Shipwrecks offer a fascinating glimpse into history preserved under the sea. They can also tell amazing and often tragic stories.
We will check out some of the world’s most famous shipwrecks and discover tales of war, mystery, and even treasure.
16 Most Famous Shipwrecks That Sunk
The most famous shipwrecks have often reached that position due to their age, size, or even their cargo.
There are usually compelling histories to learn about their sinking, involving an accident, war, or even deliberate actions.
However, these shipwrecks often involved not just the sinking of the ship but also the tragic loss of life.
Keeping this in mind, if you’re ever lucky enough to visit a shipwreck while scuba diving, it’s a good idea to try and learn the history of the wreck beforehand and treat wrecks where people died with the respect they deserve.
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#1 RMS Titanic
Date Sunk – 15th April 1912
Location – North Atlantic Ocean
Cause of Sinking – Striking an iceberg
Any list of famous sunken ships needs to start with the world-renowned RMS Titanic. The famous ship is, of course, known from the multi-award-winning movie Titanic to many people.
RMS Titanic was a British ocean liner traveling on her maiden voyage. The ship was already famous for being the largest cruise ship of her time, featuring luxury never seen before on the ocean.
Titanic was also given a reputation by its owners as the safest liner ever built. In addition, they branded her as unsinkable due to the advanced watertight compartments and remotely activated watertight doors.
The ship was traveling en route to New York City from Southampton (via Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland). In total, she had an estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard.
On the night of the 14th of April, at approximately 11:40 pm, the Titanic struck an iceberg with its starboard side. The iceberg dented and buckled the ship’s hull allowing water to flood into five watertight compartments.
The sinking of the mighty liner took approximately two and a half hours. Unfortunately, the ship only had enough lifeboats for about half the number of people aboard, and as she broke in two and sank, more than 1,500 people died.
The number of people killed by the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage was, at the time, the largest from a single shipwreck. It remains the highest number lost on a ship in peacetime.
The wreck of the Titanic was discovered in 1985 by a team led by Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Jean-Louis Michel of IFREMER, resting at a depth of about 3,800 meters / 12,500 feet.
#2 The Mary Rose
Date Sunk – 19 July 1545
Location – The Solent, Portsmouth, UK
Cause of Sinking – Uncertain, presumed accidental catastrophic flooding during maneuvering
The Mary Rose was a carrack-style warship that was the flagship of King Henry VIII’s Tuor navy.
The ship was lost in the battle of the Solent during the third war between Britain and France. While trying to engage the attacking French ships, it is believed that the Mary Rose attempted a tight maneuver which led to its stinking.
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Marine archaeologists believe that the ship was turning so that its guns faced a French ship. It is thought that a sudden strong gust of wind caught the vessel, pushing its open starboard gunports below the ocean’s surface.
The Mary Rose rapidly filled with water and sank in minutes. Records show that less than 35 of the crew of 400 escaped with their lives.
The wreck lay hidden until it was discovered in 1971. She was raised in 1982, along with thousands of Tudor artifacts found in the silt that had covered the wreck.
Today the ship has been preserved and can be seen in the Mary Rose Museum inside the Portsmouth Dockyard.
#3 SS Thistlegorm
Date Sunk – 6 October 1941
Location – Gubal Straits, Egyptian Red Sea
Cause of Sinking – Bombed by German aircraft
The next of our famous ships that sank has become the world’s most popular scuba diving wreck.
SS Thistlegorm was launched in 1940 as a defensively equipped merchant ship during World War II. She was used to carry supplies to and from the UK from allied nations and supply the British army in action.
The ship left Glasgow in June 1941, filled with cargo destined for Alexandria in Egypt. Because the German and Italian navies and air forces controlled the more direct route through the Mediterranean, Thistlegorm needed to travel via South Africa and then up the East African coast, through the Red Sea, and eventually to Alexandria via the Suez Canal.
Transit through the canal was delayed as a ship collision blocked it, and the Thistlegorm had to wait at anchor in the Gulf of Suez from September 1941.
