With nearly three-quarters of the planet covered in water, what lies beneath the surface hides more than undiscovered marine species — it also holds treasures lost at sea.
Sea crossings were recorded as early as 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. As people explored and met other cultures, trading began, using ships to transport goods not found in their own lands. Ships were also used to move cargo, including precious minerals mined from the Earth.
Yet, all of marine history has not been smooth sailing. What happened to ships that never arrived with their precious cargos now inspires the dreams of treasure hunters. Although there are many known — and unknown — treasures still lost, we examine some of the greatest underwater treasures ever found.
Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes
The Spanish Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes was a 36-gun frigate that met its demise in 1804. The ship was transporting silver, gold and spices from Uruguay to Spain. When the British Navy demanded to inspect the ship just off the coast of Portugal, the Spanish refused.
The ship lost a battle against four British Royal Navy ships, and it sank to the bottom of the Atlantic with more than 200 people on board. It took only one bullet to cause her sinking, with survivors rescued only to become prisoners.
Odyssey Marine Exploration first discovered the ship in 2007, mistaking it for a British ship thought to have sunk in 1641. However, the finders were not the keepers of the massive $500 million worth of treasure found in the recovery of Las Mercedes.
The Spanish government sued the exploration team in 2012, retrieving all the booty that was rightfully theirs — 17 tons worth of silver and hundreds of gold coins.
Ever since, an extensive touring exhibit of the treasure and the shipwreck’s history has traveled to several Spanish public museums, including the Spanish Naval Museum and the National Archaeological Museum of Spain.
A British cargo ship, the SS Gairsoppa was returning from India carrying a heavy load of silver ingots. When a heavy storm appeared, the captain changed the ship’s course to head toward Ireland instead of England. Unfortunately, it was 1941 during the height of World War II.
A German plane spotted the ship and sent its location to a German U-boat. Shooting a torpedo at the SS Gairsoppa, the ship went under, claiming the lives of its 85 passengers.
Treasure seekers knowing there was silver to be found long sought the ship after the war ended. It was Odyssey Marine’s team that discovered it in 2011 — more than 14,000 feet below the surface. Since the discovery, more than 110 tons of silver ingots have been recovered from SS Gairsoppa.
After subtracting operating costs, the Odyssey team got to keep 80 percent of the find, giving 20 percent to Her Majesty’s Treasury. Letters, bottles, teapots and silk sheets were also recovered and presented in the “Voices From the Deep” exhibition at London’s Postal Museum.
The ancient port of Caesarea, Israel, was constructed by Herod the Great soon after the Romans conquered the area during Cleopatra’s rule in 96 BC.
Under the authority of the Roman Empire and a Byzantine capital until the Crusades, Caesarea was an important port town of the ancient world.
In 2016, two divers near the port uncovered a sunken ship from the Roman days.
The 1,700-year-old shipwreck was filled with bronze statues, coins and pottery that are now part of Israel’s Antiquities Authority.
But that wasn’t the only treasure found in the Mediterranean Sea in recent years.
Ancient docks of Caesarea spent centuries succumbing to saltwater but eventually revealed that there was gold to be found as well!
Divers exploring the ancient underwater docks in 2015 found 2,000 gold coins dating back to 900 A.D. The coins were, in fact, minted in Cairo, Egypt, and Palermo, Italy.
The treasure went on display in 2018 at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
Nuestra Senora de Atocha
When the Nuestra Senora de Atocha sank off the Florida Keys in 1622, all but five aboard the Spanish ship perished.
The ship was sailing en route to its last stop in Havana when it sank due to a hurricane. It was returning from Colombia and Panama, where it had stocked its available cargo space with gold, gems, copper, silver, indigo and tobacco for King Philip IV.
Treasure-seeker Mel Fisher discovered the shipwreck in 1985, calling it the “Mother Lode,” as it was valued at $450 million.
You can see some of the discoveries at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida.
The Atocha wasn’t the only Spanish ship lost in 1622. It was part of a 28-ship convoy, each packed to the brim with jewels, gold and silver.
The hurricane that sank the Atocha scattered the ships, of which eight were lost. One of these was the Santa Margarita galleon.
After the discovery of the Atocha, Mel Fisher’s Treasures company began searching for the Santa Margarita. Although he passed away in 1998, his company continues to be run by his family.
In 2009, nearly $20 million worth of gold bars, silver coins and up to 10,000 pearls were uncovered. The search continues, as records indicate there is another $50 million of silver bars and coins missing.
1715 Treasure Fleet
Spain didn’t give up on getting its gold after the loss of its 1622 ships.
In 1715, a fleet of ships departed from Havana to Spain, loaded with gold and gems found across Central and South America.
Known as the 1715 Treasure Fleet, divers in just 15 feet of water discovered $1 million worth of gold coins and jewels in 2014.
The divers were contacted when a family strolling along the aptly named Treasure Coast of eastern Florida found a gold chain and filigree washed ashore.
Many ships carrying treasure for Spain began in Cartagena, Colombia. In 1708, the San Jose galleon was loaded with emeralds, gold and silver when the British attacked.
The ship lost the battle and sank, with its goods lost to the ocean floor — as well as nearly 600 crew members.
It took nearly 300 years for the San Jose to be discovered, with its $20 billion treasure intact.
Called the “Holy Grail” of shipwrecks, it is believed to have been found near the Rosario Islands located off the coast of Colombia, but the Colombian government keeps its discovery under wraps.
The ancient city of Heracleion, also called Thonis-Heracleion, was an important port city during its time. Said to be founded around 8th century BC, the city was based at the mouth of the Nile River.
