For the majority of us, shipwrecks are fascinating underwater worlds to study or even visit if you’re a scuba diver.
They often have a fascinating history and are usually home to lots of cool sea life.
But for professional treasure hunters, finding one of the world’s lost sunken treasure ships could offer rewards reaching into the many millions or even billions of dollars.
Undiscovered shipwrecks are undiscovered for a reason. They’re often in very deep water, in remote locations, or have sunk deep underneath the seabed out of sight.
So finding a lost treasure fleet can be an expensive and time-consuming operation. However, the value of the sunken treasure they might contain makes it a competitive business.
Some of the most fiercely targeted ships are the Spanish ships of the 1715 fleet. These and other sunken Spanish ships might still contain billions of dollars worth of gold, silver, and emeralds.
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s investigate the most valuable Spanish treasure ships never found.
How Many Spanish Treasure Ships Are Still Lost?
The Spanish Empire in the Americas collected a lot of gold and other valuables, and the only way to get it home was by ship.
Unfortunately for those on board, many ships never made it and were sunk along with their valuable cargo.
Experts from the Spanish culture ministry believe that less than a quarter of the 681 Spanish ships known to have sunk between 1492 and 1898 off the coast of the Americas have been found.
The Spanish Empire was one of the largest in history. During the most prosperous period in the 18th century, it covered large parts of the Americas, Western Europe, Africa, and several Pacific and Oceania islands.
In addition to the wrecks of the Americas, hundreds more Spanish wrecks that haven’t yet been extensively researched await discovery in the other parts of the empire.
However, the riches of the Americans were exceptionally vast and needed a great fleet of ships to be transferred back to Spain.
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Crossing the Atlantic Ocean can be dangerous even today, but imagine making the journey in a heavily laden wooden sailing ship.
Researchers discovered that the most losses – 91.2%, were caused by weather, including hurricanes and tropical storms.
Navigational errors, including running aground on reefs, caused 4.3%, while naval battles with US, Dutch or British ships were responsible for 1.4% of the sinkings.
Unlike folklore might suggest, pirates caused only 0.8% of sinkings.
Let’s look in more detail at what was called the new world treasure fleet.
What Were the Spanish New World Treasure Fleets?
The Spanish operated a fleet of vessels to transport goods back and forth to the New World, and a convoy system worked between 1566 and 1790 to try and make the journeys as safe as possible.
The convoys carried goods, including wine, oil, tools, and textiles, to the colonies and brought back lumber, sugar, tobacco, and most importantly, silver, gold, and precious gemstones.
The first ships traveled from Spain as part of the expeditions of Christopher Columbus, which began in 1492 and were funded by the Spanish monarchy.
Once Spain established the colonies, they brought in the convoy system to reduce the risk of attack from foreign navies and pirates.
Each year two convoy fleets departed Spain bound for the Americas.
Merchant craft was guarded by naval vessels, and the convoy could contain as many as 50 or more ships.
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The return journey, for example, bringing gold and silver from Mexico, often also carried silk and porcelain that Spanish merchants had transported across the Pacific Ocean from China.
Other ships departed from Panama and Venezuela and would meet in Havana Harbor, Cuba to form the convoy back to Spain.
The journey back to Spain was usually much more dangerous than the trip to the Americas.
The ships would be more heavily loaded, making them less maneuverable and more susceptible to capsizing or flooding in heavy seas.
Additionally, the ship’s crew were often tired and suffering from disease or malnutrition after being stuck on board for many months.
Historians have discovered large groups of Spanish shipwrecks around the areas where the ships would congregate.
Exceptionally high concentrations of shipwrecks can be found in bays used as ports in the Florida Keys, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.
The Ill-fated 1715 Spanish Fleet
Probably the most famous of all the new world treasure fleets is that of 1715.
While returning from the Americas, the entire 1715 fleet of ships were lost in a Hurricane and sunk along the Florida coast.
Wars disrupted trade to and from the American colonies, and the 1715 fleet was the first significant convoy since 1688.
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Accordingly, it was particularly heavily loaded with gold and silver that the Spanish badly needed.
Eleven ships grouped up in Havana, ready to depart. So desperate was the need for the cargo that, after a long delay, all the Spanish ships set sail during hurricane season.
After sailing uneventfully around the Gulf of Mexico, the ships met a tropical storm south of Cape Canaveral.
As the hurricane struck, it drove the combined fleet onto the reefs, and almost all the men aboard were killed as the ships broke and sank.
Many of the ships and their precious cargoes were salvaged by the Spanish themselves between 1715 and 1718.
