The Hunt For The World’s Most Elusive Shipwrecks


When Ernest Shackleton’s HMS Endurance was found nearly two miles below the freezing Antarctic seas in March 2022, the entire globe let out a collective gasp.

But there are still dozens of other sunken ships waiting to be rediscovered on the ocean below.

Here are some of the most infamously difficult to locate shipwrecks in the world, along with a few you can visit (some without even getting wet).

Santa Maria, Haiti

The drowning of Christopher Columbus’ flagship Santa Maria off the coast of Haiti on Christmas Eve 1492 was attributed to a lowly cabin boy. It is alleged that the unskilled seaman took control of the ship after Columbus took a nap and promptly destroyed it by ramming it onto a coral reef.

At least, that is one theory. Whatever the fate of the Italian explorer’s ship, excitement erupted in May 2014 when archaeologist Barry Clifford said that he had accidentally discovered the vessel’s long-lost wreck.

When UNESCO put cold water on the claim by stating that the ship that had been discovered was from a far later period, maritime history enthusiasts’ hearts plummeted.

There, somewhere, is still the Santa Maria.

Flor de la Mar, Sumatra

This “carrack,” or trade ship, travelled between Portugal and India in the sixteenth century. But because of its enormous size—118 feet long and 111 feet high—it was a difficult beast to command.

Perhaps the Flor de la Mar’s sinking in a violent storm off Sumatra, Indonesia, in 1511 was only a matter of time.

The majority of the crew perished, and the ship’s loot, which allegedly included a Portuguese governor’s entire personal fortune, which is estimated to be worth $2.6 billion today, was lost.

In a recent episode of the British science fiction series “Doctor Who,” a fictionalised Zheng Yi Sao went in search of the gold, only to set free the fearsome Sea Devils.

SS Waratah, Durban (South Africa)

Despite not having a Celine Dion-sung theme song, the SS Waratah is referred to as “Australia’s Titanic” for a good cause.

The Waratah, a passenger freight ship designed to cruise between Europe and Australia with a layover in Africa, vanished in 1909, just three years before the Titanic disaster, shortly after setting sail from the city of Durban in what is now South Africa. There are several theories as to the cause.

The entire liner, including all 211 passengers and staff, eight staterooms, a music lounge, and other amenities, was never located. The National Underwater and Marine Agency believed they had finally located the Waratah 90 years after it went down, however it was a false alarm.

I guess she is going to remain elusive for a bit longer, said the late mystery author Clive Cussler, who spent a large portion of his life looking for the wreck.

USS Indianapolis, Philippine Sea

The 2016 Nicolas Cage film “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” may have received a dismal 17% on Rotten Tomatoes’ “Tomatometer,” yet the ship actually had a decisive impact on World War II.

The “Little Boy” nuclear bomb’s uranium core was shipped to Tinian Island by the Indianapolis, where the device was put together just before being deployed to deadly effect on Hiroshima.

The delivery of the fatal cargo went off without a hitch, but the Indianapolis was struck by a Japanese submarine on the way back, and several crew members died from shark attacks and salt poisoning.

Long a mystery, the warship’s precise location was discovered in 2017 by a team led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, 18,000 feet below the Pacific’s surface.

Slave ships, North Atlantic Ocean

Not just one, but an entire horrifying category of shipwrecks.

According to estimates, 1,000 ships that are already submerged in the ocean participated in the nefarious “triangular trade” across the Atlantic, which resulted in the enslavement of 12–13 million Africans.

Many of these vessels sank in choppy seas, as the So José, which capsized in 1794 off the coast of South Africa.

Long after the 1807 Act Prohibiting the Import of Slaves, others, like the Clotilda, were purposely scuttled by their owners to hide evidence of slave trading.

The So José was discovered thanks to the efforts of Diving With a Purpose (DWP), a group of primarily Black scuba divers who dive on the locations of sunken slave ships and bring artefacts like rusty manacles and iron ballasts to the surface.

Even if DWP’s objective is to document slavery’s evil legacy and use it to teach and enlighten, it is impossible to retrieve such objects without also bringing up tales of human pain.

Yet many of these ships may never again see the light of day because they are so infamously elusive.

Shipwrecks you can visit

Uluburun, Bodrum

In 1982, Mehmed Çakir was searching for sponges off the Turkish shore of Yalkavak when he came across the wreckage of a trading ship that had gone down there some 3,000 years earlier.

His dive was the first of many—over 22,400, in fact—to recover the Uluburun’s long-lost treasures, and what a haul it was: 10 tonnes of copper ingots, 70,000 glass and faience beads, and olive oil and pomegranates preserved in Cypriot pottery jars.

While not much of the Bronze Age wreck has survived, some of the horde can now be shown at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. There is a cross section reconstruction that offers an idea of how it would have been heaped with all those items, all those ages ago.

The Vasa, Stockholm

The 17th-century warship Vasa is eerily preserved and resembles more like a prop from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series than it does a ship that first (and last) set sail in 1628.

The Swedish monster only made it approximately 1,300 metres out of port before it sank; it took 333 years to be exhumed from its muddy tomb.

In order to protect themselves from various bacteria, a team of archaeologists found a hull covered in 700 sculptures and decorations of mermaids, lions, and Biblical figures. This discovery has been dubbed a “gigantic billboard for Sweden and Gustav II Adolf,” the nation’s illustrious king at the time.

Since a specialised museum for shipwrecks opened in Stockholm in 1990, the Vasa has attracted around 25 million tourists, making it one of the least elusive shipwrecks in the world.

MV Captayannis, River Clyde

The MV Captayannis wreck was spotted from the banks of the River Clyde in Greenock, Scotland, and could have been mistaken for a freshly deceased whale.

Since the ship went down in a storm in January 1974, the black hull of this Greek sugar-carrying boat, which has been turned on its side, has become a popular perch for feathered inhabitants of a neighbouring bird sanctuary.

The so-called “sugar boat” is still stuck into a sandbank as a tacky reminder of the sea’s irrationality, according to reports that no one accepted responsibility for it.

For local boat tours like Wreckspeditions, who will take marine rubberneckers up close while serving them hot chocolate, it’s still a blessing.

Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia

Most likely, if scuba diving is your thing, you’ve heard about Chuuk Lagoon.

Up until Operation Hailstone, which was launched in 1944 and sent over 60 Japanese ships and planes to a watery grave, the Japanese established their most formidable World War II naval base on this scattering of islands 1,000 miles northeast of Papua New Guinea.

Chuuk Lagoon has evolved into a mawkish underwater museum where divers can gaze at barnacled tanks from the San Francisco Maru or the long-forgotten compass and engine telegraphs of the Nippo Maru because the majority of them are still there.

MS World Discoverer, Solomon Islands

Google Maps states optimistically that the MS World Discoverer shipwreck is “Open 24 hours.”

It has turned into a popular tourist destination for passing ships ever since the cruise ship MS World Discoverer hit something hard and partially sank off the coast of Roderick Bay in the Solomon Islands in 2000. (all passengers, it should be pointed out, were helped to safety).

The ship appears to have turned on its side and gone to sleep as it slowly rusts away at a list of 46 degrees. It will at the very least make you count the lifeboats on your own ship as you pass by.

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Source: CNN


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