The first name that comes to mind when you hear “shipwreck” is likely the Titanic, but there are dozens of underwater shipwrecks around the world that offer a fascinating glimpse into history through their corroded hulls. These shipwrecks may have been caused by freak accident, warfare, or something else lost to the sands of time, but each of them allows viewers or visitors a new way to engage with the past—while also allowing professionals like maritime archaeologists an opportunity to delve into preserved historical information that the ship carried.
These seven underwater shipwrecks are some of the eeriest and most historically interesting examples of the genre.
Flatey Island, sunk 1659
This Dutch merchant ship met its fate off the coast of Iceland amidst a brutal winter storm in the late 17th century. It is one of the few remaining examples of a flute ship—the type of ship that Dutch merchants heavily relied on to send their wares around the Baltic Sea during the Dutch Golden Age. It also shows how the Dutch flouted rules to make their Golden Age so golden. Although a trade agreement between Iceland and Denmark prohibited trade between Iceland and other European countries, the Melckmeyt is believed to have been captained by a Dutchman flying a Danish flag.
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The Melckmeyt remains underwater in the icy North Atlantic waters. Some objects from its hull have been retrieved and are now housed in the Reykjavik Maritime Museum. Those who wish to see the wreck for themselves can explore via virtual tour.
Big Tub Harbour, sunk 1885
This “picture perfect” wreckage can be found in the Georgian Bay of Lake Harbour. Damaged while hauling coal near Cove Island, Sweepstakes was hauled to the Big Tub Harbour in August 1885. The ship wasn’t repaired in time, causing her to sink just 150 feet from the head of the Harbour. Just 20 feet under water at its highest point, the Sweepstakes can clearly be seen through the harbor’s clear water.
Bermuda, sunk 1896
Not all shipwrecks are accidental. Sometimes, ships are sunk either because they serve no further purpose or, more commonly today, to help rehabilitate coral reefs. The HMS Vixen is an example of the former, sunk both as a ship beyond salvaging and also to block a channel to the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda.
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First built in 1864 and launched in late 1865, the Vixen was a gunboat and the first Royal Navy ship to have twin propellers. Loaded with two muzzle-loading rifled guns and two 20-pounder breech-loading guns, she was too heavy to move quickly, making her fate one closely tied to the Royal Naval Dockyards even before her sinking. After less than 10 years, the Vixen had had all upper deck material, including her riggings and masts, removed. By 1895, she was primarily serving as accommodation for dock workers and thus was a prime candidate to block off the channel in 1896.
Now a major tourist attraction, glass-bottomed boats and snorkeling expeditions often visit the sunken gunship.
Thunder Bay, sunk 1914
Just across the border from Big Tub Harbour, the Thunder Bay of Lake Huron off the coast of Michigan is a veritable graveyard of sunken ships. Dozens of ships have been discovered over the years, the most notable of which may be the Montana, which was first launched in 1872. The steamer carried both freight and passengers across Lake Michigan for over 40 years until one unlucky evening. Fire caught in the bow of the ship and quickly spread. All 14 crew members aboard escaped in a lifeboat, but the wreckage sunk deep into Lake Huron.
The wreck is now one of many that divers can explore in Thunder Bay. Its well-preserved hull includes the boiler, engine, and much of its navigation equipment.
Newfoundland, sunk 1912
Perhaps the quintessential shipwreck, the Titanic’s massive hull still lays deep in Atlantic waters, approximately 370 miles south/southeast of Newfoundland. 73 years after its sudden encounter with an iceberg, the wreck of the RMS Titanic was located by a joint American-French expedition 13,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.
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Although the bow of the ship remains well preserved—with even some of its interiors recognizable—the stern of the ship has deteriorated completely. Although many clamored for the wreckage to be lifted from the depths of the Atlantic, the fragility of the remaining materials makes it impossible. The wreckage site is now protected by the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.
Bali, sunk 1942
The Liberty is one of many WWII shipwrecks that divers can explore today. First launched during World War I, the Liberty was primarily used as animal transport in the 1910s. During World War II, she was used for parts and machinery transport in the Pacific Theatre. In January 1942, she was sailing to the Philippines with railway parts and rubber supplies when she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.
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Although they attempted to reach land, the Liberty’s crew was forced to beach her on the shores of Bali to retrieve their supplies. After a volcanic eruption in 1963, Liberty slipped off the beach and back into the water. Now, about 30 meters deep in the water, she serves as a popular dive site for tourists to the area.
Key Island, sunk 1998
The Adolphus Busch is one ship that was purposefully sunk to try to help reefs regrow off the coast of Florida. Originally launched and sailed as the London, this ship was a freight carrier under many names until it was bought by August Adolphus Busch IV in 1998. Busch renamed the boat after his great-grandfather Adolphus Busch, the co-founder of brewing company Anhauser-Busch, then had the ship stripped and sunk as an artificial reef.
It lays 80-110 feet below the water off the coast of Looe Key in Florida. Today, it functions as a marine habitat for a wide range of sea life, including reef fish, eels, and some sharks. You can also visit the site to dive amongst the fish and the wreckage.
Featured photo: djandywdotcom / Flickr (CC). Additional photos: John McCarthy / YouTube, tracer.ca / Flickr (CC), Wikimedia Commons, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, MBTubes / YouTube, PB1791 via Wikimedia Commons (CC), GeoMeoMy / YouTube