There is something mysterious, eerie and forbidden about famous shipwrecks. Each one tells a unique, often tragic, tale about what happened and how it got there. Most are forgotten, but some have captured the public imagination.
Many of the shipwrecks found on the ocean floor have become historical monuments, sites of cultural interest for divers, and even ecosystems that create new and viable habitats for marine plants and animals. Here’s a rundown of the world’s most famous underwater shipwrecks.
The Mary Rose
Launched: 1511 | Sank: 1545 | Location: River Solent, UK
One of King Henry VIII’s finest vessels and a very early example of a purpose-built warship, the Mary Rose saw action against the Scottish and the French. It was against the latter when she sank on July 19 1545 with around 470 men losing their lives.
The wreck was discovered in 1971 and raised in 1982. It was one of the most ambitious and expensive maritime archaeology projects in history. Today, one of the most famous shipwrecks in history sits in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth alongside some 26,000 artefacts recovered from the wreck.
Launched: 1628 | Sank: 1628 | Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Arguably the world’s most advanced warship when originally built, the Vasa sunk twenty minutes into its maiden voyage in August 1628 to the abject horror of hundreds of onlookers in Stockholm Harbour.
The official reason was strong winds. In truth the gun deck on the wooden ship was overloaded with cannons and far too heavy, rendering the ship extremely unstable.
After 333 years submerged, the Vasa was raised in April 1961. Thanks in part to the very cold water in which it was submerged, the ship was in remarkably good condition. Thousands of artefacts came up with the wreck and today around a million people a year come to see the world’s only preserved seventeenth century ship. It is one of the most famous sunken ships that ever sailed, albeit very briefly.
Launched: 1912 | Sank: 1912 | Location: North Atlantic Ocean
The RMS Titanic is arguably the most famous underwater shipwreck in history.
The ‘unsinkable’ ship set sail from Southampton on 10 April 1912 and hit an iceberg four days later. The 52,000 tonne liner went down in under three hours, killing more than 1,500 people.
The Atlantic’s most famous prisoner, the wreck sits around three miles from the Newfoundland coast, 3,700 metres below the surface. It was finally located in 1985 and artefacts have been recovered and displayed. However it’s far too fragile to raise, so RMS Titanic is destined to remain in its watery grave for the foreseeable future.
Launched: 1914 | Sank: 1915 | Location: Weddell Sea
Endurance was a three-masted barquentine launched in Norway in 1912. Two years later she was purchased by the intrepid explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and, in August 1914, Endurance set sail from Plymouth with 28 men on board. As one of the two sailing vessels of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, her intended destination was Antarctica. However, she would never reach her goal.
The 44 metre long wooden ship got caught in sea ice, drifted northward for ten months and was eventually crushed by the ice, sinking in November 1915. Remarkably, her crew survived, despite spending 128 days stranded on the ice.
One hundred and seven years later, a crew of scientists, historians and archaeologists set out to find the wreck and, remarkably, they succeeded. Approximately 3,008 metres down and just four miles from Captain Worsley’s last recorded position, the Endurance was located. The event was captured for television, making the Endurance one of the best known underwater wrecks in maritime history.
MV Wilhelm Gustloff
Launched: 1938 | Sank: 1945 | Location: Baltic Sea | Deaths: Approx. 9,600
Originally a Nazi cruise ship, MV Wilhelm Gustloff was commandeered by the German navy in World War II. In the course of the war, she served as a floating hospital and then a barracks before being modified to become a transport vessel.
On 30 January 1945, she was in the midst of evacuating around 10,600 German civilians and military personnel from the Eastern Front when she was spotted by the Soviet submarine S-13. It launched four torpedoes to the Gustloff’s port side. Each projectile was named, in order of firing, ‘for the Motherland’, ‘for Leningrad’, ‘for the Soviet people’ and ‘for Stalin’. The latter got jammed in the torpedo tubes.
Of those on board, it is believed that around 9,600 lost their lives, said to be the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history. Many died as a direct result of the torpedoes but thousands more perished in the freezing Baltic Sea. Fifty minutes after being hit, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff sank, bow first.
Today, it is one of the largest and most famous shipwrecks on the Baltic Sea floor.
MV Doña Paz
Launched: 1963 | Sank: 1987 | Location: Tablas Strait, Philippines
Located in the Tablas Strait in the Philippines, the wreck of the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster is one of the world’s most famous sunken ships.
En route from Leyte Island in the Philippines to the capital Manila, the Japanese-built, Philippine-registered ferry was carrying some 4,400 passengers. This was around 2,500 more than was safe, of whom more than 2,000 weren’t on the ship’s manifest.
In the dead of night, five days before Christmas of 1987, the MV Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker, the MT Vector, carrying over a million litres of gasoline. A huge fireball erupted with numerous explosions killing almost 4,400 people.
It was subsequently established that the MV Doña Paz didn’t have a radio. It took the Filipino authorities eight hours to hear of the crash and a further eight hours to start a search and rescue operation. By that time there was barely anyone left to rescue. The MV Doña Paz now lies 500 metres below the surface of the sea.
Launched: 1980 | Sank: 1994 | Location: Baltic Sea
The sinking of the MS Estonia is one of the most controversial stories of shipwrecks found anywhere on Earth.
The ship departed the Estonian port of Talliin en route to Stockholm in Sweden on 27 September 1994. There were 989 people on board, of which 803 were passengers and 186 crew. The weather would later be described as ‘normally bad’ and she was travelling at around 15 knots, roughly 17 mph.
The official cause of the sinking was the separation of a bow door from the ship. It let in thousands of gallons of ice-cold Baltic Sea water, flooding the decks and cabins and accelerating the already listing ship due to poor cargo distribution. Most of the 852 victims died of drowning and hypothermia.
Shipwrecks Found and Yet to be Found
While these famous sunken ships have been well documented, it’s fair to say the ocean keeps many more secrets to this day. There’s a vast number of shipwrecks still to be uncovered at the bottom of the world’s oceans, lakes, seas and rivers. And there will always be those who go in search of these submerged pieces of history, to bring the next great revelation to a fascinated world.