Eight Famous Shipwrecks That Have Yet to Be Found

Eight Famous Shipwrecks That Have Yet to Be Found

Stephanie Schoppert - November 20, 2016

There are an estimated 3 million shipwrecks gracing the bottom of the ocean floor that has yet to be found. These ships tell stories of the people who sailed them, hold answers to why they ended up at the bottom of the sea and some hold untold riches. For the 3 million ships that have sunk many of them were carrying cargo of precious metals and priceless gems, it is believed that billions of dollars in riches are doing nothing but languishing on the seafloor.

Here are just a few of the most famous ships that disappeared to the depths never to be seen again. Some hold wealth in the form of gold and gems, others in the form of information about the ship and the people who sailed her. Millions of dollars have been spent trying to find these ships so it is unknown if they will ever be found.

Eight Famous Shipwrecks That Have Yet to Be Found

The Merchant Royal

The Merchant Royal first set sail in 1627 and from 1637 to 1640 the ship traded with the Spanish colonies in the West Indies. In 1641, the Merchant Royal was docked in Cadiz on her way home to London but was leaking after her long voyage in the West Indies. Despite this Captain, Limbrey heard of a Spanish ship that had caught fire and was unable to deliver treasure to pay 30,000 Spanish soldiers in Flanders. He decided that he could make himself and his men extra money by taking the treasure to Antwerp on the way home to London.

However, the Merchant Royal continued to leak and never made it to Antwerp and on September 23rd, 1641 it sank off Land’s End. The ship took 18 men with it to the depths while Captain Limbrey and 40 men survived in boats and were picked up by the Merchant Royal’s sister ship the Dover Merchant. All of the treasure on board the ship that was meant to be turned into cash to pay 30,000 soldiers were lost. Onboard the ship was 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 bars of Mexican silver, and 500,000 pieces of eight and various other coins.

The bounty aboard the Merchant Royal makes it one of the most valuable shipwrecks in history with an estimated value of over $1.5 billion. The value of the wreck has made it highly sought after and the Odyssey Marine Exploration company has spent years trying to find the ship. In 2007 it was rumored the Merchant Royal had been found but the ship was later believed to be the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. A 2009 Discovery Channel special focused on the company’s efforts to find the ship with no success.

Eight Famous Shipwrecks That Have Yet to Be Found

SS Baychimo

The SS Baychimo is a unique ship because for decades it was considered to be a “ghost ship.” The ship was built in 1914 and was used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to trade provisions for pelts with the Inuit settlements that were found along the Victoria Island coast of Canada. The company acquired the ship in 1921 and it accomplished nine successful voyages up and down the north coast of Canada. She did have some trouble in 1928 when she ran aground off Pole Island in Camden Bay which is located on the north coast of Alaska. However, she was refloated the following day.

Problems arose on October 1st, 1931 the ship was ending a trading run when it was trapped by encroaching ice. The crew left the ship and traveled over the ice for just half a mile in order to reach the town of Barrow. There they rested for two days before returning to the ship. When the men went back to the SS Baychimo they found that the ship had broken free and they were able to board.

Unfortunately, just a few days later on October 8th, the ship was stuck again and this time Hudson’s Bay Company had to send a plane to rescue the crew on October 15th. 15 men decided to stay with the ship and wait out the winter if necessary in order to be able to sail the cargo of expensive furs home. Bad luck struck again when a blizzard hit on November 24th. The men who had built a wooden shelter on the ice, emerged after the storm to find the Baychimo gone. They found the ship, with the help of an Inuit seal hunter who had seen it, 45 miles away. The men removed the most valuable of the furs and abandoned the boat.

For more than 3 decades the boat did not sink but would be randomly sighted by people over the years. Some would manage to board her but none were able to salvage the wreckage. The last sighting occurred in 1969 when the ship was stuck in the pack ice of the Beaufort Sea. The ultimate fate of the ship is unknown whether it sank or still drifts, it has yet to be found. In 2006 the Alaskan government began a project to find the “Ghost Ship of the Arctic” to learn what happened to her, but they have yet to find her.

