History’s Most Famous Shipwrecks
From the unfortunate maiden voyage of the Swedish warship Vasa, to the sinking of the infamous pirate Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge — shipwrecks have always captured the public’s imagination.
Did you know that there are an estimated three million shipwrecks on our ocean floors? The vast majority of them just waiting to be discovered. Let’s take a dive into some of the most famous shipwrecks in history.
The MS World Discoverer: Cruise Ship Turned Tourist Attraction
What was once a bustling Danish cruise ship capable of navigating the Northwest Passage is now a half-submerged hunk of rusty metal in Roderick Bay. Now a unique tourist attraction, the ship was built and sold to Danish cruise company BEWA Cruises in 1974 under the name BEWA Discoverer. In 1996, the ship was completely refurbished and once again renamed to MS World Discoverer.
Tragedy Strikes the MS World Discoverer
In April 2000, the MS World Discoverer struck an underwater reef while passing through the Solomon Islands in stormy weather. Captain Oliver Kreuss radioed the Islands’ capital for help.. As the ship began to tilt, Kreuss was able to slowly steer it to nearby Roderick Bay in the Nggela Islands.
Aftermath of the MS World Discoverer Shipwreck
After coming to rest in Roderick Bay, the MS World Discoverer was looted during the 2001 Solomon Islands Civil War. Salvage companies made several attempts to restore the MS World Discoverer, but found nothing of value left on the ship.
Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes Shipwreck
In 1804, the Spanish ship Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes was destroyed in a battle with a British squadron while en route from Montevideo to Cádiz. The attack happened after the British government learned that Spain and France had formed an alliance with the intent of declaring war on England.
Recovery of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes Treasure
In 2007, the company Odyssey Marine Exploration announced that they had recovered over $500 million worth of treasure from the ship. To this day, it is the largest discovery of shipwreck treasure ever found.
Discovery of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes Treasure Sparked a Legal Battle
Once the information became publicly available, the Spanish government acted swiftly. On May 31, 2007, Spain filed a lawsuit in US courts against Odyssey Marine Exploration.Their lawsuit was based on the fact that the recovered treasure was from a Spanish vessel, making the treasure the property of Spain.
Blackbeard’s Ship Found: The Queen Anne’s Revenge
Originally a French slaving ship named La Concorde, Queen Anne’s Revenge was the flagship of the notorious pirate Blackbeard between 1717–18. With its enormous size and 40 cannons, Queen Anne’s Revenge was used by Blackbeard primarily to intimidate his victims into surrender.
The Sinking of Queen Anne’s Revenge
Less than a year after commandeering Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard ran it aground on a sandbar off the coast of what is now North Carolina. Many people speculated that Blackbeard intentionally wrecked Queen Anne’s Revenge in order to maroon several of his shipmates and escape with the ship’s loot. Others thought that Blackbeard may have been trying to leave piracy for good.
Recovery of Queen Anne’s Revenge
The wreckage from Queen Anne’s Revenge was discovered in 1996 by the private salvage firm Intersal, Inc. After discovering several cannons and anchors about a mile off of the North Carolina coast, Intersal and the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources both sent in divers to explore and excavate the wreck. After 15 years of investigation, researchers officially confirmed that the ship was Blackbeard’s in 2011.
The Swedish Warship VASA Sunk 20 Minutes Into Its Maiden Voyage
With its 64 bronze cannons (capable of firing over 650 pounds of ammunition), beautiful wood detailing and formidable size, the Swedish warship Vasa certainly looked impressive. Built on the orders of the king in the early 1600s during the height of the country’s power, the ship was meant to convey Sweden’s prosperity and ambition.
Excavation of the Warship Vasa
Vasa remained on the seafloor until 1961, when it was discovered and excavated by archaeologists. Due to the low temperatures and reduced oxygen levels of the Baltic Sea, Vasa was remarkably intact for a three-century-old shipwreck.. About 95% of the ship’s wood remained untouched by bacteria.
Ongoing Restoration Efforts at the Vasa Museum
Restoration work on Vasa is ongoing. In 2000, a study revealed that the ship is still deteriorating, despite its cozy new home in the museum. While the reasons for this deterioration are still unclear, researchers have suggested that the metal used in Vasa’s construction may be leeching iron into the surrounding wood, creating a chemical reaction responsible for weakening the wood fibers.
USS Arizona: The Largest Ship in the US Navy
The USS Arizona was built for the US Navy at the Brooklyn Naval Yard in 1915. With twelve 14-inch guns and twenty-two 5-inch guns, it was one of the most heavily armed Navy ships at the time. The USS Arizona also claimed the title of the largest ship in the Navy at 608 feet long.
The Pearl Harbor Attack Sinks USS Arizona
On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Honolulu, Hawaii, striking and sinking the USS Arizona. For over two hours, Japanese air forces bombarded vessels stationed at the base, sinking four battleships and damaging others.
The Site of the Sunken USS Arizona Is Now a Memorial
In May of 1989, the site of the battleship’s destruction was declared a National Historic Landmark. Above the sunken USS Arizona sits a memorial to the battleship and to those who lost their lives in the Pearl Harbor attack. Accessible only by boat, the USS Arizona Memorial stretches over the hull of the sunken USS Arizona.
RMS Lusitania: The World’s Largest Ocean Liner in 1907
When construction on ocean liner RMS Lusitania was completed in 1907, the passenger ship was the largest of its kind in the world. At 787 feet, the RMS Lusitania was capable of carrying passengers across the Atlantic Ocean at high speeds. In October 1907 — just one month after its maiden voyage — the RMS Lusitania won the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.
RMS Lusitania Was Sunk by a German U-Boat
While on a voyage from New York to Liverpool in 1915, the captain of the RMS Lusitania, William Thomas Turner, was alerted that there had been submarine activity in the area. Before the voyage, the British Admiralty advised Turner to use evasive tactics such as zigzagging to confuse U-boats tracking the ocean liner. For unknown reasons, Turner declined to avoid the area or use evasive tactics.
The RMS Lusitania’s Wreckage Still Lies on the Seafloor
Today, the future of the RMS Lusitania is uncertain. The wreckage — still on the seafloor — was bought by retired venture capitalist Greg Bermis in 1982. He bought the wreck in the ‘80s thinking he could eventually sell the metal of the ship’s hull for scrap. Since then, he has become less interested in the metal and more interested in solving the mystery of whether the RMS Lusitania was carrying war supplies from the (supposedly) then-neutral U.S. to England. Bermis has personally funded numerous dives and submarine excursions to the wreckage.
The Legendary RMS Titanic
Arguably history’s most famous shipwreck, the RMS Titanic was the world’s largest passenger ship at the time of its construction in 1909. Inspired by the excitement around other large, fast-moving ships (such as the RMS Lusitania and the RMS Mauretania), passenger ship company White Star decided to build a fleet of larger passenger ships named Titanic, Olympic, and Britannic.
The Sinking of the RMS Titanic
The RMS Titanic departed from Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912. Prior to the Titanic’s departure, it had been hailed in newspapers as being “unsinkable” due to its innovative watertight compartments.
Exploration of the RMS Titanic Wreckage
On September 1, 1985, the wreckage of the RMS Titanic was discovered by a team led by oceanographer and archaeologist, Dr. Robert Ballard. Ballard’s team, made up of French and American divers, utilized a small deep-ocean submarine named Alvin to search for the wreck.
The Santa María Was Columbus’s Flagship on His Voyage Across the Atlantic
Along with the Niña and the Pinta, the Santa María was one of the ships Columbus took on his 1492 voyage to North America. Santa María was the slowest of the three ships, as it was built primarily for transporting cargo.
Columbus Ran the Santa María Aground in the Caribbean
Columbus’ voyage was funded by Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Columbus was eager to find a better trading route between Europe and Asia, one that didn’t require traveling all the way around the African continent. On his first mission in 1492, Columbus landed in what is now known as the Bahamas.
Possible Discovery of the Santa María
In 2014, a team of researchers led by marine archaeologist Barry Clifford announced that they had found what they believed to be the Santa María. While Columbus noted the wreck’s location in his journal when it happened, reconciling Columbus’s hand-drawn maps of the coastline with the actual geography of the area proved to be a challenge for teams searching for the wreck.
The RMS Republic: An Elite Passenger Ship
At the time of its construction in 1903, the RMS Republic was one of the most luxurious passenger ships. Originally built for the Dominion Line of passenger ships, it was transferred to the White Star Line and used to transport passengers between New York and European port cities. The RMS Republic gained the nickname “The Millionaire’s Ship” because its passengers tended to be wealthy and elite.
Collision with SS Florida
They were wrong. On January 22, 1909, the RMS Republic departed New York City on its way to the Mediterranean. Fifty miles off the coast of Nantucket, the RMS Republic was hit by the SS Florida, a steamship from Italy that had lost its way in the thick fog. The collision punctured the Republic’s hull, and the ship started to sink.
The Search for Treasure Aboard the RMS Republic
While it was widely known that the RMS Republic was carrying supplies for the survivors of a recent earthquake in Messina as well as $60,000 in military supplies, rumors began to circulate that the RMS Republic was also carrying much more valuable cargo. There was speculation that the ship was carrying $3 million worth of American Eagle gold coins for Russia’s Czar, Nicholas II.
The Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s Flagship
The Mary Rose was commissioned by King Henry VIII of England for his Navy in 1510 along with the warship Peter Pomegranate. The king wanted to build a strong Navy in order to defend England from both the Scots and the French. The Mary Rose was likely named after the Virgin Mary, who was often called “The Mystic Rose” at the time.
The Third French War and the Sinking of the Mary Rose
In 1544, Henry VIII went to war (yet again) with France. By this point, many of Henry VIII’s allies had made peace with France, leaving England in a weakened state. Nevertheless, Henry VIII was eager to attack the French fleet. In July 1544, the English sent 80 ships to face France’s fleet of 225 ships.
Recovery of the Mary Rose
Immediately after the Mary Rose sank, there were several failed attempts to raise the ship. It wasn’t until 1982 (a hard 400 years later) that the Mary Rose was successfully raised and transported to a dry dock in Portsmouth, England, to be restored. Restoring the Mary Rose was tricky due to the fact that it had been underwater for so long. To prevent the ship’s wood from deteriorating after being exposed to oxygen, the ship was kept moist while in storage using recycled water. During the restoration effort, polyethylene glycol was sprayed on the wood to preserve its structure