It’s no secret that the oceans are filled with riches. Since the first ocean-faring adventurers took to the waters centuries ago, misfortunes have befallen unsuspecting sailors and their precious cargo. From perfect storms to pirates, there’s no way to know how much of Earth's riches are somewhere lying on a seabed just waiting to be discovered.
With all those millions sitting just beyond the water’s edge, it’s no wonder ocean salvage has captured imaginations across the globe, but just what is still out there to claim, and how likely is it to be recovered?
Here are three of the most expensive shipwrecks in history.
The San José - $17 billion
Launched in 1698, the San José was one of two twin ships built to join the Spanish treasure fleet. With three masts and 64 guns, the galleon departed for its final voyage as the flagship of a flotilla of three Spanish warships, a hulk, and fourteen merchant ships.
As hurricane season was approaching, General José Fernández de Santillán was eager to set sail. Despite knowing that the British had a heavy presence in the area, the fleet set sail destined for Cartagena, Columbia on 28th May 1708, hoping to slip through the passage unnoticed.
Unfortunately for General José and the rest of his fleet, they were intercepted by the British on 8th June 1708, where an intense battle ensued. During the fight, one of the powder magazines on the San José ignited and detonated, destroying the ship.
Along with most of her crew of 600 people, the San José sank to the depths with a hold filled with gold, silver, jewellery and emeralds.
Alas, for those of you hoping to pull on your snorkels and swimming costumes nearly 270 years later, the wreck of the San José was discovered off the coast of Columbia in 1981. It has since been claimed as part of Columbia’s submerged patrimony meaning that the wreck and its contents are protected for preservation by the Columbian government. The wreck's location has since been classified and remains a Columbian state secret to this day.
The Merchant Royal - $1.5 billion
Fans of the Outer Banks drama will be no stranger to the Merchant Royal, aka The Royal Merchant or The Land’s End Gold Ship.
A merchant galley ship built in London in 1627, the Merchant Royal was used for trading with Spanish Colonies in the West Indies under Captain John Limbrey. Whilst on a return trip to England in 1640, the ship sprung a leak in her hull and had to drop anchor suddenly in the southern Spanish port of Cadiz.
Whilst the Merchant Royal was repaired, a ship in a neighbouring berth caught fire. Always looking for an opportunity to raise extra funds, Limbrey offered to use the Merchant Royal to deliver the cargo, rumoured to be gold and silver destined to pay 30,000 Spanish troops, from the destroyed vessel. All told, when the Merchant Royal left Cadiz, she was laden with an obscene amount of wealth in gold, silver, and jewels in equal amounts.
However, she wasn’t long into her journey when her hull again sprung a leak, and the ship had to be abandoned. She sunk approximately 30 miles off Land’s End coast in Cornwall.
Of the 58 crew members aboard, 40 men (including Captain Lambrey) escaped in boats to be picked up by the Merchant Royal’s sister ship, the Dover Merchant, while eighteen went down with the ship.
The good news for treasure hunters is that, to date, the wreckage of the Merchant Royal is yet to be found, though experts think they’re getting close. In 2019, nearly 380 years after it sunk, a fishing trawler called the Spirited Lady caught an anchor that could have been from the lost ship in her nets. With no way to conclusively prove whether the anchor belonged to the Merchant Royal, the location of the wreckage is still a mystery.
The Flor de la Mar - $2.6 billion
When the Flor de la Mar was built in 1502, she was designed to be one of the finest ships in the Portuguese fleet. Weighing 400 tonnes and 118 feet long, the Flor de la Mar had a lengthy and fruitful career as the flagship in the Indian Ocean and took part in a number of campaigns over her nine-year career.
Despite starting her career as one of the most advanced vessels, when the Flor de la Mar set sail destined for home in November 1511, she was starting to show her age. Described as barely seaworthy, the Flor de la Mar had undergone many major repairs over the years, and campaign after campaign had started to take its toll on the ship - so much so that she was due to be decommissioned once she returned to Portugal. However, while all of those aboard expected this to be the Flor de la Mar’s final voyage, they couldn’t have expected just how final it would be.
Following Portugal’s successful campaign in Malacca, the Flor de la Mar was laden with the riches stripped from the royal palace of the Sultan of Malacca. It’s believed that in her hold were 80 chests of gold, and 200 chests overflowing with rubies, diamonds, emeralds, coins, perfumes, and jewellery-encrusted furnishings that decorated the royal palace. In fact, the ship was so heavily laden that many of her crew members were anxious about whether the ship was capable of transporting such a load.
Unfortunately for the crew, it didn’t take long for them to find out. Beset by a storm shortly into their return journey, the Flor de la Mar attempted to move closer inland to avoid the worst of the weather just off the coast of Sumatra. Sadly this manoeuvre doomed the ship, and she was dashed against the shoals of the coastline, splitting the ship in two before sinking her and her crew of 400 to the depths.
Although lost just off the coast in shallow waters, the ship and her contents remain undiscovered to this day.