Eight Famous Shipwrecks That Have Yet to Be Found

The Santa Maria

The Santa Maria is perhaps one of the most famous ships in history, at least for the Americans. The ship was one of the three ships used by Christopher Columbus on his journey that led to the discovery of America. The Santa Maria was the largest of the three ships on the voyage and it was led by Juan de la Cosa. Being the largest also meant that the Santa Maria was the slowest with three masts. The ship made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean fine, but the journey back was not as easy.

On December 24th, 1492, Christopher Columbus decided to get some rest after two days of being awake. The steersman saw that the night was calm and figured that he could rest too and leave the cabin boy at the helm. This was expressly forbidden by the admiral and it was clear why when the ocean currents pushed the ship into a sandbank. The cabin boy had little idea what to do and the ship ran aground at present-day Cap-Haitien, Haiti. Realizing the ship was stuck and they were stranded, Christopher Columbus told the men to take the timbers from the ship and build a fort. The fort was named La Navidad because it was built on Christmas day.

Local natives helped Columbus and his men empty the ship and build the fort before the ship disappeared into the ocean. It is believed to have later been buried by sediment. The ship has never been found, despite knowing the area that the ship sunk. In 2014, Barry Clifford believed that he had found the famous ship but an examination by experts found that the ship Clifford had found was from the 17th or 18th century and therefore far too modern to be the Santa Maria.

Eight Famous Shipwrecks That Have Yet to Be Found

Le Griffon

Le Griffon is considered by some to be the “holy grail of Great Lakes Shipwrecks” largely because it was the first sailing ship to cruise the Great Lakes. Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle was a French explorer in 1679 and he wanted his ship, Le Griffon, to sail the Niagara River, Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan in order to survey the bodies of water. La Salle was also on a quest to find a Northwest passage that would offer a sailing route from Canada to Japan. La Salle had previously built ships to sail on Lake Ontario that were launched from Fort Frontenac, it is believed by some that La Salle took one of those boats to his launch point on the Niagara River. He then built Le Griffon from parts of the ship that had sailed there and supplies that a second ship delivered.

The ship was launched somewhere around Cayuga Creek on the Niagara River for its maiden voyage on August 7th, 1679. The ship had a crew of 34 including La Salle and Father Louis Hennepin and began moving through waters that had previously only been traveled by canoe. They moved up the river passing through the St. Clair River to get to lower Lake Huron. From there they landed for a time at Mackinac Island before moving on to the entrance to Green Bay. They stopped at an island there where La Salle and some of the crew decided to use canoes to explore the opening of Lake Michigan. While he explored, he sent a six-man crew to take Le Griffon back to Mackinac Island to offload the furs they had thus far collected so that they could be picked up on the return trip.

The ship was never seen again. It is unclear whether it was lost to a storm or if it was sunk by natives or other fur traders. La Salle himself believed that the crew sunk her and made off with her cargo of furs. But the answers have never come even as numerous attempts have been made to find what is believed to be the first shipwreck of the Great Lakes. Several groups have claimed to have found Le Griffon but none have been conclusively determined to be Le Griffon. A 2015 book, The Wreck of the Griffon suggested that an 1898 find by Alber Cullis in northern Lake Huron is the most likely to be Le Griffon.

Eight Famous Shipwrecks That Have Yet to Be Found

Flor de la Mar

Flor de la Mar is considered to be one of the greatest treasures still lost at sea. The ship was used for the Portuguese India run and was the largest carrack built at the time at 400 tons. The ship made a few runs and each time was filled with struggles as the ship sprung leaks and was delayed for months for repairs. In 1506 the ship was stuck for ten months having to constantly be repaired until it was found in February of 1507 by the 8th India armada. The ship was then quickly made seaworthy by a large crew and then the Flor de la Mar and her captain were annexed into the armada. In 1510 the ship assisted in the conquest of Goa and in 1511 the conquest of Malacca.

