The sunken treasures waiting for explorers
It’s estimated there are around three million undiscovered shipwrecks around the world. Some are being searched for right now – and a few of those might even contain riches.
For as long as humans have been traversing the seas, ships have been lost to the depths. And although most vessels that sink beneath the waves are eventually forgotten, some remain prized treasures sought for generations.
The 16th-century Portuguese vessel Flor de la Mar, for example, has been the centre of countless search expeditions eager to recover her priceless lost cargo of diamonds, gold and precious stones. Ships like Captain Cook’s Endeavour, on the other hand, remain sought after for their invaluable historical significance.
From a Cornish wreck known as ‘El Dorado of the Seas’ to some of the most iconic vessels in seafaring history, here are some of the most famous shipwrecks that are yet to be discovered.
Santa Maria (1492)
The notorious explorer Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World in 1492 with three ships: Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. During the course of Columbus’ voyage, which took him to the Caribbean, Santa Maria sank.
According to legend, Columbus left a cabin boy at the helm while we went off to sleep. Shortly after, the inexperienced boy ran the ship aground. Santa Maria was stripped of any valuables, and it sank the following day.
The whereabouts of Santa Maria remain a mystery to this day. Some suspect it lies on the seabed near present-day Haiti. In 2014, the marine archaeologist Barry Clifford claimed he had found the famed wreckage, but UNESCO later dispelled his discovery as a different ship some two or three centuries younger than Santa Maria.
Early 20th-century painting of Christopher Columbus’ caravelle, Santa Maria.
Image Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Flor de la Mar (1511)
Flor de la Mar, or Flor do Mar, is one of the most renowned undiscovered shipwrecks anywhere on Earth, thought to be filled with vast diamonds, gold and untold riches.
Despite being notorious for springing leaks and running into trouble, Flor de la Mar was called to assist in Portugal’s conquest of Malacca (in present-day Malaysia) in 1511. Upon its return voyage to Portugal, laden with riches, Flor de la Mar sank in a storm on 20 November 1511.
It’s thought Flor de la Mar was in or near the Strait of Malacca, which runs between modern Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, when she sank.
The wreck, and its reputed $2 billion of treasure and precious stones, have yet to be found, though not for lack of trying: treasure hunter Robert Marx has spent around $20 million searching for the ship, which he has described as “the richest vessel ever lost at sea”.
Artist’s Depiction Of The Flor De La Mar Shipwreck.
The Merchant Royal (1641)
The Merchant Royal is an English vessel that sank in 1641, off of Land’s End in Cornwall, England. A trade ship, The Merchant Royal was carrying a cargo of gold and silver believed to be worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions today.
Nicknamed ‘El Dorado of the Seas’, The Merchant Royal has attracted a great deal of interest over the years, with amateur treasure hunters and marine archaeologists alike looking for it.
A search operation by Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2007 uncovered a wreckage, but coins from the site suggested they’d discovered Spanish frigate rather than the much-prized Merchant Royal.
In 2019, the ship’s anchor was retrieved from the waters off of Cornwall, but the ship itself has yet to be located.
4. Le Griffon (1679)
Le Griffon, also referred to as simply Griffin, was a French vessel operating in America’s Great Lakes in the 1670s. She set sail into Lake Michigan from Green Bay in September 1679. But the ship, along with its crew of six men and cargo of fur, never reached its destination of Mackinac Island.
It’s unclear whether Le Griffon fell prey to a storm, navigational difficulties or even foul play. Now referred to as the ‘holy grail of Great Lakes shipwrecks’, Le Griffon has been the focus of many search expeditions in recent decades.
In 2014, two treasure hunters thought they’d uncovered the famed wreckage, but their discovery turned out to be a far younger ship. A book, titled The Wreck of the Griffon, outlined in 2015 the theory that a Lake Huron wreckage discovered in 1898 is actually Le Griffon.
Digitised image of Le Griffon from page 44 of “Annals of Fort Mackinac”
Image Credit: British Library via Flickr / Public Domain
HMS Endeavour (1778)
The English explorer ‘Captain’ James Cook is known for landing off Australia’s east coast aboard his ship, HMS Endeavour, in 1770. But the Endeavour had a long and illustrious career after Cook.
Sold off after Cook’s voyage of discovery, Endeavour was renamed the Lord Sandwich. She was then employed by Britain’s Royal Navy to transport troops during the American War of Independence.
In 1778, Lord Sandwich was sunk, intentionally, in or near Newport Harbour, Rhode Island, one of several sacrificed vessels used to form a blockade against approaching French ships.