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Modern treasure hunters, including the Real Eight Company, restarted the salvage operation in earnest in the 1960s along Florida’s coast.
However, several wrecks from the 1715 fleet have continued to avoid discovery.
How Many of the 1715 Spanish Fleet Have Been Found by Treasure Hunters?
The Spanish were unable to find at least four of the treasure fleet.
These were believed to be the frigate the Santa Rita y Animas, the Maria Galante, the El Señor San Miguel, and the El Ciervo, and they’ve become some of the most famous of the Spanish treasure ships never found.
These wrecks remain a mystery due to the difficulties in identifying them when an unknown wreck is discovered.
Given their wooden construction and the hundreds of years they’ve been underwater, there isn’t usually firm evidence of which ship has been discovered.
However, that doesn’t stop their often being exciting and valuable cargo on board!
The most valuable shipwreck ever found may have been one of the 1715 fleet the Spanish salvaged.
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The registered consignment was over 7 million pieces of eight, which would value the fleet’s entire cargo at over 200 million dollars today.
Records from the time report that the Spanish fully recovered treasure equaling this value from the ships.
However, it is believed that the riches aboard were far higher due to merchants under-declaring their cargos to avoid paying the 25% tax due to the Spanish King.
This theory matches the fact that in modern times, significant quantities of gold and silver have been found on wrecks believed to be from 1715.
What Is the Most Valuable Shipwreck Never Found?
Choosing from the most valuable shipwrecks never found is tricky.
Do we pick from shipwrecks with treasure never found, or also consider historical importance?
Our pick for the most valuable shipwreck ever found combines treasure and history.
In fact, it’s the ship that started the Spanish adventures in the Americas, Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa María.
The Santa Maria, Sunken Treasure and History
Santa Maria, the biggest of the ships that Christopher Columbus used on his first Atlantic Ocean voyage, was claimed by seas off the coast of Haiti on Christmas Day of 1492.
Queen Isabella of Spain had requisitioned La Santa María (The Saint Mary) for Columbus to use as his flagship.
After making the first discovery of the Americas in October 1492, Columbus continued to explore the Caribbean area in the following months seeking treasures, including gold, to take back to Spain.
On Christmas Day, while Columbus slept, the inexperienced young backup helmsman ran the ship aground.
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The Santa Maria was beyond repair, but the crew was able to salvage some of the ship’s timber and used them to build Fort Navidad (the Christmas Fort), which was the first Spanish settlement in the new world.
The rest of the ship, and it is believed some significant cargo, was abandoned and claimed by the seabed.
Numerous international expeditions have attempted to find Santa Maria and recover its financial and archeological riches.
As the vessel which brought the first Europeans to the Americas, great interest exists in seeing the wreck found.
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Unfortunately, to date, no one has been successful, and the search continues.
4 Famous Spanish Ships Never Found (With Gold)
Of the famous shipwrecks never found, many are Spanish vessels thought to have been carrying gold. Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting.
1. El Señor San Miguel
Even as one of the missing ships from the 1715 fleet, the El Señor San Miguel is particularly well-known for its potential for vast riches.
This Spanish treasure ship was a Nao class carrack vessel that was faster than the other ships in the fleet.
Due to the extra speed, it is thought that the Spanish loaded some of the most valuable treasures aboard the San Miguel as it had the best chance of outrunning pirates, foreign vessels, or even the weather.
In addition to her speed, the San Miguel had 22 cannons and a crew of 62, so she could also defend herself if needed.
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Accordingly, some experts believe that the San Miguel may have been carrying valuables, including gold, silver, and jewels, that might have a value as high as $2 billion today.
On 30th July 1715, the San Miguel is believed to have sunk off Amelia Island, which is on the Georgia/Florida border.
The ship’s extra speed may have separated it from the rest of the fleet, meaning that its exact location didn’t benefit from being seen by other ships.
The San Miguel escaped the 18th-century Spanish salvage operations and also, so far, many modern-day attempts.
2. Maria Galante
The Maria Galante was one of the smallest craft in the 1715 fleet.
She had a single mast and was generally used as a support vessel to ferry items between the bigger ships.
However, such was the importance of the delayed convoy, in 1715, the Maria Galante is generally believed to have been carrying a cargo much more valuable than her usual load of tobacco.
Since the ship disappeared in the hurricane, the Maria Galante has been searched for on numerous occasions.
Many treasure hunters believe that they have found items that have been washed ashore from the wreck.
However, the wreck itself and what it still contains remain an unlocated mystery.
