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Treasure chest next to a shipwreck

6 sunken treasures that are waiting to be found 


Whilst there aren’t many treasures these days marked on a map neatly annotated with a red cross, there are several lost riches out there still waiting to be found. Of all the locations, our oceans and seas probably harbour the largest collection of them.

The United Nations has estimated at least three million shipwrecks are lying across our ocean floors. Some of those wrecks could be of immense historical significance and even contain monetary treasure.

So, let’s wade through the watery debris and uncover six of the most significant sunken treasures that are just waiting to be found.

1. Flor de la Mar

The Holy Grail of shipwrecks said to be the 'richest vessel ever lost at sea', is a large 16th-century Portuguese ship. One of the finest vessels of its time, it was put to use across the Indian Ocean. Over the years, its seaworthiness deteriorated and before repairs could be conducted, the Flor de la Mar was summoned to assist in the Portuguese conquest of Malacca (modern-day Malaysia).

Upon her return after the campaign in 1511, the leaky ship sank in a storm off the coast of Sumatra. She was said to be laden with riches equivalent to over $2 billion for the Portuguese king. Treasure hunters have spent millions attempting to find the wreckage but so far all have been in vain.

2. The Merchant Royal

Known as the ‘El Dorado of the Seas’, the Merchant Royal was an English 700-ton galleon built in the early 17th century. Captained by John Limbrey, the ship was on its way back from trading with the colonies in the New World when it stopped in Cadiz, Spain, for some well-needed repairs. Whilst there, Limbrey saw an opportunity to make more money and agreed with Spanish authorities to transport treasure to pay 30,000 troops garrisoned in the Belgian city of Antwerp.

The Merchant Royal was then believed to have been loaded with ‘100,000 pounds in gold and as much value in jewels’. Estimates vary wildly, placing that hoard in today’s monetary terms somewhere in the region of a few hundred million pounds, to over a billion. Along the journey, the heavily-laden Merchant Royal sprung a leak and began taking on water. The vessel eventually sank on 23rd September 1641, about 30 miles off the Cornish coast.

The ship's anchor was recovered by fishermen in 2019, other than that, no sign of the rest of the ship nor its treasure has ever been found.

3. Santa Maria

When Italian explorer Christopher Columbus famously set sail on the first of his voyages to the Americas in 1492, he took with him a fleet of three ships – the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. The Santa Maria was the biggest of the lot and the one which carried Columbus when it sank.

The story goes that on their return from the New World on Christmas Eve 1492, the sailor in charge of steering the boat decided to have a snooze. Against regulation, he put the cabin boy at the helm. Rather predictably, the boy ran the ship aground just off modern-day Haiti. After stripping the boat of any valuables, the crew abandoned the ship and the vessel sank the next day.

Although the exact resting place of the Santa Maria remains a mystery to this day, it hasn’t damped the spirits of treasure hunters, due to the immense historical significance the find would present.


4. 1715 Treasure Fleet

In the summer of 1715, eleven Spanish ships laden with treasure from the Americas, set sail from Havana, Cuba, heading for home. Needless to say, they didn’t make it after encountering a hurricane off the coast of Florida. All eleven sunk and over 1,000 lives were lost at sea. Other ships, including those operated by pirates, swarmed in afterwards to salvage as much of the hoard as they could.

To this day, the 1715 Fleet remains a treasure trove as divers continue to find gold and silver from the wreckages some 300 years on. Pieces of treasure are even said to wash up on the beaches of Florida every now and again.

5. RMS Republic

The RMS Republic was a steam-powered ocean liner built in Belfast in 1903. It was owned and operated by White Star Line. If that name rings a bell, it’s because that’s the company that also owned the doomed Titanic, which famously sunk in 1912. Three years before that cataclysmic event, the RMS Republic went down off the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, after a collision with another boat due to thick fog. Six people died but around 1,500 were saved before the boat went under.

Described as the 'Millionaires Ship' due to the number of wealthy Americans who sailed on her, the RMS Republic was said to be carrying American gold coins worth $250k when she sank. Rumours also abound that she was laden with $3 million worth of other coins. If the hoard exists, it might be worth well over $1 billion in today’s money.

The wreck was discovered in 1981 and sadly no treasure was found along with it. However, many still believe the vaults containing its precious cargo are still buried, intact and waiting to be unearthed.

6. Cinco Chagas

The Portuguese ocean-going ship known as Cinco Chagas was sunk during the Battle of Faial Island in the Anglo-Spanish War in 1594. Faial Island is an island of the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean belonging to Portugal. When the Cinco Chagas went down, it was rumoured to be carrying 2,000 tons of treasure, including 22 chests filled to the brim with diamonds, rubies and pearls.

That’s a lot of loot with modern estimates valuing the cargo at potentially over a billion dollars. Although treasure hunters have tried, the wreckage has never been found, mainly due to the depth at which the ship is believed to now rest.