With the 35th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald freshly passed and tales of stranded cruise ships and pirate ransoms filling our airwaves, the high seas hold as much magic and allure as ever. And few things interest us about maritime affairs as much as the treasured wrecks mired in watery depths, offering up their mysteries only to intrepid adventurers – and some, sadly, remaining a mystery, never to be seen again. In celebration of these gems of the deep, here are the top 10 shipwrecks that will fascinate us forever.
10. The Atocha
Nuestra Señora de Atocha was the best known of a fleet of Spanish ships that sank in 1622 off the Florida Keys, laden with riches like gold, silver, copper, gemstones, jewelery, and tobacco, en route to Spain from Spanish ports in the Caribbean. The fleet, called the Tierra Firme Fleet, departed Havana six weeks behind schedule on September 4th, 1622, only to run swiftly into a hurricane that dashed the Atocha onto coral reefs just west of Key West. She quickly sank, drowning all on board except 3 sailors and 2 slaves. The Atocha‘s treasure is legendary, as it could not be salvaged by Spain following the wreck, due to the difficulty of diving its depth of approximately 55 feet with the methods of the age, and further hurricane activity. In fact, the Spanish never found the Atocha. It wasn’t until July 20th, 1985 that the Atocha was discovered by an American treasure hunter. Remnants of Atocha treasure can be found on the market today.
9. Andrea Doria
SS Andrea Doria was a cruise ship in the Italian Line, home ported in Genoa, Italy, that sank on July 26th, 1956 off Nantucket, Massachussetts after a collision with the MS Stockholm of the Swedish American Line. Only quick communication and fast responses of nearby vessels prevented a loss of life on a near-Titanic scale, since the top-heavy Andrea Doria tipped to the side, rendering a significant number of her lifeboats useless. 1600 passengers and crew survived after rescue, but 46 lost their lives. The collision of the Andrea Doria and the MS Stockholm remains one of the most infamous maritime disasters in history, with errors on both ships likely to blame, but no clear conclusions about the cause were ever reached. The Andrea Doria was a figure of national pride for post-war Italy, but to the rest of the world watching the extensive media coverage of the accident and subsequent sinking, she was merely the victim of controversial circumstances.
8. The Bismarck
One of the most famous battleships of World War II, the Bismarck is another vessel that met its end under unclear circumstances. She was the largest warship commissioned at the time – on August 24th, 1940. On the morning of May 19th, 1941 she embarked on her one and only operation. Her aim was to intercept convoys between Great Britain and North America, but she was discovered as she and her escort vessel attempted to make way into the Atlantic. In the ensuing battle with the British the pride of the Royal Navy, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, was sunk. In response, Winston Churchill issued the command “Sink the Bismarck!”, and a hot pursuit commenced. On May 27th, 1941, the British finally caught up to her, with a tandem attack by air and sea sinking her after 2 hours of battle. Famed oceanographer and discoverer of the wreck of the Titanic, Dr. Robert Ballard, found the remains of the Bismarck on June 8th, 1989. She rests in nearly 17,500 feet of water. Most interestingly among the revelations about the state of the wreck after Ballard’s surveys came the suggestion that the Germans had sabotaged the ship to cause it to sink more quickly – a claim survivors have backed up.
7. The Lusitania
In one of the most deadly and shocking events of World War I, Germany torpedoed and sank the British cruise ship RMS Lusitania on May 7th, 1915, off the coast of Ireland. Of the 1,959 people on board, an astounding 1,198 lost their lives. The brutal attack cemented anti-German sentiment and contributed to the entry of the United States into World War I. She had served only 8 years for her owners, the Cunard Line, making voyages between Liverpool, England, and New York The wreck of the 787 foot ship lies at a depth of 300 feet. Controversy has flared up about the wreck after investigation in the 1990s revealed that the ship was riddled with holes and surrounded by unexploded bombs. The Royal Navy claimed it had been practicing on the wreck in the 1950s, but many claim the ship was actually carrying contraband cargo, and the navy had been attempting to worsen its condition to prevent salvaging attempts that might have revealed the secret.
6. The Monitor
The USS Monitor is famed for being the U.S. Navy’s first ironclad warship, a symbol of Civil War engineering and ingenuity. She was commissioned in 1861 and completed in 1862. On December 31st, 1862, almost a year after her launch, the Monitor sank while under tow in rough seas off North Carolina. 16 of 62 on board were lost. She is perhaps best known for her participation in the first battle ever waged between two ironclad ships. Her formidable opponent was the CSS Virginia of the Confederate States Navy, and the battle is known as the Battle of Hampton Roads. The wreck site was the first site to be designated a U.S. marine sanctuary. Her remains are also a National Historic Landmark. Parts of the wreck have been salvaged by the U.S. government and are on display at the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Virginia. The wreck is now unstable and will likely collapse within the next several decades.