3. El Ciervo
As the third of the missing 1715 fleet, El Cievro is also believed to have been carrying significant riches when she sank.
El Ciervo was a merchant ship, and it is said that she partially sailed under the protection of the well-armed San Miguel.
El Cierva may have been carrying a relatively unexciting cargo that included timber and tobacco as a merchant’s vessel.
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However, as an active trading ship, she would surely also have been carrying money in the form of gold and silver coins that her owners would have gained when they delivered their original cargo to the new world.
Like San Miguel, the El Ciervo is thought to have sunk in waters off of Amelia Island, but no sign of her has ever been found.
4. San José – The Top Secret Wreck
Our final Spanish treasure shipwreck was actually discovered in November 2015 in 600 meters (1,970 feet) of water off the coast of Columbia.
However, as the Colombian government has classified the wreck’s exact location, we thought it worth including in our list of missing ships, especially as its cargo could be worth billions as the most valuable ever.
The San José was a three-masted galleon that was part of the Spanish Armada.
As a fighting ship, the San José had no fewer than 64 cannons, and she was known as a fearsome and effective vessel during the War of the Spanish Succession.
San José was sailing as the flagship of a treasure fleet traveling from Panama to Colombia, carrying valuables collected from Spain’s South American colonies to fund the war.
In June 1708, the fleet was engaged by the British navy, and during the ensuing battle, the San José sank when her powder magazine violently exploded.
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Only 11 members of the crew of 600 survived, and the valuable cargo, worth at least an estimated $17 billion in today’s money, sank into the depths.
An expedition launched in November 2015 discovered the missing wreck, and the Colombian government claimed ownership.
Colombian President Iván Duque said, “The idea is to recover it and to have sustainable financing mechanisms for future extractions.
In this way, we protect the treasure, the patrimony of the San Jose galleon.”
The shipwreck has been found to contain incredible amounts of gold coins as well as valuable Chinese ceramics, swords, and cannons.
Colombia classified the exact location to protect the wreck, and their navy constantly patrols the area to prevent pillaging.
FAQ/Other Famous Ships Never Found
What Shipwrecks Have Not Been Found?
In addition to our missing Spanish treasure ships, famous shipwrecks that have not been found include:
Flor de la Mar – 1511
A Portuguese carrack sank while carrying treasure from the conquest of Malacca, Malaysia.
The potential value of the diamonds and gold thought to be onboard makes this one of the world’s most valuable undiscovered wrecks.
The Merchant Royal – 1641
An English vessel sunk off of Land’s End in Cornwall, England.
The trade ship remains undiscovered, although the Odyssey Marine Exploration company has extensively tried to find the ship and its gold and silver cargo.
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The SS Waratah -1909
This passenger and cargo steamship operated between Europe and Australia and earned the unenviable title of “Australia’s Titanic.”
During the ship’s second-ever voyage, she disappeared along the coast of South Africa, and no sign of the luxurious vessel or its 211 passengers and crew has ever been found.
USS Cyclops – 1918
This US Navy ship mysteriously disappeared without a trace during World War 1.
The German military denied any knowledge of capturing or sinking the ship, so it is believed that she may have sunk during a severe storm.
Many consider the USS Cyclops one of the most famous victims of the legendary Bermuda Triangle.
What Is the Oldest Shipwreck Ever Found?
The oldest shipwreck ever found is believed to be the one found off the Greek island of Dokos. The so-called Dokos wreck comes from between 2700 and 2200 BC.
What is the Most Valuable Shipwreck Ever Found?
Once it is fully salvaged, the Spanish galleon San José will be the most valuable ever found.
However, to date, one of the most valuable recovered is the Nuestra Señora de Atocha which sank in 1622.
The ship is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as being the most valuable shipwreck after the treasure hunter Mel Fisher found the ship off the Key West coast on 20 July 1985.
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Amongst the cargo estimated to be worth at least $500 million, there were 40 tons of gold and silver and 32 kg of emeralds.
Another extremely valuable ship is the SS Central America, sunk in 1857 and known as “The Ship of Gold.”
After it was discovered in 1988 using remotely operated vehicles, the salvors recovered gold worth $100–150 million.
Investigating the Spanish treasure ships never found is a fascinating and ongoing underwater cultural heritage project.
Marine archaeologists from around the world continually search for doomed ships in hope of discovering lost treasure on the ocean floor.
Because the cargo of many ships is unknown, the possibility of treasure hunting in unexpected places exists throughout the world’s oceans, particularly along the trade routes of the old world’s empires.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.