6 Valuable Wrecks Still Waiting to Be Found

The S.S. 'Arctic' sinking was both a tragedy and a scandal.
The S.S. 'Arctic' sinking was both a tragedy and a scandal. / James E. Butterworth after Nathaniel Currier, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

There are roughly 3 million shipwrecks in Earth’s oceans, lakes, and rivers, according to an astounding estimate by UNESCO. Many wrecks lie where you’d expect them to be, like the World War II wreck-yards of the West Pacific and North Atlantic. And there are wrecks where you’d never think, including the desert of Namibia and under cornfields in Kansas. There are even wrecks in New York City: After the twin towers fell on 9/11, excavators found a shipwreck under the rubble from 1773—they dated the ship by examining the rings in its wood planks.

Like celebrities, there are the A-list shipwrecks. The Titanic, the Lusitania, and the Endurance have their own films, books, fan clubs, museum exhibits, and consumer products. But there’s another class of wrecks: the missing, forgotten, and the quietly but eye-poppingly valuable.

Several in this class have been missing for centuries, some carrying millions (or billions) in lost treasure. The key to finding them, according to famed wreck hunter David Mearns, isn’t to laboriously search the seabed, but to do months or years of research on every detail of a ship, including how it was built, where it went down, and any eyewitness accounts. Anyone can get started from their house, Mearns told me in an interview for my new book, Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic.

Here are six of the world’s most lucrative and culturally valuable lost wrecks still waiting to be found.

1. Flor de la Mar  // 1511 

The centerpiece of Portuguese military power in 1502, the Flor de la Mar was effectively a looting ship. For a decade, the vessel made trips from Portugal to Ormuz (in today’s Iran), Malacca (in Malaysia), and Goa (in India), bringing arms and muscle to colonized people, and returning to Portugal with gold and other valuables. In 1511, when it was returning back from Malacca overloaded with 400 men and thousands of pounds of gold—believed by some to be worth more than $2 billion today—the Flor de la Mar sank during a storm near Sumatra.

If the 500-year-old rumors are true, the Flor de la Mar could be the most valuable shipwreck on Earth. There’s just one wrinkle: The high-value cargo has caused Portugal, Malaysia, and Indonesia to all claim rights over the future bounty, leaving a much smaller slice for the enterprising explorer who finds it.

2. S.S. Waratah // 1911

The S.S. Waratah was a British passenger ship often called Australia’s Titanic—but it launched in 1908, four years prior to the actual Titanic. It had capacity for 750 passengers and 150 crew and made one round-trip voyage from London to Sydney. But on its second voyage, the ship was reportedly overweighted and prone to small fires breaking out from an uninsulated boiler. It disappeared somewhere near Cape Town, South Africa, in a historic shipwreck graveyard known for rough waters, bad weather, and rocky outcrops.

Made more famous by its parallels to the Titanic—both ships were considered technologically advanced, geared toward the wealthy, and wholly unsinkable—efforts to find the Waratah picked up in the 1980s. Groups of researchers have made at least six expeditions around the presumed wreck site with no luck. “I‘ve spent 22 years of my life searching for the ship,” Emlyn Brown, the chief wreck hunter, told The Guardian when he finally gave up in 2004. “I’ve exhausted all the options. I now have no idea where to look.”

3. S.S. Arctic // 1854

Map of North-West Atlantic showing position of collision between the ships Arctic and Vesta, 27 September 1854
The northwest Atlantic showing the position of the collision between the Arctic and Vesta in 1854 / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Launched in 1850, the Arctic was luxurious and quick—able to cross the Atlantic in 10 days. The private ship was built with a generous subsidy from the U.S. government to help the American-based Collins Line compete with the British Cunard Line. Four years into its transatlantic service, the Arctic collided one night in 1854 with a French steamer near Newfoundland (incidentally, not far from where the Titanic disappeared along the same route heading in the opposite direction). At the time of its sinking, the Arctic was a tragedy that killed almost 300 people. But it was made worse by the horrifying revelation that the crew had scrambled into the too-few lifeboats and all the women and children on board had died.

The Arctic tragedy undercut the longstanding belief—which a 2012 study found to be largely a myth—that women and children are traditionally rescued first. Usually they’re last, if they’re rescued at all. Despite this embarrassing and avoidable tragedy, no inquiry was ever held in the U.S. or UK, and neither the ship nor its doomed passengers have ever been found.

4. Merchant Royal // 1641

The most lucrative wreck recovered to date was the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon carrying so much gold that it took two months to load the riches evenly before the ship set sail in 1622. When it was found by bombastic wreck-hunter Mel Fisher in 1985 off the Florida Keys, the gold was valued between $400 and $450 million.

The Atocha’s hoard, however, would be dwarfed by that of the Merchant Royal, an English ship believed to be carrying 100,000 pounds of gold worth more than $1 billion today. It sank somewhere around the Isles of Scilly near Cornwall, England. In 2007, members of a professional salvage company working under the codename Black Swan Project thought they had found the ship. Their haul—a disappointing $500 million, considering they were expecting more than twice that—raised questions about the wreck’s true identity. The vessel was later deemed to likely be the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a galleon that sank in 1804—meaning the Merchant Royal and all its gold may still be sitting somewhere near Land’s End, England, waiting to be found.

5. Santa María // 1492

The famous trio of ships—the Niña, Pinta, and the Santa María—carried Christopher Columbus on his ocean crossing to Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti) in 1492. But only the first two ships made it back to Spain.

According to reports of the voyage, tension grew between Columbus and Juan de la Cosa, a cartographer and the Santa María’s on-board master. Things came to a head when the Santa María ran aground near Hispaniola on Christmas day 1492. Columbus blamed de la Cosa and considered asking the queen to charge him with treason and abandonment of the ship. (She didn’t.) The ship was lost and has never been found.

Based on its cultural value alone, explorers have made repeated expeditions to find the Santa María. One archaeologist thought he had located the wreck in 2014, but UNESCO nixed the finding, saying it was a different ship based on its copper fastenings, which weren’t used until centuries after Columbus.

6. Amelia Earhart’s Airplane // 1937

An aerial photo of Nikumaroro, the possible resting place of Amelia Earhart's plane
The South Pacific island of Nikumaroro, the possible resting place of Amelia Earhart's still-missing plane / Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory // Public Domain

One of the 20th century’s most enduring mysteries isn’t a shipwreck, but the wreck of an airplane lost at sea. Aviator Amelia Earhart made history repeatedly in her long-haul flights across the Atlantic, and as the first person to ever fly between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. But in 1937, on the final leg of her attempt to circumnavigate the world, her plane—with navigator Fred Noonan and herself in the cockpit—went down in the Pacific. Earhart and Noonan were declared lost at sea and presumed dead, but the plane wreckage has never been found.

Decades of explorers have longed to find the wreckage, which may lead to Earhart’s existing remains, and thus solve the century-old mystery of what really happened. In 2017, National Geographic partnered with Bob Ballard, the man who found the Titanic, to search for conclusive evidence. Based on radio and logbook data, Ballard and the team narrowed the search area to the waters off the small Western Pacific island of Nikumaroro. But DNA testing of evidence from the area was inconclusive, and Earhart’s mystery endures.