5. The Arizona
The Arizona, a Pennsylvania-class battleship, served stateside during World War I after her commission in October of 1916. But it is her sinking that makes her famous, and she has become an icon of American military sacrifice in the decades following it. On December 7th, 1941, during the attack of Pearl Harbor, the Arizona was sunk, with the loss of 1,177 lives resulting. Her remains could not be salvaged. She was subsequently made into a memorial to the lives lost at Pearl Harbor. The wreck was designated a national shrine on May 30th, 1962. Today, millions of visitors travel to the memorial, which was constructed directly over the wreck. Because of the shallow water the ship is clearly visible from the memorial and aerial views. Ships from various navies salute the Arizona when traveling through the waters of Pearl Harbor. She is also a war grave, and surviving crew members have the option of having their ashes placed within the wreck after their death, or scattered on the water over it.
4. Mary Rose
The Mary Rose served the English Tudor king Henry VIII for 33 years during several wars. On the 19th of July, 1545, she led an attack on an invading French fleet, and sunk in the waters of Solent. It wasn’t until 1971 that the wreck was rediscovered, and she was not salvaged until 1982. Her salvage is one of the greatest undertakings ever in maritime archeology. Because she serves as a sort of time capsule providing a clear glimpse into Tudor warfare and life, she has also been the subject of extensive conservation efforts since the mid 1980s. The wreck is on display as a museum ship at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in England. She is kept saturated by a preservative solution but can be viewed through a glass barrier by visitors, millions of whom have toured her since 1983. Nobody is entirely sure how she sank, because there are conflicts in witness testimony and little to no clear physical evidence.
3. Edmund Fitzgerald
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald is one of the most celebrated shipwrecks in American folk history, etched in memory not only by the mystery of her sinking, but by cultural remembrances like the 1976 hit song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, by Gordon Lightfoot. The “Mighty Fitz”, as she was known, was a freighter traversing the Great Lakes. From her launch date on June 8th, 1958 until her sinking on November 10th, 1975, she was one of the largest boats on the Great Lakes – at an impressive 730 feet long. During a fierce, famous November storm in 1975 she sank without any distress signals, although some struggle was reported via radio. The sinking happened so quickly and violently that all 29 on board died without a single body recovered. And whatever happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald was sufficiently traumatizing to split the boat in half. The remains of the Edmund Fitzgerald were discovered in 1975 and surveyed by explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau, in 1980. Cousteau’s findings suggested, and have since been strengthened by further evidence, that the ship broke apart on the surface prior to sinking. The Coast Guard blamed faulty hatches for the sinking, citing the possibility of slow but devastating flooding in cargo holds as the source of such a sudden and drastic event. Many consider this explanation to be too simplistic. Because the wreck lies deeply embedded in mud, thorough examinations for the exact cause of the incident are all but impossible.
2. Andrea Gail
Made famous by the book and movie The Perfect Storm, the 1991 sinking of the Gloucester, Massachusetts sword fishing boat F/V Andrea Gail with a loss of all 6 on board is one of the most endearing and curious tales in maritime history. Because radio communication with the Andrea Gail was lost during the massive conglomerate of storms that sank her, the precise manner, time, and position of sinking is not known. A distress signal was radioed on behalf of the Andrea Gail by the skipper of her sister vessel, based on her last known position in relation to the position of the storm. The “perfect storm” as it is known sent the Andrea Gail to the bottom of the ocean off Sable Island, but her remains have never been found. The human factor is heavily interlaced with the obvious contributions the weather made to her sinking. It’s known that the ice machine on board the boat was malfunctioning and their sword fish catch would have spoiled had they not set out for home when they did. Unfortunately, whatever the impetus, the decision to steam through the weather cost the crew of the Andrea Gail their lives.
1. The Titanic
The “unsinkable” RMS Titanic, an English cruise liner operated by the White Star Line, famously struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic while en route from England to New York City and sank in frigid waters. Up until her sinking on April 15th, 1912, she was largest passenger cruise ship in the world, and one of the most luxurious ships ever designed. She was carrying a load of 2,227 people during her fateful maiden voyage, despite having a lifeboat capacity of only 1,178. As a result of this insufficiency, coupled with poor and chaotic evacuation methods, 1,517 people died – mostly men, since a “women and children first” protocol was common at the time. The sinking and the media frenzy following it triggered international interest and prompted changes in maritime law. The Titanic remains, both in current pop culture – thanks to reminders like James Cameron’s now classic film adaptation – and in historical perspective one of the most amazing disasters at sea, and fascinating shipwrecks in the world. The Titanic lies in approximately 12,450 feet of water, making her difficult and costly to dive. Nevertheless, many unmanned and manned submersible efforts have taken place since her discovery in 1985, thanks to the joint efforts of American Dr. Robert Ballard and French explorer Jean-Louis Michel. Some 6,000 artifacts have been salvaged from the wreck, bringing the lure and lore of the Titanic to the surface in museums and traveling exhibits around the world. The Titanic is rapidly deteriorating, with scientists projecting as few as 50 more years until she collapses completely.