For a significant chunk of human history, maritime domination was of utmost concern for the world’s leading powers. As the saying went, he who ruled the seas ruled the world.
Given the constraints of existing technology, water was really the only viable method of covering long distances from one continent to another. Obviously, this led to many conflicts among nations, and more than a few ships found their ways to a watery grave. Some of these shipwrecks have since been recovered and transformed into spots for historical study or recreation.
Fascinating Sunken Ships: The HMHS Britannic
For better or worse, everyone’s already heard of the Titanic, which is why it’s been left off the list. That’s not likely the case for its sister ship, the Britannic. This ship was actually built by the same company as the Titanic – the White Star Line.
The Britannic was constructed after the sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic so, obviously, some changes had to be made in order to make it stand up to its reputation. A few extra lifeboats plus a reinforced hull around the boiler room, engine room and other regions vulnerable to icebergs made for smart additions.
When it was finished, the Britannic was even larger than the Titanic and could have made for an excellent cruise ship. There was just one small problem – a world war had started and the Britannic was requisitioned by the government for use as a hospital ship.
As opposed to the Titanic, the Britannic lasted for a year before it was sunk and, in its defense, was brought down by enemy fire. It’s probably not as well known today because most of its passengers made it out alive. Of the 1,000 people on board, only 30 or so died.
Jacques Cousteau discovered the wreck a few decades later and was rather surprised to find it in remarkable condition. During the 90s and 2000s, multiple expeditions went down to visit and film the wreck. The latest one was in 2012, when divers installed equipment to monitor bacteria growth on the ship and compare it to the Titanic.
The Lusitania shared a similar history with the aforementioned Titanic. It actually predated it by a few years, very briefly becoming the largest ship in the world before it was overshadowed by its sister ship, the Mauretania. It then bore a stronger resemblance to the Britannic, also being sunk during World War I.
In 1915 the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat, which caused a huge stir. The Germans were accused of breaching international laws by firing without warning on a non-military vessel.
Pushing the event further into the legal grey zone, the British had been using the Lusitania to transport war munitions under the hope that the Germans wouldn’t attack it, which was also a violation of international laws of war.
Nowadays, the Lusitania can be found near the lighthouse at Kinsale, lying on its starboard side (or right if you aren’t an old sea dog). Unlike other wrecks of its time, the Lusitania has not aged very gracefully. Experts estimate that, at this rate, it won’t be long until the ship becomes so decrepit that it collapses on itself entirely.
Nuestra Señora de Atocha
Let’s go a bit further back in time to an era of pirate ships and legendary treasures. The Nuestra Señora de Atocha (Our Lady of Atocha) was the prize ship of a Spanish fleet that went down carrying one of the largest–if not the largest–treasure hauls in maritime history.
All of this took place in 1622. The Atocha was supposed to make a trip from Havana to Spain, carrying an absolutely massive cargo of gold, silver, jewels, gems, tobacco, copper and anything else that might have been of value during that time. On the way, the Atocha encountered a hurricane that badly damaged the hull and ensured that the Atocha (and almost everyone onboard) met a watery end.
It might not come as a surprise to find out that the authorities didn’t really care about the lives lost so much as they did the sunken wealth. For years, the Spanish sent out multiple ships to recover the precious cargo. While they did manage to recover most of the cargo aboard the Saint Margarita, another ship from the fleet that sank, the Atocha remained lost.
That all changed in 1985, when professional treasure hunter (yes, that is an actual job) Mel Fisher found it. Unsurprisingly, Fisher was immediately met with resistance from other parties who wanted to lay claim to the immense treasure, particularly the State of Florida. What’s most amazing of all, though, is that the sterncastle still hasn’t been found. That was the ship’s most secure area, and is thus where the most valuable treasure would have been stored.
Time for pirate ships. We’re actually starting with a semi-famous pirate who deserves more credit and recognition than he receives – “Black Sam” Bellamy. Pretty much any way you look at it, Bellamy was the most successful pirate ever: he sank or captured the most ships and amassed the largest fortune (somewhere around $120 million in modern money).
However, Bellamy never got to enjoy his plunders. His ship, the Whydah Gally, sank during a huge 1717 storm, taking Bellamy, most of his crew and all of the treasure down with it.
260 years later, the Whydah Gally was discovered using an old wreckage site map made by the captain who initially investigated the shipwreck in 1717. It was as close to an actual pirate treasure map as we were going to get in real life.
On the ship’s bell, the inscription “The Whydah Gally 1716” was found, making this the first pirate ship identified beyond a shadow of a doubt. Since then, over 200,000 individual pieces have been recovered, including tons of treasure in the form of gold and silver coins.
Queen Anne’s Revenge
Even though it only terrorized the seas for a brief period, Queen Anne’s Revenge made its way into history books as one of the most fearsome ships around. Such a status came as the result of the vessel’s captain: Blackbeard. In 1717 the pirate used it as his flagship for less than a year before running it aground, which some say was an intentional move.
The fate of Queen Anne’s Revenge remained a mystery until 1996, when a new wreck thought to be the infamous ship was discovered. However, positively identifying it as Queen Anne’s Revenge took a long time.
Thousands of artifacts were recovered from the shipwreck, but none of them provided definitive evidence towards the ship’s sole identity. In fact, it wasn’t until 2011 that the National Geographic Society felt confident enough to confirm the ship as Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Recovery of the artifacts is still ongoing. There still isn’t conclusive evidence to say that the ship is 100-percent, without a doubt the Queen Anne’s Revenge, but the shipwreck’s location combined with the artifacts’ origins is enough to justify the identification. Until we find a cannon or a ship’s wheel with the words “Blackbeard was here” inscribed on them, this will have to do.
Enjoy these sunken ships? Next, learn about the creepiest ghost ships ever found. Then learn about the woman who survived the sinking of the Titanic and its two sister ships.