History’s Most Famous Shipwrecks

By Staff WriterLast Updated Aug 18, 2020 1:32:03 PM ET
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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.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

MS World Discoverer was built with a special double-hull construction for voyages to arctic regions. During its time as a cruise ship, the World Discoverer visited Antarctica, Argentina, Chile, the South Pacific, Russia and Alaska. 

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.

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Local ferries came to the rescue, safely shuttling passengers from the MS World Discoverer to land. Alas, the ship couldn’t be saved. The ship began listing significantly and eventually ran aground in Roderick Bay where it has stayed to this day. 

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.

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Tidal activity and storms have further eroded the ship’s hull. There are currently no plans to salvage or restore the ship, making it likely that its deterioration will continue. The MS World Discoverer is now a popular destination for tourists and photographers and is also visible on Google Earth. 

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.

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On the morning of October 5th, the British intercepted the Spanish fleet in order to force their surrender. Shots were fired. The magazine onboard Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes exploded, severely damaging the ship.

Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes quickly sank, taking along with it a substantial amount of treasure: 900,000 silver pesos, 5,809 gold pesos and 2,000 copper and tin ingots.

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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.

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Odyssey Marine Exploration first conducted an extensive photographic survey of the wreckage, enabling them to create a map of the site. The actual recovery of the treasure was done under the supervision of archaeologists with the aid of robotics technology.

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Initially, Odyssey Marine Exploration kept many details of the find secret, including the name and location of the vessel. They went public with the information on May 18, 2007, when the treasure was transported to a storage facility in Florida.

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.

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The court ruled in favor of returning the treasure to Spain in 2012. The treasure was flown to Spain on February 27, 2012. The Spanish government gifted the coins from the shipwreck to several public museums in Spain where they are currently on display. 

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.

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Blackbeard used the ship to terrorize Atlantic shipping channels and the coastal communities of North America. In April 1818, Blackbeard used Queen Anne’s Revenge to blockade the port of Charleston for a full week, leaving only after the citizens gave him the ransom he demanded: a chest of medicine.

Beackbeard named the ship after Queen Anne of England and Scotland, signaling his support for her family, the House of Stuart. Many pirates at the time shared Blackbeard’s political views. 

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Joel/Flickr

A few months later, Blackbeard was killed by the British Royal Navy. A ship, captained by Lieutenant Robert Maynard, ambushed Blackbeard’s crew and returned Blackbeard’s head to Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Joel/Flickr

Items found in the wreckage included medical instruments, cannonballs, a bronze bell and various weapons. Many of these items are on display at North Carolina’s Maritime Museum, which is open to the public. 

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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.

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Surely to the king’s disappointment, only a few would ever see it. On Vasa’s maiden voyage in 1628, tragedy struck. Witnesses watched in horror as the warship glided out of Stockholm Harbor, encountered a strong gust of wind...and capsized. The top-heavy construction of the ship was to blame. Vasa made it less than one nautical mile into its maiden voyage before sinking to the seabed below, killing 30 onboard. So much for a show of power?

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

But how to pull the ship up from its watery grave? The solution: Fill the ship up with ping pong balls and freeze it (what?). That’s not what really happened — but it was a real recovery strategy pitched after it was discovered. Instead, the crew chose a two-prong approach. First, divers ventured into the ship to salvage individual items, of which they removed over 30,000. Then, the divers spent two years digging tunnels under the ship to pass cables underneath so that it could be lifted to the surface (an extremely dangerous gig). The ship had to be raised slowly, constantly being resecured. The lift itself took over two and a half years.

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Incredibly, Vasa was raised from the seafloor in one piece. After the ship was lifted from the harbor, engineers used three pumps to remove water from the ship over a 10-day period. reservation work took over three decades. Today, Vasa has its own museum in Stockholm, which receives over 1 million visitors every year. 

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.

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The museum has recently installed a new climate control system to combat the deterioration, and is working on replacing the deteriorating steel fixtures on Vasa with another material. 

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.

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The USS Arizona wasn’t used in combat in World War II. Instead, its crew was tasked with patrolling the East Coast of the U.S. In 1918, the USS Arizona was an escort ship for USS George Washington — the ship that President Woodrow Wilson took to the Paris Peace Conference.

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.

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At 8:10 a.m., USS Arizona was hit with a 1,760-pound projectile, causing the ship’s fuel and ammunition to ignite. The resulting explosion was so strong that it caused the USS Arizona to briefly lift up out of the water before sinking. While 334 crew members onboard survived the attack, 1,177 individuals were killed in the strike. 

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.

