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The oceans on our planet are hiding extraordinary things. Be they shipwrecks or fish surviving from the prehistoric era, it’s no secret that there’s plenty to be discovered on the watery sea beds that lie beneath the surface.
In fact, we know less about our oceans than we do about space. In the 21st century, we can take for granted how vast and endless the oceans on Earth actually are. For treasure hunters trying to find a lost shipwreck or sunken treasure, it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Let’s explore some of the most famous shipwrecks and lost treasures that hide in the murky waters of our planet. Maybe, one day, you’ll find one.
La Santa Maria–Christopher Columbus’ Largest Vessel
La Santa Maria (also known as La Gallega) was one of the ships Christopher Columbus used to sail across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in 1492. It was also the largest of the three. The other two boats were smaller, the Niña and Pinto, crewed by less than 30 sailors each and able to carry up to 50 tons. Santa Maria could take up to 110 tons, and had a larger crew. However, she was the ship who didn’t return from their endeavor.
The crew traveled around the Caribbean islands, gathering expensive items like spices and gold over late 1492. They went to Cuba, smoked tobacco, and saw the natives had a plentiful supply of gold. When they asked the natives where they got the gold, they were told it came from ‘bohio’.
Abandoned by Pinto
Afterwards, the fleet set sail for Bohio, as the natives supposedly told Columbus where it was. However, ‘bohio’ was also the name the native Cubans used to refer to as home. Natives they had detained on board Pinto told them about Bohio.
But interestingly, at this point there was a disagreement between the captain of Pinto and Columbus, and the Pinto went off on their own gold hunting adventure.
Did the natives tell them something different and direct them somewhere else?
On Christmas Eve 1492, the ship was still sailing in the Caribbean. Columbus hadn’t been sleeping well and had been awake for two days. It was a calm night, so he went to sleep and so did the steersman. They had a cabin boy at the helm in control of the ship, which was forbidden.
Unsurprisingly, that was the last night on board La Santa Maria. She softly struck a sandbank and became embedded in the bottom. When the boy alerted everyone to the problem, the admiral woke, and they attempted to sink an anchor. It became clear the boat was stuck, and they sailed to the nearby Nina for help.
After the sinking, lots of the timber atop the ship were taken to land and used to build a fort called La Navidad in Haiti. That makes the wreckage of La Santa Maria even harder to find, as they stripped it to the bare bones.
Underwater archaeologist Barry Clifford claimed to have discovered the Santa Maria shipwreck in 2014 off the north coast of Haiti, but after further examination, UNESCO published a report stating it was impossible as they dated the hull fastenings to the 17th or 18th century.
La Santa Maria, and whatever treasures she holds, are still under the sea waiting to be discovered.
Flor de la Mar (Flower of the Sea)
The Flor de la Mar was a Portuguese Carrack ship that could carry up to 400 tons. She was one of the most first-class vessels on the sea and was built to transport supplies between Portugal and India. However, she only completed one full run and was then repurposed as a ship for transporting supplies from battles.
She served in plenty of battles, including the battle of Diu in 1509, and the conquest of Goa in 1510, as well as the conquest of Malacca in 1511. As a result, the ship had been shot at plenty of times and had received its fair share of bumps and scrapes.
In 1511, the iconic ship was no longer considered safe, but was still used in the conquest of Malacca, which was the center of the East Indies trade. Afonso de Albuquerque used the ship to transport the incredible treasure they’d looted from the Sultan of Malacca’s palace.
Sailing Through a Storm
However, it wasn’t long before the ship found trouble. A storm hit as she sailed through the Strait of Malacca next to modern day Malaysia. On 20 November 1511, the ship sank off Timia Point. Albuquerque was rescued from a raft, but over 400 men drowned and the cargo was lost forever.
Although there are rumors that locals plundered the wreckage, or the Portuguese rescued the treasure. The latter seems unlikely given the exorbitant amount of lives lost.
Deciding who owns the cargo of the Flor de la Mar is a controversial topic. Malaysia, Indonesia and Portugal all argue over who it belongs to. Luckily, it’s not been found yet, so now the question remains purely hypothetical.
An explorer called Rick Langrehr searched for the shipwreck in 2020 and reportedly found a silver coin. But it’s not been confirmed if it’s from the Flor de la Mer.
The wreckage, and its rich contents, still lie hidden in the seabed.
SS Waratah–Australia’s Titanic
We meet our first (and only) passenger ship on the list. The SS Waratah was a steamer ship built in Glasgow, Scotland, for the Blue Anchor Line to trade between the UK and Australia. It was on the seas for less than a year when it sank without a trace in July 1909.
The SS Waratah was a grand vessel with a promenade and first-class cabins. She had 432 passenger berths and over 600 dormitory spaces, as well as 154 crew. Her maiden voyage started in London on 5 November 1908, and she left Cape Town on 27 November, arriving in Adelaide, Australia, on 15 December 1908.
On 27 April 1909, she left England on her second trip to Australia with 193 steerage passengers and plenty of cargo. She landed in Adelaide on 6 June and was loaded up with 970 tons of lead ore before going further to Melbourne. The SS Waratah made it there through strong winds on 11 June and then kept on to Sydney.
There, they loaded the ship with cargo for her return journey. No passengers, but there were 7,800 bullion bars on board and wool, frozen meat, dairy and flour. By the time she left Australia, she had 100 passengers, and a convict on board too.
It berthed at Durban, South Africa on 25 July and a passenger, Claude G. Sawyer, departed and sent a cable to his wife saying he thought the ship was top heavy. He had been booked on until Cape Town but got off in Durban after having dreams he thought were premonitions that the ship would sink, saving his life.
