Wreck Divine JESPER KJØLLER has dived more iconic shipwrecks than most of us, so here, in alphabetical order from Andrea Doria to Zenobia, is his best of the best wrecks.
If you can improve on this hit-list, let us know!
WHAT CREATES A GREAT WRECK?
Personal preferences will make some divers choose differently, but my subjective hit-list is based on factors such as historic importance, an interesting narrative surrounding the loss at sea and maybe a certain X-factor, something hard to quantify.
Some of the most exciting wrecks have more than one story to tell. If the wreck both has an interesting history surrounding the initial loss and an equally compelling tale concerning the later discovery, it scores higher on my list.
It also matters that the wreck is photogenic, has a certain size and is in good shape for its age. Interesting artefacts still on board, level of intactness and the marine life are also factors.
I have dived more than a dozen of the wrecks in this top 20 already, and the rest are on my bucket-list.
- 1) Andrea Doria
- 2) USS Atlanta
- 3) Bianca C
- 4) HMHS Britannic
- 5) Hilma Hooker
- 6) S/S Hindenburg
- 7) SMS Kronprinz (Wilhelm)
- 8) Maidan
- 9) Mars the Magnificent
- 10) HIJMS Nagato
- 11) Numidia
- 12) USS Oriskany
- 13) President Coolidge
- 14) Prinz Eugen
- 15) San Francisco Maru
- 16) USS Saratoga
- 17) Thistlegorm
- 18) Umbria
- 19) Yongala
- 20) Zenobia
A luxurious ocean liner and an icon of national pride as the largest, fastest and allegedly safest of all Italian ships of the time. While heading for New York she collided with the Stockholm in one of history’s most infamous maritime disasters.
The top-heavy Andrea Doria started to list severely, which left half of the lifeboats unusable. But she stayed afloat for 11 hours and “only” 46 people lost their life.
Andrea Doria’s depth was a huge challenge for the first generations of advanced divers. The coveted logo’ed porcelain lured many divers deep into the wreck, and the “china fever” claimed numerous lives. Today, it is decaying fast and is believed to be empty of artefacts.
However, as it played an important role in the development of deep-wreck-diving techniques such as the use of helium, accelerated decompression and advanced penetration procedures, this wreck belongs on a top 20 list.
Type: Ocean liner
Area: Nantucket Island, North Atlantic
Lost: 25 July, 1956
In her short life the Atlanta played a pivotal role in the Pacific War theatre, escorting famous aircraft-carriers such as USS Enterprise and USS Hornet back and forth between Pearl Harbor and Midway before moving on to the Solomon Islands.
She was hit by friendly fire during the Battle of Guadalcanal and ended up sinking three miles west of Lunga Point.
The wreck was located in 1992 by a team led by Robert Ballard (who also found Titanic and Bismarck), but because of strong surface currents and the remote location in the Solomons with very poor infrastructure, it has been dived only a few times. The last successful expedition was carried out by a team of leading GUE divers.
Type: Light cruiser
Area: Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands
Lost: 13 November, 1942
Not many ships can brag about being wrecked twice, but Bianca C can. Construction began in France during WW2 but the unfinished hull was scuttled by German troops. After the war, the 180m structure was salvaged and completed.
In 1961 while at anchor in Grenada, an explosion shook the engine-room. The burning ship could potentially block the harbour, so there was an attempt to tow her out.
Thousands of Grenadians watched from the mountains as the tow progressed for six hours, but the Bianca C had moved only three miles when the towline broke.
Bianca C sank – again. Today it is the largest wreck in the Caribbean, and it takes several dives to explore the site.
Type: Passenger ship
Lost: 22 October, 1961
If Titanic did not rest at 3800m, this site would probably be the star of any wreck-diver’s wish-list.
Fortunately, her sister-ship is within diveable depths, but only for the most experienced technical divers, because 120m in the busy Kea Channel outside Athens is a challenging dive by any measure.
As her ill-fated sister, Britannic was supposed to enter service as a transatlantic passenger liner, and was improved in a number of ways thanks to lessons learned from the sinking of Titanic.
She never went into service but was operating as a hospital ship during WW1 when she hit a mine and foundered in less than an hour.
Britannic has it all: marvellous pedigree, mystery around the sinking, an exciting narrative surrounding Cousteau’s discovery and early trimix dives on the wreck in 1975 and a number of high-profile expeditions from the late 1990s on.
Type: Ocean liner
Area: Kea Channel, Greece
Lost: 21 November, 1916
The only wreck on the list that can be reached from shore. The ship was under surveillance by drug enforcement agencies and local authorities inspected her while docked at Town Pier in Bonaire. They discovered and confiscated 11 tons of marijuana. The owner was never found, and the ship was left to rot away.
One morning she began to take in water, but before sinking in the harbour she was towed away and ended on a sandy area between two coral reefs. It is unclear if Hilma Hooker was put there on purpose by the local diving community, but the location is perfect for divers and she is among the best shore-diving wrecks in the world.
