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10 Surprising Things That Were Lost at Sea

Hannah is a freelance writer from Wollongong, Australia, who enjoys exploring the world around her through food and travel.

Read on to learn more about a number of interesting things lost at sea, including thousands of cars, an expensive painting, and one country's leader.

Read on to learn more about a number of interesting things lost at sea, including thousands of cars, an expensive painting, and one country's leader.

A sense of mystery washes over many of us when we stand on the shore staring out into the big blue. The ocean gives us a sense of uncertainty and unknowing, and with over 70% of this planet being covered with bodies of water, that sense of mystery is never far.

The term ‘lost at sea’ may invoke a sense of old-timey mystique in many of us. The idea that something or someone set out over the big blue never to return could send chills through the spine of even the most hard-shelled wander.

Naturally, the disappearance of those ‘lost at sea’ brings with it a sense of uncertainty and mystery that is bound to change the lives of those affected, and in the case of legendary disappearances, the general public is also affected. Read on for a list of 10 things and people considered ‘lost at sea’ and the impact these disappearances had:

10 People and Things Lost at Sea

  1. The Santa Maria
  2. Harold Holt
  3. Malaysian Airlines Flight 370
  4. 4,000 Cars
  5. The Ship of Gold
  6. Nikes
  7. Rubber Ducks
  8. Amelia Earhart
  9. La Circassienne au Bain
  10. The Mary Celeste
10-surprising-things-that-were-lost-at-sea

1. The Santa Maria

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two Colombus sailed the ocean blue” is the opening line of a popular poem used in US schools to teach Columbus’s history. The following line says, “He had three ships and left from Spain,” but it fails to mention that he only returned with two.

When Christopher Columbus left his Spanish shores in search of a shorter route from Asia to Europe, he left with The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. The Santa Maria was the flagship, meaning the ship that carries the commander and the commander’s flag.

On Christmas day in 1492, the ship ran aground off a reef of what is now Haiti—not exactly the Christmas present the explorer was looking for. Columbus and the crew agreed the ship could not be saved; luckily, the timbers came in useful to build a fort on shore. Columbus eventually boarded the Nina to continue his journey.

The exact resting place of the Santa Maria remains a mystery, along with the fort built from its remains. In 2014 an American explorer claimed to have found the ship off Haiti, and UNESCO sent a group of experts out to explore the wreck. They determined it could not be the Santa Maria, more likely a ship from the 17th or 18th Centuries. For now, the hunt for the Santa Maria continues.

10-surprising-things-that-were-lost-at-sea

2. Harold Holt

On January 26th 1966, Harold Holt was sworn in as the 17th Prime Minister of Australia. Holt had filled his career as a politician with many achievements, including his importance in setting up the Australian Ballet in 1962 and becoming the first prime minister of Australia to employ a speech writer. However, the thing that most Australians remember Harold Holt for was his disappearance at sea on Sunday, December 19th 1967.

Holt was known as a strong swimmer and a lover of spearfishing. So it was no surprise when he decided to visit Cheviot beach in the state of Victoria with his neighbour, her daughter, and two friends. It was said that the currents were strong that day and a more famous nearby beach, Portsea, had been closed for that reason. Regardless, Holt dove confidently into the water.

After some time enjoying the ocean, he was suddenly swept away by the tide and as his neighbour reported, “It was like a leaf being taken out. It was so quick and final.” Within two hours of his disappearance, scores of police and search and rescue teams were scouring the beach for Prime Minister Holt both on land and in the air and after over two weeks of searching on January 5th 1968, the hunt was called off, and his body was never found.

Since then, a range of conspiracy theories have popped up, the most notable being that he was actually a Chinese Communist spy picked up by scuba divers from a submarine waiting offshore.

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10-surprising-things-that-were-lost-at-sea

3. Malaysian Airlines Flight 370

227 passengers and 12 crew members were aboard the Boeing 777 flight known as MH370 when it took off from Kuala Lumpur airport on its way to Beijing on the 8th of March 2017. The flight departed at 12:41 am and is reported to have begun flying over the South China Sea by 1:08 am. Less than 15 minutes later, the flight disappeared from the air traffic control radar in Malaysia and shortly after vanished from Vietnamese radars. The flight never arrived in Beijing as planned, and an emergency response began by 6:30 am that morning.

The search initially focused on where it had last shown up on the radar over the South China Sea. After a few days, the Malaysian air force provided new information that disclosed that the plane had actually shown up on radars over an hour later above the Andaman Sea. It is not entirely known where the plane went next, and for nearly four years, the search continued with no result and was called off in 2018.

