When a new cemetery is established on dry land, the grounds are thoughtfully curated. But when a ship is lost without warning, there’s no time for such plans. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website observes, accidental shipwrecks "show the past as it really was" by "preserving a single moment in time." Sunken vessels captivate us. They inspire grief, wonder, romance—and horror. Here are stories of famous ships that went under, leaving a changed world in their wakes.
1. The R.M.S. Titanic
On the morning of April 15, 1912, hours after receiving news that the 883-foot Titanic—then on its maiden voyage, en route to New York City from Southampton, England—had struck an iceberg, one White Star official insisted that there was “no danger that Titanic will sink.” Little did he know the vessel had already gone to its watery grave. Around 1500 people lost their lives. (Filmmakers couldn’t resist dramatizing the tragedy—the first Titanic movie came out less than a month after the ship’s demise.) It wasn’t until 1985 that the doomed liner’s remains were rediscovered on the floor of the North Atlantic.
2. The Endurance
Nobody was killed when the steam- and sail-powered Endurance sank in 1915—which is amazing, given that one prominent survivor said the vessel was lost in “the worst portion of the worst sea in the world.” That survivor was explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, and he was referring to the Weddell Sea off the coast of Antarctica.
Shackleton had been leading an expedition to cross the southern continent on foot when pack ice trapped the Endurance and slowly crushed it into oblivion; it sank. Then Shackleton put himself at the head of a small rescue party that managed to save the entire crew, braving 800 miles of treacherous waters in a lifeboat, and then traversing an unmapped glacier, to find help.
In early February 2022, an expedition set off to the Weddell Sea with the goal of finding the wreck in 10,000 feet of water. Mensun Bound, the director of exploration for Endurance22, told The New York Times that Endurance is “the most unreachable wreck ever. Which makes this the greatest wreck hunt of all time.” The wreck was finally discovered in March around four miles south of its original location “in a brilliant state of preservation,” according to Bound.
3. and 4. H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror
In 1845, explorer Sir John Franklin commanded a British expedition to the Arctic whose goal was to locate the Northwest Passage, a theorized short cut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Franklin and his 128-person crew sailed in two former warships: H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror. Both vessels were ensnared by sea ice (more than once, in fact), and the men were forced to abandon them. The ships ultimately sank. Dozens of missions were sent to find the men; all failed.
Finally, after more than 160 years of searching, Erebus and Terror were spotted at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean near Canada’s King William Island in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Exactly what happened to the crew of the ships remains unknown, though cannibalism was likely involved.
5. The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald
The oceans aren’t the only place to hold famous wrecks: The Great Lakes of North America have sunken ships aplenty, and none is better known than the Edmund Fitzgerald, a.k.a. “The Queen of the Great Lakes.” The bulk freighter was crossing Lake Superior on November 10, 1975 when there was a terrible storm; the ship sank, killing all 29 men aboard. Speaking to The Detroit News four decades later, historian Frederick Stonehouse explained that “no one can definitively say why the Fitzgerald sank—it remains an open question.” Theories abound, however, ranging from huge rogue waves to flooding from a hatch failure to the ship hitting a shoal. The Fitz went down in Canadian waters and lies in two pieces 535 feet below the surface of Lake Superior. It was later immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
6. The Queen Anne’s Revenge
The Queen Anne’s Revenge is synonymous with one of its captains, the dreaded pirate Blackbeard (a.k.a. Edward Thatch or Edward Teach). Formerly a French slave ship known as La Concorde, the Revenge was taken over and renamed by the outlaw in November 1717. The following June, Blackbeard ran the ship aground off Beaufort Island, North Carolina. It might have been an accident, but it’s also possible that he ruined the ship on purpose: The Queen Anne’s Revenge had a history of developing leaks, even before Blackbeard came along, and the pirate might have decided the ship wasn’t worth fixing anymore. A private firm called Intersal, Inc. located the wreckage in 1996. Since then, the Queen Anne’s Revenge underwater wreck site has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
7. The R.M.S. Lusitania
When the Lusitania debuted in 1906, it was one of the world’s biggest passenger liners. Boasting a gross tonnage of 31,550 tons, the British ship was designed to carry more than 2000 passengers and upwards of 800 crew. It was quick, too: The Lusitania set a new industry standard in 1907 by crossing the Atlantic at an average speed of 23.99 knots. But of course, the ship is best remembered for its final voyage. On May 7, 1915—early in World War I—the Lusitania was chugging past southern Ireland when a German U-boat sank it. The attack claimed over 1100 lives, including those of 128 Americans aboard the ship. The sinking helped turn public opinion in the U.S. against Germany. America eventually entered the war as an ally of Great Britain in 1917.