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The USS Johnston before it sank

The deepest known shipwrecks in history

The USS Johnson is the second deepest known shipwreck, lying at a depth of more than four miles | Image: Wikimedia Commons

The biggest ships are mighty, impressive feats of engineering. There's just something about the huge warships and cruise liners that defy logic. How can vessels that size, carrying large amounts of passengers and equipment, possibly float on water? But on the opposite side, it can be shocking as well to see them lying motionless and dead underwater.

Furthermore, there's the old adage that we know more about outer space than we do about our deepest oceans. While that may not be completely true, 'underwater' seems like a place where survival is bordering on impossible and the odds are only made more unlikely the deeper down you go.

On that note, below, deep below, we have a selection of the nethermost wrecks in history.

USS Samuel B Roberts

The USS Samuel B Roberts snatched the record for the deepest shipwreck ever discovered on 26th June 2022. The World War Two battleship was found broken into two pieces at a depth of 6,985 metres off the coast of the Philippine island of Samar.

Colloquially known as 'Sammy B' or 'Sam Buca', the famous ship was sunk in October 1944 during the 'Battle off Samar' when it found itself fighting a fleet of much larger Japanese warships. The heroics and bravery of the men onboard meant the USS Samuel B Roberts was later referred to as "the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship".

USS Johnston

The Guinness Book of Records tells us that the deepest part of the USS Johnston officially lies 6,468.9 metres down (over four miles) in the Emden Deep in the Philippine Trench. Subsequently, the record for the deepest shipwreck dive was also broken here.

USS Johnston also went down after being struck by enemy fire during the 'Battle off Samar'. Of the 327 crew members that set sail the previous year, 187 perished. The wreck was initially discovered by Victor Vescovo and his team on 25th May 2019, and her identity was confirmed on 20th March 2021.

SS Rio Grande

Until the discovery of the USS Johnson in 2019, the SS Rio Grande had the unfortunate honour of being the deepest-known shipwreck at 5,762 metres. On 30th November 1996, 55 miles north east off the coast of Brazil in the Atlantic, the SS Rio Grande, a German blockade runner, had been downed by two US destroyers in January 1944 with 72 survivors.

It’s worth noting that blockade runners were often used to transport cargo and the SS Rio Grande was no exception. It was carrying 500 tons of tin, 2,370 tons of copper, and 311 tons of cobalt. In March 2018, the price of cobalt alone stood at $95,250 a ton.

SS Alpherat

Sometimes it’s not all about discovering a sunken vessel for historical research or posterity, sometimes it's just about recovering lost goods. Until 2011, the SS Alpherat held the record for being the deepest shipwreck to have its cargo salvaged.

In February 1997, Blue Water Industries retrieved a quantity of blister copper and tin ingots from the wreck of the SS Alpherat at 3,770 metres. The Dutch-owned merchant ship was discovered on 21st December 1997 about 150 miles south of Cape Palmas, West Africa. It was bombed by enemy aircraft in 1943, but on this occasion, all 23 passengers and crew survived.

SS City of Cairo

On 6th November 1942, the SS City of Cairo, a British passenger steamboat, was hit by torpedos fired from a German U boat and sank 480 miles south of St. Helena in the Atlantic. Of the 302 crew, 107 perished.

In 2011, the wreck was discovered by Deep Ocean Search at a depth of 5,150 metres. By September 2013, 100 tonnes of silver coins had been recovered, worth approximately £34 million. To date, this is the deepest salvage operation ever undertaken. However, with ever-increasing advances in technology, it’s probably not the last.

The Search for Flight MH370

On 8th March 2014, a Malaysian Airlines operated Boeing 777 disappeared somewhere over Malaysia with 239 people on board. The following efforts to locate the debris inadvertently uncovered the wrecks of two ships, one wooden, one iron, thought lost forever beneath the waves. They were discovered almost 34 kilometres apart at depths of between 3,540 and 3,960 metres.

The wooden ship is believed to be either the W. Gordon, a wooden vessel that disappeared in 1877 on a voyage between the UK and Australia, or the Magdala, lost in 1882 sailing between Wales and Indonesia. The iron ship is most likely the West Ridge that disappeared sailing from the UK to India in 1883, but it could also be the Kooringa (1894) or the Lake Ontario (1897).

What sets these two wrecks apart is their sheer remoteness. The wreck of the Titanic is 595 kilometres off the Canadian coast in the Atlantic Ocean, but these two vessels reside over 2,333 kilometres off the coast of West Australia, in the vast depths of the Indian Ocean.