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'Treasure from the Girona' painting

11 shipwrecks in British waters you can visit today

Image from the Ulster Museum's "Treasures of the Girona" exhibit | (CC BY-4.0)

The naval and seafaring history of the United Kingdom is legendary and dates back centuries. With this rich history, it’s no surprise there is a wealth of shipwrecks to explore, sitting deep below the waves. Experts estimate there are over 37,000 wrecks around the British Isles and here are eleven you can visit today.

1. Blockships at Scapa Flow

Sitting in the sheltered waters of the Orkney Islands, not far from South Ronaldsay, you’ll find a popular location for shipping since the beginning of history. Scapa Flow is a well-known site in the world of travel, trade and also warfare.

In both the First and Second World Wars the protection of Scapa Flow was paramount. The Allied Forces regularly sunk their own vessels to use them as blockships, preventing access to Scapa Flow. Many of these blockships can be seen in the bay, including the Tabarka, one of the last to be sunk and attracting divers from around the world.

2. SS Mohegan

The SS Mohegan is one of many sunken vessels found in the Graveyard of Ships, the seafaring name for The Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall. Its treacherous nature gave it its name and many vessels have met their end on this rugged spot of coastline.

The SS Mohegan was a luxury steamship on its way to New York in 1898. It was ripped apart by the Manacles, an infamous set of rocks in the peninsula. Why the Mohegan hit the Manacles is still a mystery, as there is no conceivable reason for it to be sailing so close to the dangerous coastline. 106 people died and the wreck is a popular site for history-loving divers.

3. SS Maine

The SS Maine sits just a few miles from the cost at Bolt Head in South Devon. It sits upright on the seabed and was sunk during the First World War. In March 1917, the SS Maine met its end along with a cargo on its way from London to Philadelphia. She hadn’t even made it out of British waters before a U-boat took her out, but thankfully there were no casualties.

4. HMS London

The HMS London is one of the oldest ships you can still dive into around the British coast. It was launched from Kent in 1656 and found fame for its role in the restoration of the monarchy. The HMS London was one of the ships that brought Charles II back from exile and it carried the future James II home on this journey.

The sad end of the ship came due to an accidental explosion of gunpowder in 1665. Samuel Pepys’ diary records the explosion taking place in the Thames Estuary and killing around 300 people. The ship’s remains were found in the depths of Southend-on-Sea. Its age means it is exceptionally fragile but there are still opportunities to explore fascinating relics including naval instruments and a gun carriage.

5. Helvetia

The Norwegian ship Helvetia was on its way from New Brunswick in Canada to Swansea Harbour in October 1887. It was packed with over 500 tonnes of timber and had nearly made it into the dock when disaster struck.

Just five miles from the harbour, strong winds forced the ship to remain at sea overnight with hopes for better conditions the next day. Unfortunately, it was instead blown to Rhossili Bay where it was damaged beyond repair and the crew had to abandon it. Its precious timber cargo was spread across the beach, and you can still see parts of the Helvetia protruding to this day.

6. MV Captayannis

The MV Captayannis, better known locally as the Sugar Boat sunk in 1974. It was carrying a shipment of East African sugar up to the Tate and Lyle Factory in Greenock. A heavy storm and extreme winds caused the boat to drift towards an oil tanker, ripping a huge hole in its hull. The ship veered towards nearby sandbanks and the crew was able to safely board a rescue boat. The boat has laid on its side ever since, becoming a home for birds and marine life.

7. James Egan Layne

The James Egan Layne was an American ship built by the famed Delta Shipbuilding Company of New Orleans. At over 400 feet long, it was one of America’s so-called ‘Liberty Ships’. These ships were vital to the Allied shipping effort as they were quick to build and put to work.

In March 1945, the Layne was hit by a German torpedo, slicing a huge hole in the side of the ship. Its final resting place is the sandy seabed at Whitsands Bay, and the dive site is suitable for most experienced divers.

8. SS Sphene

The SS Sphene is one of the newest discoveries in British waters and is recognised as one of the most attractive wrecks to explore. She ran aground on the Mouls near Cornwall in 1946 after unseasonably bad weather.

She was a coat transport ship and now lies around 75-82 feet below the surface. Her bow and stern are still standing and provide a home for many types of marine life. Since 2022 the bow section is no longer safe to explore, but other areas can still be enjoyed.

9. The Abyssinia

The Abyssinia is one of many vessels sunk around the Farne Islands in Northumberland, one of the most dangerous shipping areas in all of the UK.

The Abyssinia is one of the largest German steamships sunk in the area. It sits around 15 to 18 metres deep and divers can enjoy it freely with the chance to spot grey seals as they swim through the gully and take a look at the ship’s boilers.

10. La Girona

The shipwreck of La Girona lies just off the coast near the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland. She was a majestic and impressive Spanish galleon that first set sail as part of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

She is one of the most historically important wrecks around Britain and divers require a licence to explore her remains. She sank with over 1,300 people on board and just seven are believed to have survived, making it a tomb as much as a shipwreck. Many leading diving companies organise tours to explore La Girona.

11. The Colossus

The Colossus was one of Admiral Nelson’s famous gunships, first setting sail in 1787. She was anchored in the Isles of Scilly in 1798 waiting for better weather to return to Portsmouth from Naples with a cargo of Greek pottery and wounded servicemen following the Battle of the Nile. Whilst anchored, a storm tore away the anchor cables and the ship sank.

It has been a popular diving site for centuries, with professional divers working on the wreck regularly. The wreck has protected status, but divers can follow a designated dive trail to explore and view the best of the site.