Disappearance of a First-Class Vessel
On 26 July 1909, the ship departed from Durban with 211 passengers and crew on board, laden with bullion and other cargo. She was expected to arrive in Cape Town on 29 July, but never made it.
Another steamer, the Clan MacIntyre, sighted the ship on the 27 July. They sailed past each other and exchanged brief messages containing the details of the ships and their destinations. Waratah was traveling at 13 knots, and disappeared into the horizon at around 9.30am. That was the last confirmed sighting of the ill-fated ship.
The area was then battered by terrible weather and a hurricane. The captain of the Clan MacIntyre said it was the worst weather he’d experienced as a captain in 13 years.
Another ship called the Harlow supposedly spotted the smoke from a steamer–enough that they were concerned the ship was on fire, later in the day at around 5.30pm on 27 July. As night came, the crew reported seeing the steamer’s lights, but they were still around 12 miles away. There were two bright flashes, and then the lights vanished. They put it down to brush fires on the shore, which were apparently common and didn’t record the event in their logbook.
We have seen no trace of the ship since. When the SS Waratah didn’t arrive in Cape Town, there was initially no alarm raised, as ships could often be late. However, when ships that had left Durban later than the SS Waratah arrived in Cape Town, people panicked.
On 1 August the first search parties went out looking for the lost ship but they had to turn back because of bad weather. The Royal Navy sent cruisers, but one ship experienced waves so large her hull strained and she was put into dry dock.
On 10 August, a cable reached Australia stating a Blue Anchor vessel had been spotted a long distance into the sea heading for Durban. But it wasn’t the SS Waratah. Other ships joined in the efforts, searching the waters to find the potentially drifting ship. Search parties covered some 14,000 miles trying to find the ship, zig-zagging across the ocean, but to no avail.
Four months later, it was officially placed missing. Another search party funded by the families of the Waratah passengers searched 15,000 miles but found nothing.
Search efforts have continued across the rest of the 20th century. Emylyn Brown took a particular interest, leading searches in 1983, 1989, 1991, 1995, and 1997. A wreck was discovered in 1999, but was later revealed to be the Nailsea Meadow, a cargo ship that was bombed by German U-boats in World War Two. Emylyn gave up looking in 2004.
So far, the SS Waratah remains elusive, and her expensive cargo is still lurking under the sea.
Another Portuguese carrack ship, this one was sunk during the Anglo-Spanish war in June 1594. At the time of sinking, the Cinco Chagas was rumored to be carrying 2,000 tons of treasure.
The ship saw a lot of action during her life, and before sinking, she had wintered in Mozambique and was reportedly in poor condition. The English also set it on fire and over 500 people lost their lives.
On board it had 22 treasure chests filled with pearls, rubies, and diamonds worth an estimated $20 billion (according to 2017 values, so much higher now). The English took prisoners captive, who told them the treasure was for the king of Spain and Portugal.
The English sank the ship, and the treasure was apparently never recovered. It’s rumored to be in depths one mile deep in the Atlantic Ocean, south of Pico Island.
While treasure hunters have looked for the shipwreck plenty of times because of the worth of its cargo, nothing has ever been found. They put this down to the depth of the waters in that particular location.
Merchant Royal–The El Dorado of the Sea
Now, this one’s a doozy.
Launched in 1627, the Merchant Royal was a Galleon full-rigged merchant ship used in the 17th century. It lasted approximately 14 years at sea, completing trips across the Spanish colonies in the West Indies whom England had an alliance with.
After one such trip, the ship was reportedly laden with riches from the New World, ready to bring home and line the pockets of Spanish and English aristocracy. Captain John Limbrey called in at Cadiz, Spain, for some repairs. The Merchant Royal had been troubled by some leaks on her journey across the Atlantic.
A Spot of Extra Cash
While anchored in Cadiz another ship carrying treasure due for Antwerp caught fire, and Captain Limbrey–ever the opportunist–took advantage of the situation and offered to take the treasure to Antwerp for them on his way home, making a bit of extra money with his stop.
Unfortunately, the leak issue wasn’t resolved, and not long after leaving the port, the Merchant Royal sprung another leak in her hull. It battled storms and its own broken pumps as it made its way back to England.
Just 34 miles off the coast of Cornwall, it was clear the ship had taken on far too much water and the crew had to be rescued as it sank. 18 men drowned, but Captain Limbrey and 40 others survived after being picked up by the Dover Merchant.
The treasure hoard on board is discussed heavily and has been since the sinking of 1641. It’s rumored to be as high as £20 billion ($24.9 billion) and as low as £250 million ($312 million). Based on the recordings of what was on board, more accurate estimates look to be around £1 billion ($1.25 billion) in today’s money.
There’s been an entire project set up to find the wreckage of the Merchant Royal. The Odyssey Marine Exploration company has been attempting to locate the Merchant Royal shipwreck but has had no luck so far.
In 2007, they found a shipwreck and recovered around $500 million of silver and gold coins. The wreckage was initially rumored to be the Merchant Royal, but the identity of it is still officially unknown. There are theories that it’s Nuestra Seńora de las Mercedes, a Spanish ship that sunk in 1804.
A huge anchor was pulled out of the depths 20 miles from Land’s End in Cornwall in March 2019 and was later confirmed as being a potential for the Merchant Royal as it’s from the same type the ship would have used.
So far, the Merchant Royal evades discovery, keeping its riches firmly at the bottom of the ocean.
There are plenty of ill-fated ships who have met a watery end on the oceans of our planet, and plenty of them are hiding riches and wealth within their hulls. It’s easy to see why people dedicate their lives to finding the wrecks, as one lucky strike can result in enough gold to be set for life.
However, in cases like the SS Waratah, it’s more likely to be families and relatives who want to know where their ancestors’ ultimate resting place was.
Will they ever be discovered? Only time can tell.