In February 2022, marine researchers declared they’d discovered the wreck, a claim which was corroborated by the Australian National Maritime Museum. But some experts said it was premature to suggest the wreck was the Endeavour.
HMS Endeavour off the coast of New Holland after being repaired. Painted in 1794 by Samuel Atkins.
Las Cinque Chagas (1559)
In 1594, a Portuguese ship named for the five wounds of Christ sailed for Lisbon from Goa with a cargo of 3,500,000 Portuguese Cruzados, plus 22 treasure chests of diamonds, rubies and pearls estimated to be worth well over $1 billion in today’s dollars—hundreds of years of rumors and legends claim it to be the richest ship to ever sail from Asia.
Las Cinque Chagas was a 1200-ton Portuguese carrack that was 150 feet long and 45 feet wide—an utter monster for that era. In addition to treasure it carried more than 1000 people, of whom 400 were reported to be slaves. (Imagine that, in such a small space.) But between the islands of Pico and Faial, she was attacked by British privateers—the Mayflower, the Royal Exchange and the Sampson—who attacked for two full days before she caught fire and went down off the coast of the Azores on July 13, 1594. It’s suspected that the wreck could lie in water as deep as 2,500 feet.
And so The Five Wounds remains the stuff of legend. It’s found in virtually every dive book of sunken treasure, both those for serious salvage operators and armchair dreamers.
The San Jose (1698)
The San Jose was a Spanish galleon that reportedly carried two tons of platinum along with emeralds and other gems valued at estimates ranging from $2 billion to $17 billion. It is the richest wreck of the Western hemisphere. In 1708, she ran into the British Navy off of the coast of Colombia during the War of Spanish Succession—and while trying to outrun them, sank in more than 800 feet of water. Fast forward nearly 300 years. A private company named Sea Search Armada—whose founders included the late actor Michael Landon—claims to have located the wreck. And it probably has. But political intrigue keeps this wreck and its treasure concealed by the waters still.
S.S. Waratah (1911)
The S.S. Waratah was a British passenger ship often called Australia’s Titanic—but it launched in 1908, four years prior to the actual Titanic. It had capacity for 750 passengers and 150 crew and made one round-trip voyage from London to Sydney. But on its second voyage, the ship was reportedly overweighted and prone to small fires breaking out from an uninsulated boiler. It disappeared somewhere near Cape Town, South Africa, in a historic shipwreck graveyard known for rough waters, bad weather, and rocky outcrops.
Made more famous by its parallels to the Titanic—both ships were considered technologically advanced, geared toward the wealthy, and wholly unsinkable—efforts to find the Waratah picked up in the 1980s. Groups of researchers have made at least six expeditions around the presumed wreck site with no luck. “I‘ve spent 22 years of my life searching for the ship,” Emlyn Brown, the chief wreck hunter, told The Guardian when he finally gave up in 2004. “I’ve exhausted all the options. I now have no idea where to look.”
S.S. Arctic (1854)
The northwest Atlantic showing the position of the collision between the Arctic and Vesta in 1854 / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Launched in 1850, the Arctic was luxurious and quick—able to cross the Atlantic in 10 days. The private ship was built with a generous subsidy from the U.S. government to help the American-based Collins Line compete with the British Cunard Line. Four years into its transatlantic service, the Arctic collided one night in 1854 with a French steamer near Newfoundland (incidentally, not far from where the Titanic disappeared along the same route heading in the opposite direction). At the time of its sinking, the Arctic was a tragedy that killed almost 300 people. But it was made worse by the horrifying revelation that the crew had scrambled into the too-few lifeboats and all the women and children on board had died.
The Arctic tragedy undercut the longstanding belief—which a 2012 study found to be largely a myth—that women and children are traditionally rescued first. Usually they’re last, if they’re rescued at all. Despite this embarrassing and avoidable tragedy, no inquiry was ever held in the U.S. or UK, and neither the ship nor its doomed passengers have ever been found.
What happens if You find a sunken treasure?
Although you might think the rules surrounding ‘finders keepers’ apply to a sunken treasure ship, this is unfortunately not true. Under salvage law, you must at least try to return the treasures to their rightful owner. As a result, upon discovery, you’d need to notify the government which controlled those waters.
Before you consider just not telling anyone, the IMO states dishonest conduct could invalidate any claim to the treasures.
Although you may be entitled to a percentage of the find in this case, a brighter future awaits you in international waters. If no one claims ownership of the sunken vessel, you could be allowed to take as much treasure as you can carry!!