For as long as humans have been traversing the seas, ships have been lost to the depths. And although most vessels that sink beneath the waves are eventually forgotten, some remain prized treasures sought for generations.
The 16th-century Portuguese vessel Flor de la Mar, for example, has been the centre of countless search expeditions eager to recover her priceless lost cargo of diamonds, gold and precious stones. Ships like Captain Cook’s Endeavour, on the other hand, remain sought after for their invaluable historical significance.
From a Cornish wreck known as ‘El Dorado of the Seas’ to some of the most iconic vessels in seafaring history, here are 5 shipwrecks that are yet to be discovered.
1. Santa Maria (1492)
The notorious explorer Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World in 1492 with three ships: Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. During the course of Columbus’ voyage, which took him to the Caribbean, Santa Maria sank.
According to legend, Columbus left a cabin boy at the helm while we went off to sleep. Shortly after, the inexperienced boy ran the ship aground. Santa Maria was stripped of any valuables, and it sank the following day.
The whereabouts of Santa Maria remain a mystery to this day. Some suspect it lies on the seabed near present-day Haiti. In 2014, the marine archaeologist Barry Clifford claimed he had found the famed wreckage, but UNESCO later dispelled his discovery as a different ship some two or three centuries younger than Santa Maria.
2. Flor de la Mar (1511)
Flor de la Mar, or Flor do Mar, is one of the most renowned undiscovered shipwrecks anywhere on Earth, thought to be filled with vast diamonds, gold and untold riches.
Despite being notorious for springing leaks and running into trouble, Flor de la Mar was called to assist in Portugal’s conquest of Malacca (in present-day Malaysia) in 1511. Upon its return voyage to Portugal, laden with riches, Flor de la Mar sank in a storm on 20 November 1511.
It’s thought Flor de la Mar was in or near the Strait of Malacca, which runs between modern Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, when she sank.
The wreck, and its reputed $2 billion of treasure and precious stones, have yet to be found, though not for lack of trying: treasure hunter Robert Marx has spent around $20 million searching for the ship, which he has described as “the richest vessel ever lost at sea”.
3. The Merchant Royal (1641)
The Merchant Royal is an English vessel that sank in 1641, off of Land’s End in Cornwall, England. A trade ship, The Merchant Royal was carrying a cargo of gold and silver believed to be worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions today.
Nicknamed ‘El Dorado of the Seas’, The Merchant Royal has attracted a great deal of interest over the years, with amateur treasure hunters and marine archaeologists alike looking for it.
A search operation by Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2007 uncovered a wreckage, but coins from the site suggested they’d discovered Spanish frigate rather than the much-prized Merchant Royal.
In 2019, the ship’s anchor was retrieved from the waters off of Cornwall, but the ship itself has yet to be located.
4. Le Griffon (1679)
Le Griffon, also referred to as simply Griffin, was a French vessel operating in America’s Great Lakes in the 1670s. She set sail into Lake Michigan from Green Bay in September 1679. But the ship, along with its crew of six men and cargo of fur, never reached its destination of Mackinac Island.
It’s unclear whether Le Griffon fell prey to a storm, navigational difficulties or even foul play. Now referred to as the ‘holy grail of Great Lakes shipwrecks’, Le Griffon has been the focus of many search expeditions in recent decades.
In 2014, two treasure hunters thought they’d uncovered the famed wreckage, but their discovery turned out to be a far younger ship. A book, titled The Wreck of the Griffon, outlined in 2015 the theory that a Lake Huron wreckage discovered in 1898 is actually Le Griffon.
5. HMS Endeavour (1778)
The English explorer ‘Captain’ James Cook is known for landing off Australia’s east coast aboard his ship, HMS Endeavour, in 1770. But the Endeavour had a long and illustrious career after Cook.
Sold off after Cook’s voyage of discovery, Endeavour was renamed the Lord Sandwich. She was then employed by Britain’s Royal Navy to transport troops during the American War of Independence.
In 1778, Lord Sandwich was sunk, intentionally, in or near Newport Harbour, Rhode Island, one of several sacrificed vessels used to form a blockade against approaching French ships.
In February 2022, marine researchers declared they’d discovered the wreck, a claim which was corroborated by the Australian National Maritime Museum. But some experts said it was premature to suggest the wreck was the Endeavour.
Read more about maritime history, Ernest Shackleton and the Age of Exploration. Follow the search for Shackleton’s lost ship at Endurance22.