A shipwreck is the remains of a ship that has wrecked, which are found
either beached on land or sunken to the bottom of a body of water.
Shipwrecking may be deliberate or accidental. In January 1999, Angela
Croome estimated that they were about 3 million shipwrecks
worldwide (an estimate rapidly endorsed by UNESCO and other
3 State of preservation
3.1 Construction materials
Salinity of water
3.3 Loss, salvage and demolition
3.4 Depth, tide and weather
4.1 Legal aspects
4.2 Notable salvages
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
The 1626 Sparrow-Hawk wreck is displayed at the
Pilgrim Hall Museum
Pilgrim Hall Museum in
Historic wrecks are attractive to maritime archaeologists because they
preserve historical information: for example, studying the wreck of
Mary Rose revealed information about seafaring, warfare, and life in
the 16th century. Military wrecks, caused by a skirmish at sea, are
studied to find details about the historic event; they reveal much
about the battle that occurred. Discoveries of treasure ships, often
from the period of European colonisation, which sank in remote
locations leaving few living witnesses, such as the Batavia, do occur
as well. Some contemporary wrecks, such as the oil tankers Prestige or
Erika, are of interest primarily because of their potential harm to
the environment. Other contemporary wrecks are scuttled in order to
spur reef growth, such as Adolphus Busch and the Ocean Freeze. Wrecks
like Adolphus Busch and historic wrecks such as SS Thistlegorm
are of interest to recreational divers that dive to shipwrecks because
they are interesting to explore, provide large habitats for many types
of marine life, and have an interesting history.
Well known shipwrecks include the catastrophic Titanic, Britannic,
Lusitania, Estonia, Empress of Ireland, Andrea Doria, or Costa
Concordia. There are also thousands of wrecks that were not lost at
sea but have been abandoned or sunk. These abandoned, or derelict
ships are typically smaller craft, such as fishing vessels. They may
pose a hazard to navigation and may be removed by port
Main article: Shipwrecking
County of Peebles, used as breakwater in
Punta Arenas at the Strait of
Poor design, improperly stowed cargo, navigation and other human
errors leading to collisions (with another ship, the shoreline, an
iceberg, etc.), bad weather, fire, and other causes can lead to
accidental sinkings. Intentional reasons for sinking a ship include
forming an artificial reef; due to warfare, piracy, mutiny or
sabotage; as part of target practice; or to remove a menace to
navigation. A ship can be also used as breakwater structure.
State of preservation
The Vasa is one of the oldest and best-preserved ships salvaged in the
world, owing to the cool temperatures and low salinity of the Baltic
Many factors determine the state of preservation of a wreck:
the ship's construction materials
the wreck becoming covered in sand or silt
the salinity of the water the wreck is in
the level of destruction involved in the ship's loss
whether the components or cargo of the wreck were salvaged
whether the wreck was demolished to clear a navigable channel
the depth of water at the wreck site
the strength of tidal currents or wave action at the wreck site
the exposure to surface weather conditions at the wreck site
the presence of marine animals that consume the ship's fabric
the acidity (or pH), and other chemical characteristics of the water
at the site
The above-mentioned, especially the stratification (silt/sand
sediments piled up on the shipwrecks) and the damages caused by marine
creatures is better described as "stratification and contamination" of
shipwrecks. The stratification not only creates another challenge for
marine archaeology but also a challenge to its primary state, the
state that it had when it sank.
Stratification includes several different types of sand and/or silt,
as well as tumulus and encrustations. These "sediments" are tightly
linked to the type of currents, depth, and the type of water
(salinity, pH, etc.), which implies any chemical reactions that would
lead to affecting the hypothetical/possible main cargo (such as wine,
olive oil, spices, etc.).
Besides this geological phenomenon, wrecks also face the damage of
marine creatures that create a home out of them; primarily being
octopuses and crustaceans. These creatures affect the primary state
because they move, or break, any parts of the shipwreck that are in
their way, thereby affecting the original condition of amphorae, for
example, or any other hollow places. Finally, in addition to the
slight or severe destruction marine animals can create, there are also
"external" contaminants, such as modern-day commodities, or
contemporary pollution in bodies of water, that as well severely
affect shipwrecks by changing the chemical structures, or even
destroying or devastating even more of what is left of a specific
All the above offers great challenges to the marine archaeologist when
attempting to bind the pieces of a certain shipwreck together. Despite
these challenges, if the information retrieved does not appear to be
sufficient, or a poor preservation is achieved, authors like J.A.
Parker claim that it is the historical value of the shipwreck that
counts, as well as any slight piece of information and/or evidence
that is acquired.
The Wreck, by Knud-Andreassen Baade c.1835
Exposed wooden components decay quickly. Often the only wooden parts
of ships that remain after a century are those that were buried in
silt or sand soon after the sinking. An example of this is the Mary
Steel and iron, depending on their thickness, may retain the ship's
structure for decades. As corrosion takes place, sometimes helped by
tides and weather, the structure collapses. Thick ferrous objects such
as cannons, steam boilers or the pressure vessel of a submarine often
survive well underwater in spite of corrosion.
Propellers, condensers, hinges and port holes were often made from
non-ferrous metals such as brass and phosphor bronze, which do not
Salinity of water
Freshwater and low saline
Shipwrecks in some freshwater lakes, such as the
Great Lakes of North
America, have remained intact with little degradation. In some sea
areas, most notably in
Gulf of Bothnia
Gulf of Bothnia and Gulf of Finland, salinity
is very low, and centuries-old wrecks have been preserved in
reasonable condition. However, bacteria found in fresh water cause the
wood on ships to rot more quickly than in seawater unless it's
deprived of oxygen. Two shipwrecks, the USS Hamilton and the
USS Scourge, have been at the bottom of
Lake Ontario since they
sunk during a violent storm on August 8, 1813, during the
War of 1812.
They are in "remarkably good" condition.
Wrecks typically decay rapidly when in seawater. There are several
reasons for this:
Iron-based metals corrode much more quickly in seawater because of the
dissolved salt present; the sodium and chloride ions chemically
accelerate the process of metal oxidation which, in the case of
ferrous metals, leads to rust. Such cases are prominent on deep-water
shipwrecks, such as the
RMS Titanic (which sank in 1912), RMS
Lusitania (which sank in 1915), and the Bismarck (which sank in
1941). However, there are some exceptions, the RMS
Empress of Ireland lies in the saltwater portion of the St. Lawrence
River, but is still in remarkably good conditions.
Unprotected wood in seawater is rapidly consumed by shipworms and
small wood-boring sea creatures. Shipworms found in higher salinity
waters, such as the Caribbean, are notorious for boring into wooden
structures that are immersed in sea water and can completely destroy
the hull of a wooden shipwreck.
Loss, salvage and demolition
This section does not cite any sources. Please help improve this
section by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material
may be challenged and removed. (May 2013) (Learn how and when to
remove this template message)
The shipwreck of SS Austria on 13 September 1858
An important factor in the condition of the wreck is the level of
destruction at the time of the loss or shortly afterwards due to the
nature of the loss, salvage or later demolition.
Examples of severe destruction at the time of loss are:
Being blown onto a beach, reef, or rocks during a storm, termed
"grounding" (e.g., Royal Adelaide)
Collision with another ship (e.g., SS Andrea Doria)
Catastrophic explosion (e.g., HMS Hood), steamship boilers often
explode when water covers them during the process of sinking
Fire that burns for a long time before the ship sinks (e.g., MS
Foundering, i.e., taking in so much water that buoyancy is lost and
the ship sinks (e.g., the
RMS Titanic and the HMHS Britannic); some
ships with a dense cargo (e.g., iron ore) may break up when sinking
quickly and hitting a rocky seabed
Enemy action from aerial bombs or submarine torpedoes that may cause
destruction before sinking (e.g., the RN Roma and the HMS Barham)
After the loss the vessel's owners may attempt to salvage valuable
parts of the ship and/or its cargo; this operation can cause further
Shipwrecks in shallow water near busy shipping lanes are often
demolished or removed to reduce the danger to other vessels. On
charts, some wreck symbols have a line under the symbol with a depth
mark, which indicates the water depth above the wreck.
Depth, tide and weather
On the seabed, wrecks are slowly broken up by the forces of wave
action caused by the weather and currents caused by tides. Also more
highly oxygenated water, which promotes corrosion, reduces the
strength of ferrous structural materials of the ship. Deeper wrecks
are likely to be protected by less exposure to water movement and by
lower levels of oxygen in water.
Extreme cold (such as in a glacial-fed lake,
Arctic waters, the Great
Lakes, etc.) slow the degradation of organic ship materials. Decay,
corrosion and marine encrustation are inhibited or largely absent in
Main article: Marine salvage
Often, attempts are made to salvage shipwrecks, particularly those
recently wrecked, to recover the whole or part of the ship, its cargo,
or its equipment. An example was the salvage of the scuttled German
High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow in the 1920s and 1930s. The unauthorized
salvage of wrecks is called wrecking.
Main article: Law of salvage
Shipwreck law determines important legal questions regarding wrecks,
perhaps the most important question being the question of ownership.
Legally wrecks are divided into wreccum maris (material washed ashore
after a shipwreck) and adventurae maris (material still at sea),
which are treated differently by some, but not all, legal systems.
Christie’s auction in Amsterdam for the cargo of the
Dutch East India Company
Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship ‘’Geldermalsen’’ (1747)
Wrecks are often considered separately from their cargo. For example,
in the British case of the Lusitania  QB 384 it was accepted
that the remains of the vessel itself were owned by the insurance
underwriters who had paid out on the vessel as a total loss by virtue
of the law of subrogation (who subsequently sold their rights), but
that the property aboard the wreck still belonged to its original
owners or their heirs.
Military wrecks, however, remain under the jurisdiction–and hence
protection–of the government that lost the ship, or that
government's successor. Hence, a German
U-boat from World
War II still
technically belongs to the German government, although the Third Reich
(the government of the time) is long-defunct. Many military wrecks are
also protected by virtue of their being war graves.
However, many legal systems allow the rights of salvors to override
the rights of the original owners of a wreck or its cargo. As a
general rule, non-historic civilian shipwrecks are considered fair
game for salvage. Under international maritime law, for shipwrecks of
a certain age, the original owner may have lost all claim to the
cargo. Anyone who finds the wreck can then file a salvage claim on it
and place a lien on the vessel, and subsequently mount a salvage
operation (see Finders, keepers). The State of North Carolina
questionably claims "all photographs, video recordings, or other
documentary materials of a derelict vessel or shipwreck or its
contents, relics, artifacts, or historic materials in the custody of
any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions" to be its
Some countries assert claims to all wrecks within their territorial
waters, irrespective of the interest of the original owner or the
salvor. Wartime wrecks have different legal considerations, as
they are often considered prizes of war, and therefore owned by the
navy that sank them.
MSC Napoli beached off Branscombe
Some legal systems regard a wreck (and/or its cargo) to be abandoned
if no attempt is made to salvage them within a certain period of time.
English law has usually resisted this notion (encouraged by an
extremely large maritime insurance industry, which asserts claims in
respect of shipwrecks which it has paid claims on), but it has been
accepted to a greater or lesser degree in an Australian case and
in a Norwegian case.
The American courts have been inconsistent between states and at
Federal level. Under Danish law, all shipwrecks over 150 years old
belong to the state if no owner can be found. In Spain, wrecks vest in
the state if not salvaged within 3 years. In Finland, all property on
board shipwrecks over 100 years old vests in the state.
The British Protection of Wrecks Act, enacted to protect historic
wrecks, controls access to wrecks such as
Cattewater Wreck which can
only be visited or investigated under licence. The British Protection
of Military Remains Act 1986 also restricts access to wrecks which are
sensitive as war graves. The Protection of Military Remains Act in
some cases creates a blanket ban on all diving; for other wrecks
divers may visit provided they do not touch, interfere with or
penetrate the wreck. In the United States, shipwrecks in state waters
are regulated by the
Abandoned Shipwrecks Act
Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987. This act is
much more lenient in allowing more open access to the shipwrecks.
Following the beaching of the MSC Napoli, as a result of severe damage
incurred during European storm Kyrill, there was confusion in the
press and by the authorities about whether people could be prevented
from helping themselves to the flotsam which was washed up on the
beaches at Branscombe. Many people took advantage of the confusion and
helped themselves to the cargo. This included many
BMW motorbikes and
empty wine casks as well as bags of disposable nappies (diapers).
The legal position under the
Merchant Shipping Act 1995
Merchant Shipping Act 1995 is that any
such finds and recovery must be reported within 28 days to the
Receiver of Wreck. Failure to do so is an offence under the
Merchant Shipping Act and can result in a criminal record for theft by
finding. After several days, the police and Receiver of Wreck, in
conjunction with the landowner and the contracted salvors, established
a cordon to prevent access to the beach. A similar situation
occurred after the wreck of the
MV Cita in 1997.
Historic wrecks (often but not always defined as being more than 50
years of age) are often protected from pillaging and looting through
national laws protecting cultural heritage. Internationally they
may be protected by a State ratifying the Unesco Convention on the
Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. In this case pillaging
is not allowed. One such example is the Queen Anne's Revenge which
is undergoing archaeological recovery by the North Carolina Department
of Cultural Resources near Beaufort Inlet, NC.
An important international convention aiming at the protection of
underwater cultural heritage (including shipwrecks) is the Convention
on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. The 2001
UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural
Heritage represents the international community's response to the
increasing looting and destruction of underwater cultural heritage. It
forms part of a group of
UNESCO standard setting instruments regarding
the domain of cultural heritage, encompassing seven conventions
UNESCO Member States, which constitute a coherent and
complementary body guaranteeing a complete protection of all forms of
UNESCO 2001 Convention is an international treaty aimed
exclusively at the protection of underwater cultural heritage and the
facilitation of international cooperation in this regard. It does not
change sovereignty rights of States or regulate the ownership of
wrecks or submerged ruins.
In 2011, the most valuable cargo of a sunken shipwreck was identified
near the western edge of the Celtic Sea. This World
War II era sinking
SS Gairsoppa led to a treasure almost three miles deep.
A U.S. federal court and a panel from the United States Court of
Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit have upheld the Spanish claim to the
contents of the ship Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes; Spain took
control of the treasure in February 2012. A very small number of coins
and effects recovered from the ship were deposited in Gibraltar,
because they showed clear signs coherent with an internal explosion on
the ship and thus confirmed Spanish claims to the wreck being that of
the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. They were not returned to Spain
until 2013, when a court finally ordered Odyssey Marine to return the
Shipwreck on a shore near Gytheio, Greece.
Wrecked fishing boats in Finnmark, North Norway.
The ferry Assalama wrecked off of Tarfaya, Morocco.
Ship wreck of SS Maheno, Fraser Island, Australia
Ship Wreck of Frotamerica at the west cost of Namibia
List of shipwrecks
Abandoned Shipwrecks Act
Abandonment of ship
Flotsam and jetsam
Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976
Hulk (ship type)
Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks
Second Geneva Convention
Sinking ships for wreck diving sites
^ Angela Croome (January 16, 1999). “Sinking fast”, New Scientist,
Volume 161, Issue 2169, pp. 49.
^ “Sinking fast”, Marine Industrial Technology, 1 and 2/1999,
Emerging Technology Series, United Nations Industrial Development
Organization, pp. 58.
^ Lucia Iglesias Kuntz (June 12, 2002), “
UNESCO urges the Americas
to join the underwater heritage convention”,
UNESCO Media Services.
^ “Lisbon Resolution”, Society for Historical Archaeology
Newsletter, Summer 1999, Volume 32, Number 2, pp. 31.
^ "Wrecks and Obstructions Database". NOAA.
^ Scurvy, Death and Cannibalism (internet video).
2007. Archived from the original on 2008-03-06.
^ Parker, A.J. (1981). "Stratification and contamination in ancient
Mediterranean shipwrecks". The International Journal of Nautical
Archaeology and Underwater Exploration. 10: 309–335.
^ "Final Management Plan" (PDF). Thunder Bay National Marine
Sanctuary. NOAA. Retrieved 11 August 2015.
War of 1812 shipwrecks 'an archeologist's dream'".
cbc.ca. CBC News. Retrieved 11 August 2015.
^ Dominique. "Empress of Ireland".
^ Gilman, Sarah (December 5, 2016). "How a Ship-Sinking Clam Conquered
the Ocean". Smithsonian.
^ Steere, Mike. "Superior keeps its shipwrecks fresh Preservation: In
the cold, almost sterile water at the bottom of the Great Lake, divers
find the remains of marine disasters". baltimoresun.com. Baltimore
Sun. Retrieved 29 August 2015.
^ For example, under English law the former were dealt with under
rules relating to things found on land, the latter were dealt with
under Admiralty jurisdiction.
^ "Treasure Salvage: Finders Keepers?". wcslaw.com. Archived from the
original on 2015-09-17.
^ "HB 184" (PDF). ncleg.
^ For example, the US
Abandoned Shipwrecks Act
Abandoned Shipwrecks Act 1987 and the Spanish
Estatuto No 60/62, 24 December 1962
^ Robinson v Western Australian Museum (1977) 51 ALJR 806 at 820-821,
although significantly the court held that it had not been abandoned
despite the fact the ship, the Gilt Dragon, was lost in 1656.
^ N. Rt. 346 (1970 N.D. 107), per Eckhoff J. (Supreme Court of
Norway), "It is possible that an owner's inactivity over a long period
of time, taking into account the circumstances, can be sufficient
reason for considering that the proprietary right to the wrecked
vessel has been relinquished. ... [But] inactivity over a certain
number of years cannot in itself be conclusive."
^ In Treasure Salvors Inc. v Unidentified Wreck  AMC 1404,
 AMC 1857 relating to the Atocha the courts treated the wreck
and cargo as abandoned, arguing it would be an "absurd fiction" to
regard a centuries-old shipwreck as still owned by the original owner.
But in Columbus America Discovery Groupo v Unidentified Wreck 
AMC 2409, (1992) 337 LMNL 1 the courts were prepared to uphold the
claims of the original insurers to the cargo subject to their
providing the necessary proof, which they were unable to do.
^ "UK England Devon Napoli 'scavenging' beach to open". BBC
News. 2007-03-14. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
^ "ROW- The reporting process". Mcga.gov.uk. Archived from the
original on 2008-02-25. Retrieved 2013-05-18.
^ "Wreck and salvage law - Detailed guidance - GOV.UK". Mcga.gov.uk.
2012-09-14. Archived from the original on 2011-01-28. Retrieved
^ "Structural failure of container vessel
MSC Napoli and subsequent
beaching Marine Accident Investigation Branch report - GOV.UK".
Mcga.gov.uk. 2007-01-18. Archived from the original on 2007-10-18.
^ "BBC Radio World Service Broadcast, "What Lies Beneath" First
broadcast Friday 22 August 2008". Bbc.co.uk. 2008-08-22. Retrieved
^ "Blackbeard's Flagship - Archaeology Magazine Archive".
Archive.archaeology.org. Retrieved 2015-09-17.
UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural
Heritage". Portal.unesco.org. Archived from the original on
2008-08-15. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
^ C.Michael Hogan. 2011.
SS Gairsoppa recovery. Topic ed.P.Saundry.
Ed.-in-chief C.J.Cleveland. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council
for Science and the Environment, Washington DC
Larn, Richard; Larn, Bridget; Lloyd's Register of Shipping (1995),
Shipwreck index of the British Isles, Lloyd's Register of
Shipping ; Vol.1 - The South West ISBN 0-900528-88-5; Vol.2
- The South Coast,ISBN 0-900528-99-0; Vol.3 - The East
Coast,ISBN 1-900839-10-5; Vol.4 - Scotland,
ISBN 1-900839-01-6; Vol.5 - West Coast & Wales,
ISBN 1-900839-61-X; Vol. 6- Ireland (all) ISBN 1-900839-03-2
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Shipwrecks.
UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural
WreckSite.eu, worldwide database of + 105,000 wrecks with history,
maritime charts and GPS positions (subscription required) (in Dutch)
(in English) (in French) (in German) (in Spanish)
NOAA Wrecks and Obstructions Database
Wreck Diving in the Graveyard of the Atlantic
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Shipwreck Photos Brews in N.C