In the early morning of the 6th of October, two German Heinkel He 111 spotted Thistlegorm while looking for a British troop carrier to attack. Two bombs struck the ship, exploding in the hold which was packed with ammunition. The ship sank rapidly, and nine sailors were killed.
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The SS Thistlegorm is now a popular tourist attraction and rests on the bottom as an artificial reef with a maximum depth of 33 meters / 108 feet. Scuba divers worldwide are stunned by the wreck and its cargo of trucks, armored vehicles, medical supplies, rifles, ammunition, airplane parts, and, most famously, motorcycles.
#4 RMS Lusitania
Date Sunk – 7 May 1915
Location – Off the southern coast of Ireland
Cause of Sinking – Torpedoed by German U-boat
The sinking of the RMS Lusitania is widely regarded as one of the major causes of the United States joining the First World War. Her sinking by a German submarine generated a huge public outcry when 1,198 passengers and crew were killed.
RMS Lusitania was an ocean liner owned by the Cunard line. Launched in 1906, she was once the world’s largest passenger ship and, in 1908, held the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.
The liner was traveling from New York to Liverpool on her 202nd trans-Atlantic voyage when she was attacked and sunk. After one torpedo struck the ship, a second massive explosion occurred, and she sank in just 18 minutes.
The feeling against the legitimacy of the target created a massive turn in public opinion in the United States. Images of the disaster were widely used in American and British propaganda materials.
It was only well after the war had ended that the Allied governments admitted that the Lusitania was carrying large amounts of ammunition being secretly supplied to the British.
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What caused the ship’s second explosion is unknown, which quickly sent it to the bottom. Records show that only one torpedo was launched from the U-Boat and eyewitnesses suggest the blast came from inside the ship.
Opinions range from an explosion caused by the ammunition cargo, one made by ignited coal dust, or a blast originating in the ship’s steam-generating plant. It’s generally accepted that the first torpedo had already doomed the ship to sink. However, whatever the cause, the second explosion led to the vast loss of life.
The shipwreck remains of the Lusitania rest on its starboard side at a depth of 93 meters / 305 feet. Numerous expeditions have visited her since the wreck’s discovery in 1935.
Date Sunk – 21 November 1915
Location – Weddell Sea off Antarctica
Cause of Sinking – Crushed by Antarctic ice
Endurance was a three-masted barquentine sailing ship initially launched in 1912 as a luxurious Arctic cruise ship named Polaris.
In addition to her sails, the ship also has a powerful coal-fired steam engine. The vessel had been designed to be particularly strong with unusually thick oak keel members and sides.
The Anglo-Irish Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton purchased the ship in 1914, intending to use it as a research vessel to mount the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. Instead, he rechristened the ship as Endurance.
The Endurance became stuck in the pack ice during the expedition and was slowly crushed until she had to be abandoned before she sank. The crew escaped with their lives and were eventually rescued in 1916 after Shackleton, Frank Worsley, the ship’s captain, and four men mounted a hazardous mission in small boats to escape to South Georgia to get help.
Numerous missions attempted to find the wreckage of the Endurance, but it was not discovered until March 2022, when the Endurance22 mission was successful almost 107 years after the ship sank.
The Endurance wreck was found in 3,008 meters / 9,869 feet of water in excellent condition. The depth, relative lack of current and life, and freezing waters have preserved the ship. She has been designated under the Antarctic Treaty System as a protected historic site and monument.
#6 The German High Seas Fleet
Date Sunk – 21 June 1919
Location – Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Cause of Sinking – Deliberately sunk
Our next famous shipwrecks is a collection of wrecks in one location that has become one of the world’s most famous sites for scuba divers.
The German High Seas Fleet was created in 1907 as a powerful naval force to challenge the British Royal Navy in the North Sea. The fleet initially consisted of over one hundred ships, including modern dreadnoughts and battleships.
When Germany was defeated in 1918, the High Seas Fleet was interned by the Allies in the British naval base at Scapa Flow. Rather than allow the enemy to gain control of the valuable ships, the German Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered his crews to scuttle the vessel on the 21st of June 1919.
