The Most Amazing Underwater Wrecks and What They’ve Taught Us

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Jun 27, 2018

by BRIDGET DE MAINE, Online Writer

Brought to you by the Australian National Maritime Museum 

Have you ever wondered what lives beneath the surface of the sea? In the vast reaches of the world’s oceans, there are entire, unexplored pockets of history and mystery, still waiting to be uncovered. Of those gems we have discovered however, fascinating lessons have been learnt through their exploration. Here are some of the world’s most impressive underwater wrecks that have changed the way we understand maritime history.

The Queen Anne’s Revenge, USA

Captained by the infamous pirate Blackbeard, the unearthing of this craft in less than seven metres of water off the coast of North Carolina revealed more than just a pirate’s booty. Several chilling weapons were found with the wreck, confirming the buccaneer’s reputation for bloodthirstiness including ‘double-headed’ cannonballs and a series of nine-inch bolts typically fired out of cannons to terrify any opponent into swift surrender.

The shipwreck graveyard of the Fourni Archipelago, Greece

A regular route for ancient trade flowing between Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, the Fourni archipelago in the north eastern Aegean sea was confirmed as a veritable treasure trove of sunken ships when an expedition in 2015 discovered a staggering 45 shipwrecks in the immediate area in just 22 days. As some ships date back to 525 B.C., the remains, including previously land-bound amphorae (large ceramic jars meant for transportation of water, wine or oils), transformed the way archaeologists understood the trading habits of the ancient Greeks, confirming just how extensive the trading network reached in ancient times.

San José, Colombia

It took 300 years to locate this Spanish galleon – known colloquially as the “holy grail” of shipwrecks owing to its silver, gold and emerald-heavy booty, with a value estimated to be in excess of 20 billion dollars – after it sunk off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia in 1708. In addition to giving archaeologists clues regarding the economic, social and political environment of the 18th century, the somewhat stunted discovery was a lesson in modern treasure hunting tactics and considerations: a host of governments, private investors and corporations are still locked in an ongoing legal battle as to who gets the goods when the treasure is finally recovered from the ocean floor.

SS Central America, USA

Frequently touted as the greatest lost treasure in American history, there was over US$100 million worth of gold in dust, coin and bar form uncovered from the 150-year-old vessel, 2134 metres below sea level off the coast of South Carolina. The spoils dredged from the wreckage of this gold rush era craft aren’t just of notable monetary value, however: a number of rare photographs and ambrotypes (images stored on glass plates), as well as guns, gold-rimmed spectacles and puzzle rings, were found at the site.

Vasa, Sweden

It wasn’t an aggressive, seaborn enemy that dealt the Vasa its final, deadly blow but the combination of an impatient king, Gustav II Adolf, an inexperienced engineer and strong gusts of wind that sunk the world’s most advanced ship after a journey of less than a nautical mile in front of a farewelling crowd in 1628. Almost perfectly preserved by the cold, oxygen-starved seas of the Baltic when it was finally raised in 1961, the lessons learned as a result of its sinking weren’t just gleaned from the wreckage. This communication disconnect between project goals and outcomes is frequently cited as a case study in the management world (‘Vasa syndrome’) and the wreck – on display at Stockholm’s Vasa Museum – stands as a reminder that no matter how impressive a ship may look, reliability needs to remain an important factor.

RMS Titanic, North Atlantic

Few wrecks have captivated such widespread and ongoing fascination as that of the RMS Titanic, which lies 3.8 kilometres below surface level in the North Atlantic after its claims to be ‘unsinkable’ were dashed in 1912. Interest in the wreck itself was also firmly renewed by deep-sea explorer James Cameron (who also directed the 1997 film Titanic) when he set a world record with his inaugural exploration of the ship’s interior. Cameron has since captured on film the coveted sights of the ship’s Turkish baths, crew’s quarters and a wealth of the personal artefacts lost following the tragedy.

Bismarck, France

Similarly, Cameron’s exploration of the German battleship the Bismarck, threw light on another enduring, maritime mystery. His dive to the Bismarck’s final resting place, which was able to probe deeper than previous expeditions, sparked a debate about the nature of its sinking in 1941: was it due to British gunnery or did German scuttling have a hand? These gutsy explorations of both the Titanic and the Bismarck are featured as part of the immersive exhibition, James Cameron – Challenging the Deep at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Illuminating the deep-sea discoveries with cinema-scale projections, underwater recordings as well as costumes and props from his feature films, visitors experience the expertise of Cameron’s underwater obsession and how his dedication has been able to help solve some of the sea’s greatest mysteries. 

Book your tickets to James Cameron – Challenging the Deep (29 May – 30 January 2019) online to skip the queue.