Searching for Shipwrecks

Last May, archaeologists revealed that they had found the ‘holy grail’ of shipwrecks off the coast of Colombia, a 1708 Spanish galleon called San Jose that sank during a skirmish with the British in the Caribbean Sea. Carrying gold and silver that Spanish had plundered from Peru, its spoils are said to be worth a jaw-dropping US$4-17 billion. Though the details have only recently been released, the drowned vessel  was actually discovered in 2015, but still, this year appears to be a bumper one for shipwrecks—discovering them, that is, not causing them.


Now San Jose’s stash seems seriously small change when stacked against the estimated US$132 billion of submerged gold bullion said to be in the bowels of the Dmitrii Donskoi, a Soviet naval cruiser that sank 113 years ago during the Russo-Japanese War off the coast of South Korea. It was found in July by a South Korean-Canadian team, and there are questions around who can claim the spoils. Also in July, a local history group in England’s county of Kent were searching for World War Two pillboxes on Tankerton Beach when they stumbled upon the outline of a ship that dates from the Tudor era—initial tests showed its timber to be from the 16th century. The 200-ton vessel is likely a single-masted, carvel-built merchant ship.


Close to home, some serious storms shifted some serious sand dunes at South Head, north of Muriwai, in May, to reveal the 153-year-old remains of Daring, a 17-metre twin-masted schooner that had been carrying grass seed from Taranaki to Onehunga when she beached. The wreck is one of four that has been uncovered around the treacherous mouth of Kaipara Harbour in recent months.


According to UNESCO, there are as many as three million undiscovered wrecks around the world, with around 5,000 containing substantial treasures. We can’t direct you to chests bursting with gems and gold, but we can bring you a rundown of some of history’s greatest explorable wrecks, and the stories behind their final, fateful voyages.


SS Yongala, Australia

Considered by many to be the world’s finest wreck dive, the Yongala, whose name comes from the Aborigine meaning “broad water”, was a luxurious 350-foot passenger steamship that was built in England in 1903. She sank during a cyclone in March 1911, just shy of her hundredth voyage around the Australian continent, submerged, undiscovered for decades off the coast of Townsville. All 49 passengers and 73 crew perished, and the only body ever found was that of the racehorse, Moonshine, who washed up at the mouth of a local creek. Scuba diving the wreck today—which lies up to 30m deep—you’re likely to encounter sharks, rays, turtles and tropical fish. Humpback whales migrate nearby during the winter months.


SS Thistlegorm, Egypt

The massive 415-foot SS Thistlegorm is among the most popular dive sites on the planet. When this British merchant navy ship was sunk by the Luftwaffe in 1941 she took with her all manner of World War Two artefacts—many of which can still be seen. Discovered by Jacques Cousteau off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula in the 1950s, highlights of the wreck-cum-undersea museum include cargo such as trucks and military tanks, as well as an enormous propeller, weapons, aircraft parts and gumboots. Resident wildlife includes crocodilefish, trevally and hawksbill turtles.


SS President Coolidge, Vanuatu

Among the largest and most accessible of the world’s wrecks, the SS President Coolidge is a luxury liner with space for nearly 1,000 passengers and more than 300 crew and was later modified to free up space for 5,000 troops. Through the 1930s, the steamship set several trans-Pacific speed records and during the second world war conducted numerous noble voyages such as ferrying the wounded of the Pearl Harbour attack to the safety of San Francisco. She ran into a minefield on the morning of 26 October 1942, and miraculously all but two of the 5,000 men aboard survived. Now the 615-foot wreck serves as a scuba diving mecca, covered in coral and patrolled by fish and bulging with military ammo, vehicles and equipment.


Pearl Harbour, Hawaii

The ghostly ship graveyard of Pearl Harbour affords the opportunity to see underwater wrecks without getting wet. The USS Arizona Memorial is a monument that straddles its eponymous shallow wreck—with views though an opening in the floor—that marks the final resting place of 1,102 sailors killed in the Japanese attack on the US. Though the site was shut indefinitely for major structural repairs in May, guests can still explore the historical complex by way of a narrated boat tour (1,300 free tickets are offered each morning). Around 2,400 people were killed, four battleships sunk, four more damaged and scores more vessels, vehicles and aircraft destroyed during the surprise attack on the naval base on 7 December 1941, an event that forced America to officially enter World War Two.


Titanic, North Atlantic Ocean

The world’s most famous shipwreck occurred early in the morning of 15 April 1912 when the RMS Titanic, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, struck an iceberg and sank less than three hours later, killing more than 1,500 (the offending iceberg was later photographed with an eerie red streak of paint from the ship’s hull). Next year, two US companies, OceanGate and The Bluefish, will offer strictly limited numbers of visitors the chance to explore the Titanic as part of data collection and research teams in specially constructed submersibles. Those without a spare $150,000-plus might consider heading to Sichuan, China, where the building of a life size replica of the Titanic is well underway (it was supposed to open last year). As well as the grand staircase, there will be exact replicas of all the cabins and will host several bars and eateries. Part of a larger seven-star resort, it’s riverside position is a good 1,000km from the ocean, and, more importantly, icebergs.


Rainbow Warrior, New Zealand

The trawler Sir William Hardy, built in Scotland in 1955, was sold by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food more than two decades later to Greenpeace who revamped it then relaunched it as the Rainbow Warrior—the activists’ very first ship. The vessel was due to play a leading role in the campaign against nuclear testing in the Pacific in 1985 when it was sabotaged and partially sunk by French spies while docked in Auckland, killing one crew member. Two years later it was scuttled near the Cavalli Islands off Northland’s east coast, and new serves as one of the region’s premier dive sites.


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces