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What is a Shipwreck?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 16, 2024
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A shipwreck can either refer to the event of a ship being wrecked, or the physical wreck itself. Shipwrecks have occurred throughout maritime history, and it is likely that millions have died by them. The United Nations estimates that there are 3 million shipwrecks on the ocean floor all over the world. Some of these have become prime diving spots, as many sea organisms will encrust a shipwreck if provided with one. Some known shipwrecks are very old, including Greek merchant ships dating to 400 BC, Phoenician shipwrecks dating to 1200 BC, and a Levantine shipwreck dated to 1400 BC, the late Bronze Age.

There have been many famous shipwrecks throughout history, and there are many atolls throughout the world with dozens, if not hundreds, of wrecks in their shallows. Wrecks happen for any number of reasons, usually in storms, running aground from poor navigation, or due to enemy attacks during war. Probably the most famous wreck in history is the HMS Titanic, an 882 ft (269 m) luxury cruise ship that sunk in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg. The shipwreck killed 1,500 people, and the ship sank about 2.5 miles (4 km) to the ocean floor. Many years later, in 1982, the Titanic was photographed and investigated in place by a remotely operated deep sea submersible. Periodically, the idea of lifting the wreck back up to the surface has been discussed, but putting in the effort would probably require hundreds of millions of dollars.

The study of old shipwrecks and other sunken artifacts is a whole discipline known as maritime archeology. Studying ancient shipwrecks can give us a lot of information about a lost civilization, preserving cultural objects that would have long ago been looted and consumed or disassembled if left on land. One of the most famous objects from an ancient shipwreck, the Antikythera mechanism, is actually the first known mechanical computer, and was used to compute the cycles of the Sun, Moon, and planets. The precision and complexity of the gears is considered on par with 17th century watches, and mechanisms of similar complexity do not appear in the archaeological record until over 1000 years later.

Some artifacts that have been discovered from shipwrecks dating back to antiquity include large quantities of gold, Egyptian ebony for furniture, ostrich eggs, amber, unworked glass, various resins for perfume or incense, ivory vessels, clay lamps, jewelry, bronze carpentry tools, spears, swords, ceremonial axes, and hundreds of other objects. Many of these fascinating finds can now be found in museums throughout the world.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated WiseGeek contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By B707 — On Sep 06, 2011

Shipwrecks in the early 1900s were common in the North Sea. Many ships were bringing immigrants to the United States. The waters of the North Sea were treacherous during storms.

My grandmother and her family lived in Norway and wanted to come to America. Two of my grandmother's sisters and her sister-in-law were on board a ship headed for Minnesota to join their husbands. A big storm came up and their ship was dashed against some big rocks and all were drowned.

The rest of the family was heartbroken, but two years later, my brave grandmother came to America all by herself.

By Misscoco — On Sep 05, 2011

There was an old shipwreck that lay in the sand at a Pacific Ocean beach we used to visit. Every time we went there, we had to go visit the shipwreck. It had somehow gotten beached and was stuck in the sand. During winter storms the winds would blow and eventually the ship turned on its side.

There was always a lot of people exploring the ship. It was hard to walk up the angled deck. We had a lot of fun, but never found any artifacts. I guess they were all taken soon after the ship was beached.

By popcorn — On Sep 04, 2011

@wander - I have always been interested in shipwrecks and love reading about them. It would be an amazing experience to actually get up close to them, but I am not sure how I feel about learning how to scuba dive, I imagine it can be expensive.

What I have found is pretty amazing is taking a tour in a glass bottom boat. There are some companies that do this with the express purpose of letting those who aren't as comfortable in the water, see shipwrecks.

The tours are available in a lot of areas, so it's a good idea to check the web to find something near you. They even have them on some of the bigger lakes.

By wander — On Sep 04, 2011

For those that are up for a little adventure there is nothing quite like going scuba diving to look at a shipwreck. There are tons of spots around the world where you can get up close to a shipwreck and get a real sense of what the ships were like hundreds of years ago.

A few years ago I go to dive and see the S.S. YONGALA Wreck which is located in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia. It was an amazing experience as the shipwreck is now teeming with marine life and you can see oodles of colorful fish and gorgeous plant life.

By Sunny27 — On Sep 04, 2011

It is amazing how some of these shipwreck artifacts are found. I read that there was a case a few years ago in which a Florida company found a shipwreck treasure off the coast of Spain.

The shipwreck gold that was found was worth about $400 million dollars. There was even a lawsuit filed by the Spanish government claiming that the shipwreck artifacts actually belonged to the Spanish government because it from a Spanish ship that sunk in the 1800’s.

The US government agreed to return the shipwreck treasures, but the company filed an appeal to the case. I think that it is great that many of these shipwreck treasures are found, but if it was recovered within a specific country, I think that we should respect those remains and let the country that has jurisdiction of the shipwreck artifacts keep the treasures.

I think that this is only fair especially since the artifacts were proven to be from a Spanish ship and found off of the Spanish coast.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated WiseGeek contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology,...
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