Lost: 12 September, 1984
Not to be confused with SMS Hindenburg in Scapa Flow or the ill-fated blimp of the same name, the S/S Hindenburg was a German icebreaker. During WW1 she was part of Transportflotte I of the Sonderverband Ostsee when she hit a mine frozen in the ice. Three men were killed in the explosion.
What makes this dive special is that all wrecks in the autonomous Finnish province Åland are protected by law, and you will see artefacts here that would be long gone almost anywhere else. Hindenburg is extremely well preserved in the cold, fresh water of the Bothnian Sea and you can enjoy many details such as telegraphs, compass housings and a complete galley on Hindenburg.
Area: Åland Islands, Bothnian Sea
Lost: 9 March, 1918
SMS Kronprinz (Wilhelm)
The König-class battleship SMS Kronprinz was laid down in Kiel in 1911. She participated in the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of World War I, but she remained unharmed and suffered no loss of life. In 1918 she was renamed Kronprinz Wilhelm. And the following year she was part of the interned fleet in Scapa Flow and was eventually scuttled by admiral Ludwig von Reuter.
The immensity of this wreck can intimidate, and you need several dives to come away with a greater appreciation for its many details. Many of the 12in guns are accessible and visible.
Area: Scapa Flow
Lost: 21 June, 1919
The steamship Maidan hit Rocky Island on her way back to Europe after visiting India. She disappeared in deep water with her cargo of colonial imports, including elephant tusks, but not until the crew and the passengers managed to get to the island where they were rescued the same day.
Because of the depth and the inaccessible position of this 152m wreck few dives have been conducted here since its discovery in 2003, so it remains in very good condition, with nice penetration options including the engine-room and cargo holds.
During decompression stops along the spectacular walls of Rocky Island, it is not uncommon to be accompanied by tiger sharks or curious longimanus.
Type: Cargo ship
Area: Rocky Island, southern Egyptian Red Sea
Lost: 9 June, 1923
Mars the Magnificent
The oldest ship on the list, and possibly the most significant wreck discovery of the century. Mars was located by Richard Lundgren and his team in 2011 after more than 20 years of searching.
This Swedish battleship was the largest of is time, but Mars was defeated by a fleet of Danish soldiers and German mercenaries, and when the powder stores on board caught fire, Mars exploded, and 800 soldiers perished.
Ongoing scientific research projects on Mars are breaking new ground in digital excavation. The photogrammetry models based on data collected by divers are setting new standards in non-destructive archaeology.
Area: Swedish east coast, Baltic Sea
Lost: May, 1564
Admiral Yamamoto directed the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941 from the bridge of the Nagato.
The battleship with the pagoda-style superstructure was later impounded by the Americans and included in Operation Crossroads in Bikini to gather information on enemy shipbuilding techniques after an atomic explosion.
Nagato’s biggest highlights are the four enormous propellers and the twin 16in guns – the biggest in the world at the time.
Even if the superstructure is partly squashed under the weight of the overturned hull, it is possible to squeeze into the bridge and pretend to be Admiral Yamamoto listening to the famous radio codeword Tora! Tora! Tora! – the signal to commence the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Area: Bikini Atoll
Lost: July, 1946
Numidia was built in Scotland and embarked on her maiden voyage in February 1901. However, the ship’s second journey would be her last.
After a smooth passage of the Suez Canal, she hit the Big Brother Lighthouse and the bow was seriously damaged.
The captain ordered the crew into the lifeboats. He stayed for seven weeks on the island to supervise the salvage of the cargo before the hull finally slid into the depths at the reef’s northern tip.
The marine life and especially the soft corals on Numidia are splendid and the setting with the impressive stern on 80m and the reef in the background is a spectacular sight.
Type: Steam cargo ship
Area: Brothers Islands, northern Red Sea
Depth: Stern 80m, bow 10m
Lost: 6 July, 1901
The only wreck on the list scuttled on purpose, which among some purists disqualifies the Oriskany as a “real” wreck, but the sheer size of the Mighty O for me is enough to warrant a nomination. And she is one of the very few aircraft-carrier wrecks in the world.
USS Oriskany was completed right after WW2 and operated in the Pacific into the 1970s. She served during the Korean War and later the Vietnam War.
After being decommissioned in 1976, she lay idle for almost 30 years until it was decided to scuttle her outside Pensacola in Florida.
It took a lot of work to clean the enormous vessel and make her environmentally ready for disposal on the seabed. And the wreck remains the biggest artificial reef in the world.
Area: Mexican Gulf
Depth: 64m, flight deck 41m
Scuttled: 17 May, 2006
Built as an American luxury ocean liner in 1931, the Coolidge served as a troopship during the beginning of WW2. She sank after hitting two mines in the New Hebrides (today part of Vanuatu). The captain realised that the ship was lost, so he ran her aground and ordered the 5340 troops to disembark without their belongings, as he thought they would be able to retrieve them later. But shortly afterwards, the enormous wreck slid down the sloping coral reef.
