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The Most Famous Shipwrecks Ever Found

The bow of Shackleton's sunken Endurance. Weddell Sea, Antarctica, March 2022.
Image Credit: Endurance22

It is estimated that there are more than 3 million shipwrecks in the ocean. While some boats that are neither valuable nor historically significant sink in unremarkable situations and with no loss of life, other wrecks are famous for their devastating death toll and disastrous circumstances.

Many shipwrecks have been condemned to lie in Davy Jones’ locker forever, slowly becoming a home to sea life and eventually disappearing altogether. However, a number of famous wreckages have since been re-discovered and raised from the sea bed, and offer us a fascinating insight into the lives of those who sailed them. Even some shipwrecks which remain underwater have been found with troves of priceless treasures and are popular destinations for scuba divers.

Here are the most famous shipwrecks to have ever been found.

1. Endurance (1915)

For over a century, the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was lost beneath the ice floes of the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had set out in 1914 to cross the Antarctic continent via the South Pole.

However the Endurance never reached land. It became stuck in sea ice, and in its clutches the ship drifted northward until it was eventually crushed and sunk in 1915, stranding the 28 men of the expedition on the ice. From there they would begin an extraordinary journey home.

107 years later, however, in February 2022, a crew of scientists and archaeologists, as well as filmmakers led by historian Dan Snow, departed Cape Town, South Africa on board the icebreaker Agulhas II towards the presumed location of Endurance’s sinking. Led by polar geographer Dr. John Shears and marine archaeologist Mensun Bound, the Endurance22 expedition located the wreck at a depth of 3008 metres, approximately four miles south of the position originally recorded by Captain Worsley.

2. Antikythera wreck (c. 70-60 BC)

In 1900, sponge divers off the tiny Greek island of Antikythera uncovered an ancient shipwreck on the seabed. Subsequent archaeological investigations revealed that it was a Roman ship that sank between 70 and 60 BC during a voyage to Italy.

It took with it a fortune in fine art and treasures, including three corroded pieces of flat bronze, which when reassembled created a device known as the Antikythera Mechanism, which is thought to be the world’s first analogue computer and has since become one of the world’s most treasured archaeological finds.

Researchers have described the wreckage as a ‘floating museum’, with finds including bronze statues, thirty-six marble sculptures, statues, a bronze lyre, several pieces of glasswork, coins, jewellery and even human remains of the crew and passengers. Many of the stunning finds are now on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

3. The Mary Rose (1545)

The remnants of the Mary Rose undergoing conservation in Portsmouth.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Mary Rose was one of the most speedy and heavily armed warships in the English fleet. It sank in 1545 while it was leading the attack on a French invasion fleet in Portsmouth Harbour. It has been debated why it sank: most theorise that it was overloaded with soldiers, guns and ammunition. Of the 400 crew and soldiers on board, fewer than 40 people escaped since the ship quickly filled with seawater and sank.

The wreckage was rediscovered in 1971 by a team of divers. Over the following 10 years, it was excavated by more than 500 volunteer divers, and in 1982 it was brought to the surface. In 1986, around a third of the original hull went on display at the Mary Rose Museum.

Extraordinary finds included more than 28,000 artefacts such as hand weapons, tools, cannons and armour, and personal items such as coins, clothing and letters from home which detail life during the English Tudor era. Human remains in the wreck indicate that many had experienced childhood malnutrition, while crew members showed signs of arthritis and bone fractures.

4. Vasa (1628)

When it was launched in 1628, Vasa was one of the most powerful warships in the world and was the jewel of the Swedish Navy. However, upon its maiden voyage, it had barely travelled 1 mile before it was struck by wind, rolled over and sank in front of the crowds on shore that had gathered to cheer its departure.

The wreck of the mighty Vasa was rediscovered in Stockholm harbour in the 1950s and was eventually removed to a dry dock after extensive work and preparation. Since 1990, the wreck has been on display in Stockholm. Remarkably, much of its hull and detailed woodwork is still intact after centuries of submersion, probably due to the harbour’s polluted water preventing wood-eating microorganisms from surviving.

More than a dozen people and thousands of artefacts have also been recovered from the wreck, including hand weapons, ship’s tools, cannons, sails and personal items such as clothes, shoes and coins.

5. Queen Anne’s Revenge (1718)

Salvage of cannon from shipwreck off of North Carolina, possibly from Queen Anne’s Revenge, 1979.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Queen Anne’s Revenge was a former French slave carrier that was then captured and commanded by the feared English pirate Blackbeard. Blackbeard and his crew used it to plunder Dutch, British and Portuguese ships on their way to the Caribbean. However, it ran aground in North Carolina in 1718. Blackbeard escaped on a smaller ship along with most of the treasure, leaving the ship to be wrecked and sunk.