Despite being wrought with problems the ship lasted longer than most ships that India built which typically only offered three to four years of service. It was however, dangerously unseaworthy when it was fully loaded which was largely the reason why it was only able to complete one India run. Despite knowing this Afonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese general and governor of Portuguese India, wanted to show King Manuel I the treasures that India offered. So, the Flor de la Mar was used for a return voyage to Portugal in 1511 and was laden down with a hull full of treasures. On the 20th of November 1511, the ship was caught in a storm in the Strait of Malacca. It sank and many of the crew and all her treasures were lost.

Afonso de Albuquerque managed to survive by using a makeshift raft and was able to tell of the ship’s demise and the treasures lost. The ship was said to be carrying 200 coffers of precious stones which diamonds ranging in size from half inch to the size of a man’s fist. There have been numerous attempts and disputes over trying to recover the ship. Robert Marx, an American treasure hunter, has spent $20 million trying to find and recover the wealth lost in the wreck. Many historians credit the treasure of the Flor de la Mar to be the most elaborate treasure ever lost at sea.

Eight Famous Shipwrecks That Have Yet to Be Found

San Miguel

In 1715 the War of Succession had drained Spain of its funds. The country was going bankrupt and in desperate need of money. So a treasure fleet departed from Havana, Cuba to fill the Spanish coffers with treasures from the New World. Twelve ships were sent loaded with silver and other treasures in July of 1715. However, the fleet was hit by a hurricane and eleven of the ships sunk on July 31st, 1715. 1,000 people died, 400 of which were slaves but some crew members were able to survive in boats and they were able to lead a salvage mission to recover some of the treasures from the deep. The Spanish were able to recover about half of the treasure and over the years more of the treasure has been salvaged and seven of the ships have been found. The ships sunk near present-day Vero Beach, Florida and from time to time artifacts from the wreckage still wash up onshore.

What interests treasure hunters today is the San Miguel, one of the 11 ships lost in the storm. It is believed that since the San Miguel was the fastest ship of the fleet it may have gone ahead of the rest of the fleet the day before the storm hit. Being the fastest of the fleet the San Miguel would have been given the most treasure since it would have been the most likely to outrun pirates and make it home to Spain. Therefore, finding the San Miguel could mean finding one of the largest shipwreck treasures in history.

One treasure hunter seeking the ship believes that the San Miguel may have headed for Amelia Island in order to escape the storm and some artifacts found near the island seem to confirm his hunch. Treasure hunters have been scouring sandy floors around Florida’s beaches and islands in order to find the ship which some estimate has a value of over $2 billion.

Eight Famous Shipwrecks That Have Yet to Be Found

Bonhomme Richard

The Bonhomme Richard was not a treasure ship but the frigate had one of the most impressive combat records of the American fight for independence. The ship sent sail from France in 1779 under Captain John Paul Jones on loan to the United States by the French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. It was accompanied by the USS Alliance, Pallas, Vengeance and Cerf as well as troop transports and merchant vessels.

The fate of the Bonhomme Richard came at the Battle of Flamborough Head. On September 23rd, 1779 the squadron came upon the convoy of the HMS Serapis and the HM Countess of Scarborough which was a hired armed vessel. The HMS Serapis engaged the Bonhomme Richard at around 6:00 that night. Over the next four hours both ships lost nearly half of their crew during the fighting but the British ship was better armed and victory seemed inevitable. The Serapis used its firepower to rake the Bonhomme Richard which devastated the intrepid ship. The commander of the Serapis called for John Paul Jones to surrender to which he famously replied “Sir, I have not yet begun to fight!” Jones managed to get the ships close enough to tie them together and the Serapis lost the advantage of maneuverability. Both crews tried and failed to board the other ship but Jones had the strength of numbers with a much larger crew. Eventually another ship in Jones’ squadron joined the fight and the commander of the Serapis surrendered.