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Of the group of 74 interned vessels, the British managed to save 22, leaving 52 new shipwrecks.
Salvage of many of the wrecks took place in the 1920s and 30s. However, numerous ships remain, including the capital ships SMS König, SMS Kronprinz, and SMS Markgraf. These and many other Scapa Flow wrecks are popular today as challenging and fascinating scuba dives.
#7 Eduard Bohlen
Date Sunk – 5 September 1909
Location – Namibia’s Skeleton Coast
Cause of Sinking – Ran aground in thick fog
The Eduard Bohlen was a German cargo ship launched in 1890. She was wrecked after running aground in thick fog while traveling from Swakopmund to Table Bay.
The shipwreck can be found partially buried in sand 400 meters / 1,300 feet from the shoreline on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.
Modern television shows, including The Wonders of the Universe and The Grand Tour, have featured the wreck as a backdrop. She has become a popular tourist attraction for visitors to the area.
#8 MS World Discoverer
Date Sunk – 30 April 2000
Location – Roderick Bay of the Nggela Islands, The Solomon Islands
Cause of Sinking – Struck underwater reef and deliberately grounded to prevent sinking
MS World Discoverer was a cruise ship that operated in more adventurous waters than more traditional liners.
The vessel could operate in ice floes and often visited Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, the Alaskan seas, as well as the warmer South Pacific Islands.
The ship would have geologists, marine biologists, and naturalists on board to lead expeditions and give presentations to the passengers.
In April 2000, the MS World Discoverer was visiting the Solomon Islands when she hit an uncharted reef in the Sandfly Passage. All passengers were safely taken off the ship onto a nearby passenger ferry.
As the World Discoverer began to sink, the captain took her into Roderick Bay and grounded the ship to prevent it from sinking.
The vessel was declared to be a constructive loss, and salvage attempts were hampered by the civil war that was taking place in the area.
The wreck has stayed grounded ever since and is popular with visitors. Other cruise ships even make a point of passing by for photographs.
#9 RMS Empress of Ireland
Date Sunk – 29 May 1914
Location – Near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, Canada
Cause of Sinking – Collision with another ship in thick fog
The RMS Empress of Ireland was a large ocean liner built to travel between the United Kingdom and Canada.
In May 1914, the ship departed Quebec City to travel to Liverpool with a crew of 420 and 1,057 passengers.
After leaving Pointe-au-Père, the Empress of Ireland sighted the Norwegian collier in the distance, but fog quickly descended, causing both vessels to lose sight of one another.
The Storstad smashed into the center of the Empress of Ireland’s starboard side, causing extensive damage. The ship’s lower decks started to flood immediately, and the vessel leaned heavily to starboard, which allowed more and more water to enter.
Passengers in the lower decks had no opportunity to escape and were drowned. The lean of the ship was already so great that few lifeboats could be launched successfully to evacuate passengers from the upper decks.
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The ship lay on her side, and passengers escaped through portholes and other exits until the Empress of Ireland suddenly sank, throwing them into the freezing water.
1,012 people were killed, which was the biggest peacetime disaster in Canadian maritime history. There were only 465 survivors.
The Empress of Ireland shipwreck rests at a depth of only 40 meters / 130 feet and can be visited by advanced divers. However, it is a challenging dive, and more than six divers have been killed.
#10 SS Andrea Doria
Date Sunk – 26 July 1956
Location – Off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, United States
Cause of Sinking – Collision with the liner MS Stockholm
The ocean liner Andrea Doria departed Genoa on Tuesday, 17 July, bound for New York City via Cannes, Naples, and Gibraltar.
On the 26th of July, while traveling along a heavily used shipping corridor in heavy fog, the Adrea Doria and the passenger liner MS Stockholm collided with the Stockholm striking the side of Andrea Doria as both ships attempted evasive maneuvers.
Although the Andrea Dorai had closed its watertight doors, the ship was pierced below the waterline by the Stockholms bow and rapidly filled with water.
