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How many shipwrecks are there in the world?

PortandTerminal.com, September 11, 2019

In all, it’s estimated that, beneath Earth’s waters, there are 3 million shipwrecks. The oldest include 10,000-year-old canoes while the newest are 21st-century shipwrecks like the Indonesian bulker that sank 18 days ago and has yet to be found. It is estimated that less than one percent of the world’s shipwrecks have even been explored. Most never will be.

The Pesse canoe is believed to be the world’s oldest known boat, and certainly the oldest known canoe. Carbon dating indicates that the boat was constructed during the early Mesolithic period between 8040 BCE and 7510 BCE.

Mapping all 3 million shipwrecks estimated to be out there is an almost impossible task. Countries though with coasts have a vested interest in mapping the wrecks in the own waters for navigational safety reasons if for no other reason.

We also know that certain geographic locations and world events such as wars have tended to produce more than their fair share of shipwrecks and these have been painstakingly mapped out.

The combined total of WWII shipwrecks stands at 7,807 vessels worldwide, this map shows the location of many but not all of them (Map credit: Rean Monfils)

Certain danger points in the world that are prone to collect shipwrecks and many of these have been very well mapped out. For example, Canada’s Sable Island situated 190 miles (300 km) southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia has been a maritime hazard for centuries.

Sable Island has no permanent population but is home to herds of wild horses

While the island is only about 14 miles (24 km) long, an estimated 350 vessels are believed to have fallen victim to the island’s sand bars. Thick fogs, treacherous currents, and the island’s location in the middle of a major transatlantic shipping route and rich fishing grounds account for the large number of wrecks

An estimated 350 vessels are believed to have fallen victim to the island’s sand bars

Coast Survey AWOIS

Coast Survey’s AWOIS data contains information on over 10,000 wrecks and obstructions but just in American waters.

Coast Survey, an office of the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains information on more than 10,000 submerged wrecks and obstructions in U.S. coastal waters. Coast Survey maps these 10,000 shipwrecks to prevent a collision with other ships or submarines and adding to the number of wrecks that it tracks.

Coast Survey’s Automated Wreck and Obstruction Information System (AWOIS) contains information on over 10,000 submerged wrecks and obstructions in the coastal waters of the United States. Information includes latitude and longitude of each feature along with brief historic and descriptive details.

Sample of a data point taken from a Coast Survey AWOIS map. Clicking on each maps data point brings up the known data of each wreck

In addition to its use in planning hydrographic surveys, AWOIS is a valuable tool and information source for marine archaeologists and historians, fishermen, divers, salvage operators, and others in the marine community.

The value of shipwrecks

In 1985 Mel Fisher and his team located the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, which sank in 1622 in the Florida Keys with tens of tons of gold, copper, silver, indigo and jewels on board valued at over $US 400 million. Mr Fisher was able to keep 75% of his find.

Part of the fascination with shipwrecks is treasure. There is an estimated $60 billion in sunken treasure around the world, just waiting at the bottom of the ocean by some estimates.

More important than treasure though is the information each shipwreck contains. Each wreck is a time capsule that gives us a glimpse into the past. Sometimes the very distant past. Information such as construction methods, trading patterns, technology and so on are all preserved to varying degrees each time a ship sinks.

The British warship Franklin Terror sank around 1848 while searching for the Northwest Passage. It was found in 2019 in exceptionally good condition as shown above. Even the Captain’s dining plates were stored away and seem almost ready to be used again.

In 2018 scientists found the oldest intact shipwreck ever discovered. The Greek cargo ship pictured above was built 2,400 years ago and, thanks to the depth it sank, is almost completely intact.

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