In 1996, the ship’s wreckage was rediscovered lying in around 28ft of water around a mile offshore. Over 300,000 artefacts have since been recovered from the wreck that offer a tantalising insight into the life of a pirate in the early 18th century. In addition, many cannon have been found – far more than normal for a ship of its size – from a variety of European foundries, reflecting the diversity of cannon that had been seized and plundered during the colonial era. Several were still loaded.

Artefacts also include medical supplies and instruments, which backs up the theory that Blackbeard used the latest medical technology to try and keep his crew ready for battle at all times.

6. HMS Victory (1744)

The 100-gun HMS Victory was launched in 1737. It was while on a mission to relieve a British convoy trapped by a French blockade in Portugal that it was separated from the fleet and sank, probably due to a combination of stormy weather, a top-heavy design and rotten timbers. All 1,150 crew members were killed.

In 2008, the wreck was discovered in a location further away than archaeologists and historians had predicted. The discovery of a larger gun which was only carried on a prime vessel of HMS Victory’s size allowed archaeologists to definitively identify the wreck. As well as the cannon, rigging, glass bottle fragments, parts of the hull and anchors were also unearthed.

It has long been rumoured that a large gold hoard was on the ship when it sank. However, it has never been found and its existence is debated by historians. Since it is a military wreck, the British government owns the remains of the HMS Victory.

7. The Sultana (1865)

‘Sultana on fire’, from Harpers Weekly, 1865.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The explosion and sinking of the steamboat The Sultana marks the worst maritime disaster in the history of the US. The ship was chiefly used for the lower Mississippi cotton trade but was increasingly used at the end of the American Civil War to transport prisoners of war from the Union army back home.

Though it was designed to have a capacity of 376 passengers, The Sultana was carrying a staggering 2,137 people when three of the boat’s boilers exploded and caused her to sink near Memphis, Tennessee. The death toll is uncertain, but estimates have ranged from anything from 1,200 to 1,800 people. In spite of the disaster, it was overshadowed in the press by events about the end of the Civil War and the killing of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. As a result, nobody was ever held accountable.

In 1982, blackened pieces from the wreck of the ship were discovered in a soybean field around 6km from Memphis, which is likely where the Mississippi River used to flow through. A temporary Sultana Disaster Museum was opened in 2015 on the 150th anniversary of the tragedy, featuring relics discovered amongst the wreckage.

8. RMS Titanic (1912)

The Titanic is undoubtedly one of the most famous and luxurious ships of all time. When it was built in the early 20th century, it cost an equivalent of $180 million today and was considered to be ‘unsinkable’. However, after striking an iceberg, the ship took on a massive amount of water and began to sink quickly. A combination of a lack of emergency protocol and a tiny number of lifeboats led to 1,517 people losing their lives.

In 1985, the wreckage was discovered 13,000 feet underwater and nearly 4km off the coast of Newfoundland. A number of treasures were recovered from the cargo hold of the first-class passengers along with other fascinating artefacts.

Though some companies have proposed plans to raise the ship to the surface, the wreckage is incredibly fragile because it is being destroyed by iron-eating bacteria. Scientists suggest that within the next 100 years the wreckage will have all but disappeared. Today, the wreckage is protected under the UNESCO convention.

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9. MVDoña Paz (1987)

The sinking of the MV Doña Paz is the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in history, and is remembered as ‘Asia’s Titanic’. A Japanese-built and Philippine-registered ferry, it was launched in 1963 and had a capacity of 608 people. However, it was severely overcrowded, with some 2,000 passengers on board who were not listed on the manifest.

On December 20 1987, it collided with oil tanker MT Vector, which caused a huge fire and explosion which claimed the lives of 4,386 people. Only 25 people survived, having been picked up by a nearby ship. It took eight hours before Filipino authorities learned of the accident, and another eight hours to begin search and rescue operations.

It was claimed that the ship didn’t have a radio and the life jackets were locked away. Blame was also pointed at MT Vector which was later discovered to be unseaworthy, operating without a licence, looking or qualified master. The wreck lies 500m beneath the sea and is in good condition.

Read more about the discovery of Endurance. Explore the history of Shackleton and the Age of Exploration. Visit the official Endurance22 website.

Tags: Ernest Shackleton

Lucy Davidson