The captain made the call to abandon the ship just 30 minutes after the collision, and lifeboats were launched. 1,660 people were rescued safely, but 46 passengers and crew were killed, many instantly during the impact.
The Andrea Doria capsized and eventually sank about ten hours after the collision.
The wreck of the Andrea Doria quickly became a target for treasure hunters and documentary makers. The ship was rumored to be carrying numerous valuables left by its wealthy passengers, and several salvage projects took place.
Many technical divers call the Andrea Doria the “Mount Everest of scuba diving.” The wreck was found resting between 50 meters / 160 feet and 73 meters / 241 feet deep.
The water depth, temperature, strong currents, rapidly degrading structure, and dangerous fishing nets make it a challenging and risky dive. At least 22 divers have died visiting the shipwreck.
#11 HMS Victory
Date Sunk – 4/5 October 1744
Location – The Western Approaches between England and France
Cause of Sinking – Lost in Storm
The HMS Victory was returning to England when she was lost in bad weather. All 1,150 of her sailors were killed.
The Victory was a 100-gun ship of the Royal Navy built as the flagship of the Channel Fleet. She was high-sided for her draft, having been designed to have a greater than normal internal space for her crew.
It was said that the Victory was unstable in rough weather when built, and she required multiple refits before the navy passed her fit to sail.
As HMS Victory approached the Channel Islands on the 4th of October, a storm approached, and the accompanying ships lost sight of her. The ship disappeared, and although small pieces of wreckage were washed ashore, no trace of the crew was found.
The wreck was discovered in 2008 by the Odyssey Marine Exploration. The TV show Treasure Quest broadcast film of the momentous find. The wreckage and its contents remain protected while an extensive archeological survey takes place.
Large amounts of silver and gold coins are thought to be on the wreck, worth approximately $1 billion in modern value. It is believed that this money was in part plundered from captured ships or being carried by merchants back to London from Lisbon.
#12 MV Doña Paz
Date Sunk – December 20, 1987
Location – Dumali Point, The Philippines
Cause of Sinking – Collision with oil tanker MT Vector
The MV Doña Paz was a passenger ferry traveling from Leyte island to Manila when she suffered a collision with the oil tanker Vector.
The ferry was severely overcrowded, with more than 4,000 people on board. At least 2,000 were not listed on the ship’s manifest.
The Doña Paz collided with MT Vector at night as most passengers were sleeping. The collision caused the Vector’s oil cargo to ignite, creating a fierce fire that quickly spread throughout the Doña Paz.
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Without available life jackets or lifeboats, passengers were forced to jump from the burning sinking ship, and many drowned.
The Doña Paz sank two hours after the accident. 4,386 people are believed to have died in the worst peacetime maritime disaster ever. Only 25 survived.
The wreck was lost until the survey ship RV Petrel discovered it in 2019, 500 meters / 1640 feet underwater. The Vector sank several hours after the Doña Paz, was found 2,200 meters / 7,218 feet away.
#13 The Vasa
Date Sunk – 10 August 1628.
Location – Stockholm Harbor
Cause of Sinking – Design fault causing flooding
The Vasa was a Swedish warship built for King Gustavus Adolphus to be one of the world’s most powerfully armed vessels.
The warship completed just 1,300 meters / 1,400 yards on her maiden voyage before she sank in front of thousands of people who watched her set sail.
The Vasa was extremely unstable due to being overly top-heavy. As heavy gusts of winds blew, she was pushed down onto her port side lowering her opened gun ports below the water’s surface.
Seawater flooded into the ship, and she quickly sank down onto the 32 meter / 105-foot seabed. Sailors were rescued as they clung to the ship’s masts, which poked up above the surface. At least 15 men went down in the wreck.
The valuable cannons and other important items were salvaged in the 17th century, and the ship was forgotten as she lay hidden in the busy harbor. She was rediscovered in the 1950s, and in 1961 salvors successfully recovered the hull and thousands of artifacts.
Today, the preserved ship and its contents are displayed at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.