More than 20 parts of the plane have been found, though, including a wing washing up on a beach in Reunion Island in 2015 and a piece of the engine cover revealing the Rolls Royce Logo in South Africa in 2016. Recently a range of media sources has reported that the marine robotics group Ocean Infinity will begin their search again in 2023; until this is underway, the families and friends of those lost on MH370 can only continue to hope.

10-surprising-things-that-were-lost-at-sea

4. 4,000 Cars

Felicity Ace sounds like a beautiful name for a ship; in actual fact, it is a big old cargo ship used to carry cars and trucks across oceans. In February 2022, the ship, owned by MOL Ship Management, caught fire as it passed through the North Atlantic ocean. On board were an estimated 22 crew members who were all thankfully evacuated to safety, supported by the Portuguese navy. For around two weeks, attempts were made to put out the fire before organising tug boats to bring the ship to shore; unfortunately, by the beginning of March, the ship had sunk along with its cargo.

The cargo in question was around 4,000 passenger cars from mostly the Volkswagen group, which included brands like Porsche, Audi, Bentley, and Lamborghini—those are some big names! One of the most pricey groups of vehicles lost was a shipment of Lamborghini Huracons, valued at over $200,000 each. With an estimated 20 of them lost, that’s likely to bring a tear to many a car fanatics’ eye. The cause of the fire remains unknown, and it is not the first time a luxury vehicle shipment has succumbed to the deep blue, with another cargo ship losing 37 Porsches in a fire in 2019.

10-surprising-things-that-were-lost-at-sea

5. The Ship of Gold

What weighs more, 100,000 pounds of feather or 100,00 pounds of gold? Although they both weigh the same, only one of them was lost at sea on the 16th of September, 1641. A galleon, a type of sailing ship from Spain, known as the Merchant Royale, was travelling off the coast of Cornwall, England, when it began to sink. It was believed that the ship had been struggling with leaks for most of its journey, and although attempts to repair it were made, it was not enough, and eventually, she took on too much water and sank.

One can only imagine the Captain’s reaction as he watched his leaky galleon make its way to the bottom of the ocean floor, carrying with it an estimated 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 bars of Mexican silver, and nearly 500,000 Spanish dollars. Obviously, there have been many attempts to find this treasure, now dubbed ‘The El Dorado of the Sea,’ with a hunt for the ship being the focus of the 2008 Discovery Channel TV series Treasure Quest, sadly to no avail. With some sources estimating that the value of the treasure could be up to 1 billion pounds today, TV show or not, the search will no doubt continue.

10-surprising-things-that-were-lost-at-sea

6. Nikes

In 2020 the World Shipping Council reported that 1,382 shipping containers had fallen overboard and been lost at sea that year. Inside these shipping containers, it would not be surprising to find things such as adult toys, luxury cars and even shoes. There are many environmental concerns about the loss of these items, with worries around the impact of so much plastic polluting our seas.

But a 1990 shipping container spill in the North Pacific of over 60,000 Nike shoes impacted one person for a different reason. Curtis Ebbesmyer, now considered a leading authority in investigating the paths of ocean currents, was inspired by news articles of the lost shoes washing up ashore in Oregon and Canada. He decided to use his knowledge as an Oceanographer to track the flow of these shoes, which were considered flotsam (a very fun word to say).

From this work and the notoriety that came with it, he was able to found the Beachcombers and Oceanographers Association. What happened to Nikes, you may ask? Many were salvaged and resold. One of the shipping containers actually sank to the ocean floor. Who knows what sweet dunks are still lurking inside?

10-surprising-things-that-were-lost-at-sea

7. Rubber Ducks

Nikes are not the only type of flotsam that has been an inspiration to someone. In 1992, only two years after “the great shoe spill,” a shipment of something much more adorable but perhaps less wearable also made its way to the ocean. Once again in the North Pacific, a cargo ship fell into the sea, taking with it 28,000 rubber ducks named “Friendly Floatees.” That’s right, rubber ducks, the very things Ernie serenades on sesame street. Naturally, many of these guys did what they were designed to do and floated.

Flash forward to 2005, and Journalist Donavon Hohn decided he would make it his purpose to track those cuties and see where they had ended up. This investigation led him to write the witty if not long-titled book: Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. Curtis Ebbesmyer, who we know from the Nike tale above, also studied this, and the duckys have also inspired children’s books, songs and poems.