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The memorial is operated by the National Parks Service and is affiliated with the World War II Valor in the Pacific Memorial. Visited by over 2 million people annually, the memorial features self-guided tours, informational videos and exhibits about the attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as a memorial wall where visitors can pay their respects to those killed in the attack. 

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.

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The RMS Lusitania was often competing with its sister ship, the Mauretania, built one year later. While the Mauretania was slightly bigger, the two ships were capable of traveling at about the same speed. 

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.

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On May 7, 1915, a torpedo from a German U-boat struck the RMS Lusitania on the starboard side. The ship sunk within 20 minutes, and 1,198 lives were lost — including 128 Americans. While many people expected the U.S. to declare war on Germany following this tragedy, America stayed neutral for almost another two years (though President Wilson did send Germany a pretty firm chastising).  

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.

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The Irish government, however, is opposed to Bermis’ plans for the Lusitania. Several years after he bought the ship, Ireland claimed jurisdiction over the wreckage under maritime law. Irish officials are interested in seeing the Lusitania preserved as a cultural artifact and believe that Bermis’s investigation may further damage the ship’s remains. 

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.

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On March 31, 1909, construction began on the Titanic. Instead of focusing on speed, White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay decided to make the Titanic the most luxurious passenger ship ever built. Included in the ship’s design was a swimming pool, a first-class dining room and four elevators.

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.

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Only four days into its journey, on April 14, 1912, it struck an iceberg, breaching the hull. While there were 2,200 passengers and crew members on the ship, there were only enough lifeboats for about half of the people aboard. As icy water poured in, the ship slowly lifted out of the water at an angle. Two hours and forty minutes after the hull was breached, the RMS Titanic sank into the ocean.

While 705 of the RMS Titanic’s passengers were saved the next morning by the nearby Carpathia, 1,522 passengers perished in the disaster.

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.

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Ballard’s team discovered the RMS Titanic in a deteriorated and damaged state. While they had hoped to be able to bring the ship up to the surface in one piece, the separation of the ship’s bow and stern scratched that possibility.

The Titanic was discovered at an incredible depth of 12,600 feet, about 400 miles from the coast of Newfoundland. 

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.

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The Santa María was the sturdiest of the three ships, able to withstand inclement weather and rough water. However, it was less capable of traveling in shallow waters than the Niña or the Pinta — there was a greater risk of the Santa María running aground. 

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.

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Columbus traveled throughout the islands of the Caribbean looking for goods such as spices, gold, silver or precious stones to bring back to Spain and present to the monarchs. Finding nothing he wanted, he established the settlement of Hispaniola in what is now Haiti, left 40 men there, and returned to Spain.

After running the Santa María aground on a sand bar just outside of Hispaniola, Columbus was forced to return with only the Pinta and the Niña.

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.

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Adding to the difficulty was the fact that the wreck of the Santa María now looks nothing like the actual ship (recreation pictured above.) After the Santa María ran aground, Columbus’ men stripped much of its wood and used it to build a fortress in the new Spanish settlement. More research is needed to determine whether the wreck found is indeed the Santa María.

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.

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The RMS Republic was touted as an unsinkable ship, (sound familiar? Maybe we should stop calling ships unsinkable). With an advanced system of 12 separate waterproof bulkheads, the ship’s engineers were confident that even if several of the bulkheads were breached, the ship would stay afloat. 

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.

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The telegraph operator on the RMS Republic transmitted a distress signal that was picked up by the Siasconset station in Nantucket. Most of the passengers were moved to the SS Florida and another White Star ship, the Baltic. A total of 1,500 people were rescued from the RMS Republic, thanks to the crew’s quick thinking and the proximity of the Baltic. 

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.

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The wreck of the RMS Republic was found by Captain Martin Bayerle, a resident of Martha’s Vineyard, in 1981. Bayerle’s team has searched the ship twice since its discovery hoping to recover the gold coins. No dice. It ain’t over yet: Bayerle is still convinced that the coins are located in the ship. 

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.

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The Mary Rose served as a battleship for Henry VIII for over 34 years. In the First French War (1512–1514), the Mary Rose was the flagship for Admiral Edward Howard. In the Second French War (1525–1542), the ship was used to escort troops to France to join the battle.

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.

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During the battle, the Mary Rose capsized and sunk. There are several opposing accounts of the battle. While some say that the French struck the Mary Rose in an evening attack, others claim that the Mary Rose capsized after getting caught in a strong gust of wind while turning. 

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

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Today, the preserved and restored Mary Rose is on display at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, United Kingdom, along with the items and artifacts that were brought up with the wreckage of the ship.