Catastrophe struck when the city experienced severe earthquakes that triggered a giant tsunami. Buildings collapsed into the sea, and the town was abandoned.
An underwater archaeologist named Frank Goddio found the ancient city below the sea in 2000. A real-life Atlantis, statues, buildings and the remains of the old city were preserved by the saltwater. He also found jewels, coins and artifacts that make the discovery priceless.
An exhibit, “Osiris, Sunken Mysteries of Egypt,” revealed by the Arab World Institute includes 250 of Goddio’s discoveries and was on display in Paris in 2015, with several pieces on loan from Egyptian museums.
Heracleion was not the only city washed away by a tsunami. The Roman city of Neapolis suffered the same fate off the coast of North Africa nearly 1,700 years ago.
Neapolis lost nearly 50 acres when an earthquake struck in 365 AD, sending a power tsunami its way. It is believed the same 8.0 earthquake was so massive it caused severe damage to Alexandria, Egypt, and the island of Crete as well.
Divers off the coast of Tunisia uncovered the underwater city’s remains in 2017. Roman columns from buildings along with the home goods and tools of the decimated population have been recovered.
Researchers even found former streets intact in the ruins that stretch acres under the sea.
SS Central America
The United States had its own treasures being shipped during its growth. The steamer ship SS Central America sailed between the United States and Central America in the 1850s.
During one of its sails in 1857, the 280-foot ship encountered a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina. Of the 578 passengers, 425 went down with the ship. The ship was also carrying 30,000 pounds of gold from the Gold Rush, which caused a financial crisis when it was lost.
The “Ship of Gold” was long on treasure hunters’ radars and was finally found in 1988 by Tommy Thompson. Thompson and his investors fought bitterly over the claim to the $50 million gold discovery leading the hunter to go into hiding.
Although Thompson was caught, he hasn’t revealed the whereabouts of the treasure. In 2014, another $40 million was recovered from the sunken ship.
Before the 1715 Fleet was destroyed by a hurricane, Florida’s Treasure Coast felled other ships carrying jewels and treasure.
The San Miguel dates back to 1660 and was a Spanish aviso ship meant to sail fast and swift and deliver correspondence between Spain and its colonialists. The ship, which is said to have brought a plague to the indigenous people of Florida, never made it back to Spain.
Two surfers spotted a canon in the surf in 1987, letting a lifeguard on the Jupiter, Florida, beach know. The lifeguard found the canon and kicked off a recovery project.
Although the ship was not as laden with treasure as the 1715 Fleet, divers uncovered a 78-pound ingot of silver as well as rare silver and gold coins.
A steamship carrying more than 200 passengers set sail from Savannah, Georgia, to Baltimore in 1838, carrying the wealthy and elite who could travel by steamship.
One passenger was Congressman William B. Rochester of New York, who went down with the Pulaski when it sank due to a boiler explosion. Only 59 survived the tragic event that made the news long before the Titanic.
In 2018, marine archaeologists found gold coins 40 miles off the coast of North Carolina, where the Pulaski sank in just 45 minutes.
The 14 gold and 24 silver coins are valued to be about $12,000, and now a full expedition is underway to find more from the ship’s remains.
Steamship North Carolina
Another passenger steamer sank just two years after the Pulaski, this time off the coast of South Carolina.
The 200-foot steamer called the North Carolina had a run in with her sister ship, but thankfully was able to get its passengers to safety, as it was just off the coast. The cargo, however, went down with the ship.
Blue Water Ventures, the same team recovering the Pulaski, found the wreckage just 80 feet below the surface. During their first dive they were able to uncover coins from the 1830s and ’40s, including $5 gold coins, now valuable to collectors. Other items found include fine china and silverware.
The area is known as “Copper Pot,” and recreational divers are permitted to dive around the wreckage.
Traveling between what is presumed to be Oman to China, the Belitung was a 9th-century ship following the Maritime Silk Route for trade.
Carrying a load of ceramics made in Ding kilns, the Arabian ship was off course when it sank in the Singapore Strait.
Fishermen made the rare discovery of the Belitung, also known as the Tang, in 1998. Sunken in the Indonesian Gelasa Straight, the artifacts on board included 60,000 pieces of mostly Changsha ware — valued at roughly $90 million.
The collection is now part of the ArtScience Museum in Singapore.
The London fully rigged galley ship known as the Whydah Galley was a slave ship captured by the pirate Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy in the early 1700s.
With a shipload of loot, the pirates sailed the ship up to Colonial America, where she ran aground off the coast of Cape Cod.
Underwater archeological explorer Barry Clifford discovered the Whydah in 1984. Carrying 200,000 artifacts, silver, gold and canons, Clifford’s is the only authenticated pirate shipwreck discovery in the world. His discovery was worth $400 million.
The loot was on display in a touring exhibit that traveled the U.S. from 2007 to 2014. It is now on display at the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth, Massachusetts.
Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama lost his Esmeralda to a storm in 1503.
Sailing in the Arabian Sea from India back to Europe, da Gama’s uncle captained the ship in the famed explorer’s armada.
The ship was discovered near Oman in 1998 but was not excavated until 2017. Inside, navigational tools from the Age of Discovery may not be as valuable as Spanish gold, but they hold historical significance.
An archaeology project continues today.
Named for the Greek island Antikythera, a 2,000-year-old sunken vessel was uncovered in the Aegean Sea.
Although no one knows the background of the ship, she was quite the find, having carried bronze and gold coins and marble statues, valued between $120 million and $160 million.