Today’s superyacht experience not only offers owners and guests the chance to explore the world above the water, but increasingly the secrets that lie beneath it. Esther Barney and Chris Evans plunge into the depths to uncover the awesome and the bizarre of the world’s greatest underwater secrets.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen stole the headlines earlier this year when finally, after years of research and planning, working from his 126-metre (413ft) superyacht OCTOPUS, he and his team uncovered in the Sibuyan Sea off the Philippines the wreck of sunken Japanese battleship Musashi, one of the largest and most powerfully armed vessels in naval history.
“After eight years of diligent research, locating the Musashi was a meaningful moment for me and my team,” Allen explains. “We are proud to have played a role in finding this key vessel in naval history and are honoured to share it with the survivors, the families of those who perished and the world.”
It was a discovery announced in a year when safe and easy access to the world’s ocean depths became a reality for many yacht owners and charter guests with the launch of a range of new compact, user-friendly commercial submarines, packed with the latest technology and software that make the most of their positive buoyancy.
So with the world’s darkest depths now seriously open for discovery, we wondered what else lies beneath.
If you are prepared to brave the cold environment of the Baltic Sea there are all manner of treasures from ancient Nordic civilizations lying in wait. Earlier this year, archaeologist divers unearthed what is reported to be the well-preserved wreck of legendary 15th century trade vessel Hanneke Wrome. It was making its way to Estonia from Germany when it met its watery end in November 1468. The 40-metre (131ft) vessel had a cargo of over 10,000 gold coins and precious jewellery, worth in the region of €130 million today. Excavations have not yet started at the site, located south of the island of Jussarö near Finland, but this discovery may not be available to explore for long, so if you are interested, get there sooner rather than later.
If you prefer warmer climes and more luxurious surroundings, the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha lying off the coast of Key West, Florida, was carrying an enormous cargo of gold, silver and gems worth $700 million when it was caught in a hurricane in 1622 and sank. So far, only $500 million of its haul has been uncovered.
And it is a similar story with the shipwreck of Britain’s SS GAIRSOPPA, a cargo ship torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1941, which sank nearly 300 miles off the coast of Ireland. About 110 tonnes ($65m worth) of the estimated 240 tonnes of silver onboard has so far been retrieved so plenty remains buried.
Diving into the depths is very often diving into our past, and in the last year alone there have been numerous discoveries of immense historical importance around the world, including a 7500-year-old water well and complete Neolithic village in Haifa, Isreal; a 2,700-year-old Phoenician shipwreck in Malta; and, most impressively, a perfectly preserved ancient city submerged beneath the spectacular Qiandao Lake in China.
The Lion City was built during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-200AD) and was once the centre of politics and economics in the eastern province of Zhejiang. Local tourist Qiu Feng found the site in the same condition, complete with temples, paved roads and even wooden beams and stairs.
For those inspired more by mysterious archaeological wonders, then the stunning underwater rock formations off Yonaguni Island, between Japan and Taiwan, are a must. Described as the “Underwater Pyramids of the East”, these rock formations, discovered 30 years ago, have flat surfaces, round holes, animal-like etchings and carved faces all over them. Experts have dated the 45,000-square-metre (147,637 sq ft) area to be between 6,000 and 10,000 years old, a period when the region was part of the Chinese mainland. Some experts are convinced it is all that remains of Mu, the fabled Pacific civilization.
Millions of years old, Madagascar’s secret underwater caves in Tsimanampetsotsa National Park are, for many, the ultimate in archaeological wonders and by far the best way to reach these secret, submerged caves is by superyacht. Once you are in the deep, you make your way through the eerily beautiful caves with crystallised geological formations flanking your path and leading to a network of caverns. These boast pristine ancient primate remains that give you a historical window into the ecology of this remote island. Many of the species’ visible remains – pygmy hippopotamuses and elephant birds – were wiped out when humans migrated there as recently as a few thousand years ago.
Just 70km from Belize City is a location Jacques Cousteau considered to be one of the finest dive sites in the world. The Great Blue Hole is a vast sink hole measuring 300 metres (984 ft) wide and 125 metres (410 ft) deep, and it remains a prime spot for thrill-seekers who share their exploration with the local sharks. William Bishop, Senior YPI Broker, is an ex-divemaster who shares Cousteau’s passion. “Part of the magic of diving is the serenity when you are underwater,” he says. “The Great Blue Hole is one of the most spectacular, unique dive sites in the world, not only in terms of its sheer size but the array of marine life around it. The speleothems are hundreds of thousands of years old. It’s mind-bogglingly superb.”
Or you could try to unearth a new species in the polar deep of Antarctica – perhaps the last frontier on Earth. Triton Submarines recently had success finding a live giant squid in its natural habitat for expedition yacht MV ALUCIA. Troy Engen, who runs operations at Triton, is already talking about their next, thrilling challenge: the search for its larger cousin, the ‘colossal squid’. So far, only dead specimens have been found washed up ashore. This is the perfect opportunity for an adventurous superyacht owner or charterer to facilitate scientific discoveries, explore uncharted waters and maybe even make history.
Perhaps some of the most awe-inspiring wrecks ever to have been uncovered is the Ghost Fleet of Truk Lagoon in Micronesia, Central Pacific. This enormous natural harbour some 1,800km north of New Guinea has been created by a natural reef atoll 225km in circumference. The most secure of the regional Japanese strongholds during WWII, Truk Lagoon was a critical base for the Imperial fleet until a three-day air attack by Allied Forces in February 1944. The military strike led to destruction of the remaining Japanese fleet, including 12 small warships and 32 merchant ships – as well as their cargo of tanks, torpedoes and servicemen – resulting in what is known as the biggest graveyard of ships in the world. The ghost fleet is a haven for divers keen to explore the military relics, as well as take in the biodiverse ecosystem of flora and fauna that has come to call it home. “All the wreck are easily accessible via tender from a central location, yachts can find plenty of safe anchorages that will service most of the sites,” says Andrew Simpson, facility manager of New Zealand-based Global Dive.
Another site with plenty of wrecks (more than 600) to explore, some dating back to the 1500s, is the graveyard of the Atlantic in North Carolina. The SS YONGALA, which sank during a cyclone in 1911 in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, is another must-see for its prolific variety of marine life, including giant gropers and marble rays.
A TRAIN SPOTTER’S DREAM
Paul Hepler was mapping the ocean floor off the coast of New Jersey with a magnetometer in 1985 when he discovered two large metal objects. They turned out to be two steam locomotives from the 1850s. How they got there remains a mystery, there are no records of them ever being built, never mind being lost at sea.
Train enthusiasts were ecstatic to discover, however, that they were two Planet Class 2-2-2 Ts, practically obsolete by the time they were built and exceptionally rare. Despite over 165 years underwater, they are both remarkably well preserved, and plans are still apparently underway to bring them to the surface and preserve them for posterity.
A TEST OF ENDURANCE
It could be your ultimate mission: heading up to Antarctica in search of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance wreck, abandoned by the legendary explorer and his crew a century ago in 1915, after the vessel became trapped by pack ice.
It sunk to the floor of the Weddell Sea, but recent scientific research suggests it could still be in pristine condition, as a lack of wood-boring ‘ship worm’ species in Antarctica’s waters means it is unlikely to have rotted. Armed with a robust superyacht, support vessels, submersibles and research teams, maybe your next great voyage will plunge you into the history books?