#14 Queen Anne’s Revenge
Date Sunk – 10 June 1718
Location – Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina, USA
Cause of Sinking – Ran aground
Queen Anne’s Revenge was a former french slave ship used by the legendary pirate Blackbeard as his flagship.
Blackbeard plundered British, Dutch, and Portuguese ships along the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean before the ship met its fate.
The ship ran aground and sank as it entered Beaufort Inlet. However, Blackbeard had time to unload his crew, and some historians think it may have been a diversionary tactic to escape from the pursuing navy.
The wreck was discovered in 1996 and has been the subject of much publicity. 31 canons originating from several different countries were recovered in keeping with the ship’s reputation for plunder.
#15 USS Arizona (BB-39)
Date Sunk – 7 December 1941
Location – Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii
Cause of Sinking – Bombed by Japanese Aircraft
The next of our most famous shipwrecks is one from the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which precipitated the entry of the United States into World War II.
The USS Arizona was a super-dreadnought battleship launched in June 1915. The warship didn’t serve in combat in the Great War. However, she escorted President Wilson when he traveled to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
In 1940 Arizona was sent to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii as a part of American actions to deter Japanese imperial expansion in the area.
Just before 0800 on December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The USS Arizona was hit by armor-piercing bombs that exploded in the ship’s magazine, causing it to sink quickly.
1,177 sailors on board the ship were killed, and the vessel was unsalvageable.
The wreck of the USS Arizona remains in Pearl Harbor as a National Historic Landmark and memorial to the crew.
#16 USS Indianapolis (CA-35)
Date Sunk – 30 July 1945
Location – Philippine Sea
Cause of Sinking – Torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine
The USS Indianapolis was a heavy cruiser launched in 1931. Throughout the war, she served in the Central Pacific but is mainly known for her final mission and tragic loss.
The Indianapolis had delivered top-secret parts required for Little Boy, the nuclear bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima and was the first atomic weapon ever used.
Having completed the mission, Indianapolis was steaming for the Philippines. On the 30th of July, she was attacked by a Japanese torpedo submarine. The cruiser was hit by two torpedoes which caused massive explosions throughout the ship.
After just twelve minutes, the Indianapolis capsized and sank. Approximately 300 crewmen were trapped inside the ship, while the remaining 890 were left in the sea.
The surviving sailors in the water suffered dehydration, exposure to harsh elements, shark attacks, and saltwater poisoning. Only 316 men survived to be rescued, and the sinking of the Indianapolis became the US Navy’s most significant loss of life from a single ship at sea.
The American ship was lost until a 2017 expedition launched by philanthropist Paul G. Allen discovered it lying in 5,500 meters / 18,000 feet of water.
Famous Shipwrecks FAQs
What Is the Most Famous Shipwreck Ever?
The most famous shipwreck ever is the RMS Titanic. She sank in 1912 on her first ever voyage after hitting an iceberg.
What Is the Biggest Shipwreck in the World?
The biggest ship ever sunk was the supertanker Seawise Giant, which was 458.45 meters / 1,504 feet long.
She had a fully loaded displacement of 646,642 long tons. However, this ship, sunk in 1988 during the Iran–Iraq War, was later salvaged and restored to service.
The largest ship ever lost is the MV Stellar Daisy, a very large ore carrier (VLOC) that sank in the South Atlantic Ocean on March 31, 2017.
The ship was 321.95 meters / 1,056 feet long and had a gross tonnage three times greater than any other shipwreck.
What is the Oldest Shipwreck Ever Found?
The oldest shipwreck ever found is the wreck of the Greek island of Dokos, which is believed to come from between 2700 and 2200 BC.
What is the Deepest Shipwreck?
The deepest explored shipwreck is the USS Johnston, discovered in March 2021 at a depth of 6,460 meters / 21,180 feet.
How Many Ships Have Sunk in the Ocean?
The United Nations believes that there are over 3 million wrecks in the ocean. However, just 1% have been explored.
That’s our review of famous shipwrecks. Which do you find the most interesting? Did we miss a famous shipwreck from our list?
Let us know what you think in the comments section, and please share this article with anyone you know who might find it interesting.
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