971, a skilled team of technical divers discovered the shipwreck.

In the ten years that would follow, hundreds of volunteer divers excavated the site to retrieve as many artifacts as possible. 

Some of the best finds are tools, armor, hand weapons, coins, cannons, clothing, and more.

As of 1982, Mary Rose has been raised to the surface, and in 1986, about one-third of the ship’s original hull is viewable at the Mary Rose Museum.

The Bajo de la Campana

Bajo de la Campana is the first Phoenician shipwreck that archaeologists excavated. Found near a submerged rock reef by Cartagena in Spain, this wreck goes back nearly 3,000 years.

The ship ran aground, and the cargo got spilled out, which included many artifacts found in clusters in various sea caves and on the sea bed. 

Explorers Juan Piñedo Reyes and Mark Polzer discovered and restored specific fragments from the ship’s hull with incredible bronze and ceramic treasures. 

There was also lead ore, amber, pine nuts, elephant tusks, and more.

Researchers conclude that this ship was the property of a trader traveling west to exchange goods from the Eastern Mediterranean region.  

HMS Victory

a painting of the hms victory in a storm

In 1737 the HMS Victory first sailed the seas. During a mission in 1744, the vessel attempted to aid a British convoy surrounded by the French who created a blockade near Portugal.

It got separated from the rest of the fleet and sunk. It’s suspected that it sank because of a design that was too heavy at the top, stormy weather, and rotten wood.

When the HMS Victory sank, it became one of the worst naval disasters in the English Channel, claiming the lives of over 1,000 sailors.

The vessel was lost to time for more than 250 years in the Channel Islands, with no remnant of the ship in sight.

The Odyssey Marine Expedition of the United States discovered this shipwreck in 2008; it got found about 43 nautical miles from where the vessel encountered the storm.

Since it was a military wreck, the remains of HMS Victory now belong to the British Government under maritime laws, which prohibit diving.

SS Edmund Fitzgerald

Many ships have been sunk by the Great Lakes of North America. Perhaps none is more renowned than the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, also known as The Queen of the Great Lakes.

On November 10, 1975, the giant freighter crossed Lake Superior when a terrible storm arose and sank the ship—killing all 29 passengers.

The Fitz sank somewhere in Canadian waters, broken in two pieces approximately 535 feet under the surface of Lake Superior.

On 14th November 1975, an aircraft belonging to the US Navy found the ship.

At the request of the crew and family members, three expeditions were conducted at the site. On 4th July 1995, the ship’s bronze bell got retrieved.

However, by 2006 the Canadian Government passed a law that disallowed anyone to dive, deeming the site integral to Canadian maritime history. 

USS Arizona, USS Utah, and USS Oklahoma

the uss arizona memorial in hawaii

On December 7, 1941, there were surprise attacks on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Oahu island, Hawaii, by Japanese forces.

There were three irreparable shipwrecks: the USS Utah, the USS Oklahoma, and the USS Arizona.

Of all those ships, the USS Arizona is most renowned because of the USS Arizona memorial, where there’s a public display of the wreck in memory of Pearl Harbor.

Although the public can’t access the USS Utah, anyone with a military ID can visit the site to pay their respects to this World War II memorial. 

The officials desired to lift the USS Oklahoma to return the ship to active service.

This dream couldn’t get realized because as it was getting towed to the California scrapyard, a tempestuous storm made the USS Oklahoma sink somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, and its final resting place was unknown.

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