The Top 10 Most Mysterious Shipwrecks of All Time
On March 23, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Navy ended a 95-year-old mystery when they announced the discovery of the USS Conestoga, a Navy tugboat that disappeared in 1921 with 56 people on board while en route from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Unconfirmed sightings and a drifting lifeboat with the letter “C” that was found shortly after the Conestoga vanished led to intense searches near Hawaii and Mexico, but it turned out the ship barely made it 24 hours from San Francisco before sinking in a storm. The wreck was initially located in 2009 as a sonar target in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, during a survey of the many shipwrecks in the area. But NOAA didn’t examine it closer until 2014, and it took a year to confirm its identity. That happened last October, and government officials spent the next six months notifying as many surviving family members of the crew as possible.
Jim Delgado, NOAA’s director of maritime heritage, worked on the Conestoga search and has spent nearly 40 years investigating lost ships around the world. “The simple reality is that even today, ships go missing all the time without a trace,” Delgado says. To wit: UNESCO estimates there are three million ships sitting on the bottom of the ocean, and Delgado theorizes we have no clue what happened to at least one million of them, nor do we know where they are.
We asked Delgado to help us sort through that million and compile this list of the 10 most iconic missing ships waiting to be discovered.
The Wasp, a 117-foot-long privateering ship charged with sinking British vessels during the War of 1812, disappeared in the Atlantic in 1814. A Swedish ship on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Falmouth, England, made contact with the Wasp in the middle of the ocean, and reported the Wasp was en route to the Caribbean. Neither the ship nor its 173 crew members were seen again.
A member of the Texas Navy before Texas’ annexation into the U.S., the 170-foot-long San Antonio left New Orleans bound for the Yucatan Peninsula via Texas in 1842. Delgado says that, in 2012, he and some colleagues discovered a wreck that “is similar in some respects” to San Antonio, a two-masted topsail schooner. But the wreck, some 4,300 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico, remains unidentified.
One of the ocean’s most infamous mysteries is that of the Waratah, a 500-foot-long passenger steamship that vanished with 211 passengers onboard in July 1909. The British ship commonly traveled between Europe and Australia, but at the time of its disappearance, it was simply motoring from Durban to Cape Town, South Africa. According to Delgado, a ship in that vicinity may have seen the Waratah that night, “but suddenly there were two big, bright flashes of light, and it disappeared.” Various searches through the years have turned up other ships but not the Waratah. The last search took place in 2004.
Perhaps the best-known missing Navy ship, the steel-hulled Cyclops vanished with 306 men onboard en route to Baltimore from Brazil in March 1918. Theories abound on what happened to the 542-foot-long steamship, which was carrying manganese to make munitions. Some think the Germans sank it. Others believe it cracked and sank. Still others believe the German-born captain sank it on purpose. “Nobody’s really searched,” Delgado says. “The Navy looked a bit, but the ship simply vanished.
Another steel-hulled steamer, the Baychimo worked in the Canadian Arctic until October 1931 when it got trapped in the ice. Its crew didn’t want to abandon all the fur the ship was carrying, so they built a wooden structure next to it on the ice and waited. One night they went to sleep, and the next morning when they awoke, the ship was gone. They thought it had sunk, but an Inuit seal hunter swore he saw the ship drifting nearby—and he was right. It continued drifting and became known as the “Ghost Ship of the Arctic” until its last sighting off the coast of Point Barrow, Alaska, in 1969.
A World War II American submarine, the S28 went on a training dive off the coast of Oahu on July 3, 1944. The following evening, the Coast Guard cutter that was monitoring the S28 from the surface lost contact with the sub. A large slick of diesel fuel surfaced three days later, all but signaling the 49 crew members were lost. The University of Hawaii’s Undersea Research Laboratory has been leading recent search efforts.
Many people think they know what happened to the Surcouf, a 361-foot-long French submarine that likely sank somewhere off the Caribbean coast of Panama in February 1942. Around the time of its disappearance, an American steamship struck something large underwater about 70 miles from the entrance to the Panama Canal, which is where the Surcouf was heading from Bermuda. Some of the steamship’s crew thought they heard shouts in English, but they didn’t stop because they worried it was a German sub. No trace of the Surcouf—which housed a float plane in a hangar onboard the sub—has ever been found.
The subject of “The Perfect Storm,” the Andrea Gail was a 72-foot-long fishing boat that left Gloucester, Massachusetts, and headed toward the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in 1991. On October 28, the last radio call put the ship and its six crew members 180 miles northeast of Sable Island in 30-foot seas and 100-mph winds. A buoy that surfaces when a ship sinks washed up on Sable Island, and the Coast Guard found an empty life raft, but no sign of the boat. Delgado helped conduct a subsequent search in 2003 and examined a large mass of fishing net that might have been connected to a sunken vessel off the coast of Sable. Asked if he believes it was the Andrea Gail, Delgado says, “No. I think we found something, but it’s hard to say what it was.”
A tanker carrying 15,260 tons of molten sulphur, this giant disappeared in 1963 while en route from Texas to Virginia and likely sank near the Straits of Florida. A 19-day search discovered debris and life preservers but no wreck or bodies of the 39 crew members onboard. The ship’s last radio transmission indicated it was dealing with 16-foot seas with 50 mph winds.