10-surprising-things-that-were-lost-at-sea

8. Amelia Earhart

Her name and achievements are household knowledge. Amelia was born on July 24, 1897, in Kansas, U.S. Even from a young age, she was considered adventurous and bold, so it was probably inevitable that she would choose such a daring interest as aviation. After taking her first flight in 1920, she was hooked and bought her first plane in 1921.

Less than eight years later, Earhart reached worldwide fame by becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic ocean. Amelia’s success continued as she completed such feats as founding an organisation of female pilots and becoming the first person to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City in 1935.

In 1937 on June 1, Amelia, along with her navigator Fred Noonan embarked on a journey to fly around the world, departing from Miami. The pair had already clocked up over 22,000 miles when Amelia radioed to the U.S. Coast Guard, who was stationed along her route, to advise them the plane was running out of fuel. It is believed the plane crashed around 100 miles from Howland Island in the Pacific ocean, which was their next planned destination.

After two weeks, the search and rescues were called off, and neither she nor Fred was ever found. Much like Harold Holt, conspiracy theories have abounded since her disappearance, one of the most popular ones being that they landed on a Japanese-controlled island and were taken hostage as spies.

10-surprising-things-that-were-lost-at-sea

9. La Circassienne au Bain

By far, the greatest tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was the estimated 1,500 lives lost. The most expensive singular object, according to insurance claims filed after the disaster, however, goes to the artwork known as “La Circassienne au Bain.” The artwork depicted a young Carcissian woman stepping into what appears to be a Grecian bath.

The owner, one Mauritz Håkan Björnström-Steffansson, a Swedish business man and survivor of the sinking of the Titanic, submitted an insurance claim for the painting for $100,000. Whilst $100,00 is still a lot of money today, it could actually be around $2.5 million in today’s money.

It is not common knowledge how much Björnström-Steffansson received in compensation for the painting once the settlement was complete, but he did live until the age of 78 and died a wealthy man. As for the painting, she belongs to the ocean now.

10-surprising-things-that-were-lost-at-sea

10. The Mary Celeste

Of all the things and people lost at sea, the one surrounded by the most mystery turned out to be the one that was actually found. The Mary Celeste, a sailing ship from the 1800s, was on a journey from New York City to Genoa, Italy carrying ten people and 1,700 barrels of alcohol in late 1872. Within a few weeks, the ship was found adrift in the Atlantic ocean, and when those who discovered it boarded the ship, they found it abandoned.

It is not uncommon for people to abandon a ship when it is sinking or on fire; the Mary Celeste experienced neither of these things. There was no sign of mutiny or violence from pirates, there was no damage to the ship, and all of the captain and crew's belongings were untouched. There was one longboat missing, which was assumed to be used by the crew to leave the ship; however, no one from the crew was ever found to confirm this. Many believe that the captain incorrectly assumed that the ship was about to sink, but some argue that a giant squid may have been the culprit. We will never truly know.

Sources

Blumberg, Jess. (2007). “Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste.” Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/abandoned-ship-the-mary-celeste-174488104/.

Ebbesmeyer, Curtis and Eric Scigliano. (2009). “How 61,000 floating Nikes helped an oceanographer find his calling.” University of Washington Magazine, https://magazine.washington.edu/feature/how-61000-floating-nikes-helped-an-oceanographer-find-his-calling/.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2022). “Amelia Earhart.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Amelia-Earhart.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2022). “Santa María.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Santa-Maria-ship.

Gregersen, Erik. (2022). “Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappearance.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Malaysia-Airlines-flight-370-disappearance.

Harold Holt.” (n.d.). National Archives of Australia, https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/australias-prime-ministers/harold-holt.

Lam, Kristin. (2019). “The anchor has been found from a 1641 British shipwreck. Where's the 100,000 pounds of gold?USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2019/03/10/el-dorado-seas-anchor-found-wheres-gold-silver/3098247002/.

Leith, Sam. (2012). “Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea by Donovan Hohn – review.” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/30/moby-duck-toys-donovan-hohn.

McNearney, Allison. (2019). “The Most Expensive Object Lost on the Titanic.” The Daily Beast, https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-most-expensive-object-lost-on-the-titanic-merry-joseph-blondels-la-circassienne-au-bain.

Scott, Victoria. (2022). “These Are the Cars That Sank With the Felicity Ace Cargo Ship.” The Drive, https://www.thedrive.com/news/45085/these-are-the-cars-that-sank-with-the-felicity-ace-cargo-ship.

Ship Model, Santa Maria.” (n.d.). National Museum of American History, https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_844077.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Hannah Castelli

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