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7 biggest shipwreck mysteries from history
The floors of the world’s oceans are littered with shipwrecks. The reasons why some of them sank remain a mystery to this day. Some ships, such as SS Waratah and the Baychimo disappeared without a trace and explorers are still looking for their remains to this day. Others, like the treasure ship San José, have been found, but the reason for their sinking is still unclear.
Here we take a look at some of the most mysterious shipwrecks in history.
1. SS Waratah
Built in 1908, the SS Waratah was a passenger and cargo steamship serving between England and Australia. On her second voyage, Waratah disappeared off the coast of South Africa whilst en route from Durban to Cape Town. At the time of her disappearance, the ship was carrying 211 passengers and crew.
After the Waratah failed to arrive in Cape Town, two Royal Navy cruisers were deployed to look for her but came back empty-handed. Other attempts were made to locate the ship at the time, but no trace of her was ever found.
Several attempts were made in the 1980s and 1990s to discover the wreck of the Waratah. In 1990, the South African National Underwater and Maritime Agency reported that they had found the ship. However, it was later confirmed that they had actually found the wreck of a military transport ship, the Nailsea Meadow.
As of today, the Waratah has still not been located, and the reason why she disappeared in July 1909 remains an intriguing mystery.
2. San José
Launched in 1698, the San José was a Spanish treasure ship that ran into a British patrol near Barú Island off the coast of Colombia in 1708. The San José was one of a fleet of seventeen ships sailing from Portobelo in Panama to Cartagena in Colombia that were attacked by a British squadron during the Spanish War of Succession.
Laden with treasure estimated to be worth $17 billion today, the San José exploded during battle. The cause of the explosion is unclear, though the most likely explanation is that its powder magazines were hit by enemy fire. The ship quickly sank, taking most of its 600 crew with it.
For centuries, the San José was seen as the ‘Holy Grail’ of shipwrecks due to the immense treasure that it was carrying. Many attempts were made to find the wreck, but all failed. Then, in 2015, the Colombian government announced that the wreck of the San José had finally been found. Its exact location is a closely guarded secret to prevent it from being looted. Officials plan to salvage San José and display her treasures in a museum.
3. SS Andrea Doria
The Andrea Doria was an Italian luxury liner launched in 1953. She had been in service for just three years when, on the night of 14th January 1956, she was struck by another ship, the Swedish passenger liner Stockholm, and sank the following day. 1,660 passengers and crew were rescued, but 46 people died as a direct result of the collision.
It remains a mystery to this day how the two liners collided. While Andrea Doria was sailing too fast through thick fog, her crew could still see the Stockholm on the radar.
The wreck of the Andrea Doria lies 250 feet under the surface of the Atlantic near Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts. The wreck has become a popular - if dangerous - site for experienced divers. To date, at least 22 people have died exploring the fast-deteriorating wreck of the once luxurious ocean liner.
4. The Mary Rose
Launched in 1511, Mary Rose was a warship of the Tudor navy - a role she performed for 33 years. In 1536, the ship underwent a substantial refit that added another tier of broadside guns, increasing her weight from 500 to 700 tons. On 19th July 1545, she was sent out from Portsmouth harbour to engage a fleet of attacking French galleys in the Solent. Shortly after joining the battle, the Mary Rose suddenly leaned over on her right side and water began rushing through her open gunports. Within minutes, the warship sank beneath the waves, taking 90% of her 400-strong crew with her.
The wreck of Mary Rose was discovered in 1971, and part of the remains were raised in 1982. The Mary Rose is now on permanent display in a purpose-built museum in Portsmouth.
Several theories have been put forward that seek to explain Mary Rose’s sinking. These include a gust of wind catching the ship’s sails at the wrong time; the ship being rendered top-heavy and no longer seaworthy by her refitting, or the ship being hit low on her hull by French cannon fire.
5. SS Baychimo
Originally a part of the German Navy, SS Baychimo was handed over to the British at the end of World War I. In 1921, ownership was transferred to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Baychimo was put to work as a cargo ship in the frozen north of Canada.
In 1931, the Baychimo became stuck in the ice while on its way back from picking up a cargo of fur pelts. The ship broke free a couple of times before disappearing in a blizzard, leading to the decision to abandon any attempt to rescue her as she was deemed too damaged to be seaworthy. After that, Baychimo became one of the most famous ghost ships of all time, appearing and reappearing up and down the Alaskan coast for the next three decades until a final sighting in 1969.
The wreck of Baychimo has never been found. In 2005, the Alaskan government announced that it was going to try and find the ship so the mystery of what happened to her could finally be laid to rest. To date, the wreck has not been located.
6. Le Griffon
Built in 1679 by the French explorer and fur trader René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, Le Griffon was the largest sailing ship on the Great Lakes at the time of her maiden voyage. On 7th August 1679, she set sail across Lake Erie and Lake Huron to pick up furs from an island in Lake Michigan. La Salle and most of his crew disembarked on the island before sending the ship back to Cayuga Island on the Niagara River. It was never seen again.
Many explanations have been put forward to explain Le Griffon’s disappearance. These include the ship being caught in a violent storm; the crew stealing La Salle’s cargo of expensive furs before destroying the ship, and an attack by a Native American raiding party. Despite numerous efforts, the wreck of Le Griffon has never been found.
7. The Titanic
While it’s generally accepted that the Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg on the night of 15th April 1912, some people dispute this. There have been several theories put forward over the years giving an alternative explanation of how the ocean liner sank. These include the ship being swapped out with Titanic’s sister ship Olympic and deliberately sunk as part of an insurance scam; a ten-day fire burning in Titanic’s coal bunker leading to a weakness in the ship structural integrity, and the expansion joint which held the Titanic together not being strong enough, causing the ship to break apart.
While these theories are intriguing, the general consensus remains that the Titanic sank due to its collision with an iceberg. The wreck - the most famous in the world - now lies 13,000 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic. It is rapidly deteriorating and is not expected to survive in its current state for more than another fifteen years.