President Coolidge is probably the most accessible large ocean-liner wreck and you need several dives to explore the almost 200m ship. But beware, as it is very easy to exceed dive limits because of the gradual downward slope.
Type: Ocean liner
Area: Vanuatu, Pacific Ocean
Depth: Bow 21m, stern 73m
Lost: 26 October 1942
The German heavy cruiser was launched in 1938. She saw lots of action in famous battles during WW2, primarily in the North Sea war theatre.
After the collapse of the Axis Powers in 1945, she ended up with the US Navy as a war prize, and it was decided to include her in Operation Crossroads, to evaluate the effect of a nuclear bomb on a German built battleship.
Prinz Eugen survived both atomic blasts and was later towed to Kwajalein Atoll 400 miles away. She started to take in water, but the leak could not be fixed because of the radiation.
She capsized and sank in shallow water. Today the enormous wreck can be dived easily, because the propeller sticks out of the water.
Type: Heavy cruiser
Area: Kwajalein Atoll
Lost: 22 December, 1946
San Francisco Maru
In 1944 Operation Hailstone wiped out most of the Japanese Pacific fleet and 275 aircraft in Truk Lagoon in just two days. With 60 wrecks from which to choose, it’s difficult to single out one, and at least five other Truk wrecks could easily have been on the list.
But there is a reason why San Francisco Maru is one of the most famous wrecks in the lagoon. It is loaded to the brim with war materials like the small Japanese HA-GO tanks, trucks, various types of ammunition, mines and aircraft parts.
And it is in good shape, because it is one of the deeper wrecks.
Type: Passenger cargo ship
Area: 4th fleet anchorage, Chuuk, Micronesia
Lost: 17 February, 1944
In 1946 the USA conducted Operation Crossroads in Bikini to test the impact of atomic explosions on military vessels.
The 270m aircraft-carrier USS Saratoga had an impressive track record and had been involved in many major conflicts and campaigns during WW2, but after the war she became a sitting duck in Bikini. She survived the first blast, but succumbed to the second three weeks later.
Sara is most likely the largest diveable wreck in the world, and with so many penetration possibilities and an abundance of details inside and outside, you could easily go to Bikini and dive this wreck alone for a week. In fact, if the aircraft-carrier was the only wreck there, it would still be worth the long journey.
Area: Bikini Atoll
Lost: 25 July, 1946
One thing is certain: no diving career is complete without this wreck in the logbook. In September 1941, this merchant ship was part of a convoy up through the Red Sea.
While at anchor waiting for the Suez Canal to open, her ammunition stores in hold 4 were struck by a 2.5-ton bomb from a German Heinkel He 111, and she sank immediately.
The Thistlegorm wreck owes its stardom to the amazing cargo of military vehicles, motorbikes, airplane spare parts, weapons and ammunition aboard. But its legacy is even more impressive, because it was found and explored (looted) by Jacques Cousteau in the early 1950s.
And then it was lost again, until an Israeli liveaboard rediscovered it in the early 1990s. Since then, the huge number of divers every day has taken its toll and parts have collapsed, but this is still an epic dive.
Type: Cargo ship
Area: Strait of Gubal, northern Red Sea
Lost: 6 October, 1941
Italy had not officially joined WW2 on the German side when Umbria, fully laden with ammunition and war supplies, was anchored outside Port Sudan. The British had suspicions, and detained the Italian ship and its crew.
Umbria’s captain heard Italy’s declaration of war on the radio and realised that the Brits would impound the cargo, so he managed to scuttle the 155m ship under the pretence of carrying out a muster drill.
Umbria lies on the port side with the davits still sticking out of the water. It has enough explosives in its hull to blow Port Sudan to kingdom come.
Type: Cargo & passenger ship
Area: Wingate Reef, Port Sudan, Red Sea
Lost: 9 June, 1941
Yongala steamed into a tropical cyclone, and 122 crew and passengers died in the disaster. The wreck was not located until 1958, and has since become a major Great Barrier Reef tourist attraction.
Because of the many fatalities penetration of the wreck is not allowed, but the marine life surrounding Yongala is amazing, as the structure provides an oasis in the barren underwater landscape.
Majestic seafans and other soft and hard corals decorate the reef. Giant grouper, eagle rays, mantas and various sharks are spotted frequently and the site is also visited by minke or humpback whales between June and November.
Type: Passenger ship
Area: Townsville, Queensland, Australia
Lost: 23 March, 1903
The Swedish ro-ro ferry was on her maiden voyage from Malmö, Sweden, bound for Syria. During a stop at Cyprus, the ship began listing to port and it was discovered that excess water was being pumped into the ballast tanks because of a computer malfunction.
She was towed out of the harbour in Larnaca to prevent her from becoming an obstruction, and a few days later the captain gave up and ordered everybody to leave the sinking ship, with its cargo of trucks estimated to be worth £200 million.
The enormous wreck has been very important for the diving industry in Cyprus, and Zenobia is a giant playground for divers at all levels.
Type: Roll-on roll-off ferry
Area: Larnaca, Cyprus
Lost: 7 June, 1980