There was no saving the Bonhomme Richard even though Jones and his crew tried for 36 hours to keep her afloat. They were forced to abandon her and instead sail the Serapis to the Dutch United Provinces for repairs. Several attempts have been made to find the ship since but the area that the Bonhomme Richard sunk is littered with ships which makes finding the famous ship difficult. The U.S. Navy attempted to find the ship and their efforts were filmed for Discovery Channel’s Mighty Ships series but their attempts were unsuccessful.

Eight Famous Shipwrecks That Have Yet to Be Found

HMS Endeavor

The HMS Endeavor is yet another ship that is sought more for its historical significance rather than for treasure. The HMS Endeavor was the ship that carried James Cook as he sailed around the globe from 1768 to 1771. The ship made history by being the first European ship to reach the east coast of Australia and circumnavigate New Zealand. During her voyage the ship grounded on the Great Barrier Reef in June of 1770. Cook ordered that the ship be lightened to get her to float off the reef which led to all but four of the ship’s cannons being thrown overboard. The ship was badly damaged but the crew managed to keep the ship afloat with makeshift repairs and pumping out the water. They made port and underwent full repairs before completing their journey and rounding the Cape of Good Hope on March 13, 1771. After it’s epic three year voyage HMS Endeavor was resigned to spend three years sailing to and from the Falkland Islands.

Then in 1775 it was sold into private hands and suffered the indignity of being renamed Lord Sandwich. After which she was hired as a British troop transport ship during the American War Of Independence. In 1778 it was scuttled in a blockade at Narrangansett Bay, Rhode Island. It was one of 13 ships that were deliberately sunk to try and stop the approaching French fleet. Despite knowing the relative location of the ship, it has yet to be definitively identified. The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and the Australia National Maritime Museum have spent years mapping out and searching the silty waters around Newport. They believe they have found the location of the scuttle and that the Endeavor may be one ship in a cluster of five that have been discovered. Yet the ship was not positively identified and the search continues. The abandoned cannons were recovered and are now displayed in museums around the world.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Money Week – 23 September 1641: The Merchant Royal Sinks With 1.5 Million Ounces Of Gold

All That’s Interesting – Anchor Found From Sunken British Ship That Carried 100,000 Pounds Of Gold Worth Over $1.3 Billion

Bustle – The Shipwreck From Outer Banks Is Actually Kind Of Real

Daily Mail – The Mystery Of The Arctic Ghost Ship: Abandoned 1914 Cargo Vessel SS Baychimo Drifted For Decades – But Is She Still Out There?

The Sun – The Bizarre Ghost Ship Story Of The SS Baychimo That Was Seen Sailing The Seas Unmanned For 38 YEARS

Belfast Telegraph – Is Ghost Ship Baychimo Still Sailing Across Deep Blue Sea?

Anchorage Daily News – How Artifacts From Alaska’s Ghost Ship Mysteriously Wound Up In A Fairbanks Museum?

Detroit Free Press – Le Griffon: The Great Lakes’ Greatest Mystery

Daily Press – Shipwreck Hunters Solve Mystery Of The Missing Griffin

Peto Sky News – Charlevoix Diver Believes He’s Found ‘Holy Grail’ Of Great Lakes Shipwrecks

Live Science – Treasure Hunters Find Mysterious Shipwreck in Lake Michigan

LinkedIn – Portuguese Carrack Flor do Mar or Frol de la Mar

The Star – Sunken Portuguese Galleon Sighted In Java Sea

Ancient Origins – The Lost Treasure of Flor de la Mar, Flower of the Sea

British Library – Timeline Of James Cook’s Voyages

New South Wales State Library – Captain Cook’s Voyages Of Discovery

BBC News – Endeavour: Has The Ship Captain Cook Sailed To Australia Been Found?

History Collection – The Shipwreck of the Batavia: A Tale of Mutiny and Murder

History Collection – Shipwrecked: 7 Losses at Sea that Changed the Course of History