Disasters at Sea: 6 Deadliest Shipwrecks

The Dangers of the Sea

The wreck of the Hoei Maru in Hawaii

The rusty remain of an old shipwreck stands out against bright blue waters in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. This hunk of metal was once the Hoei Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel that ran aground on the Kure Atoll reefs in the 1970s. Wrecks like this often become part of the reef itself, providing nooks and crannies for fish and other marine creatures. For more images of lost vessels, see the shipwreck gallery. (Image credit: Claire Fackler, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries)

With millions of ships at sea at any given time, accidents are inevitable. And occasionally, an ocean voyage turns terribly tragic. Death tolls can be hard to confirm given stowaways and overloaded ships, and some of the deadliest disasters have occurred on riverboats, not on the open ocean.

Here, however, we focus on disasters on the sea. Read on for a list of the deadliest ocean shipwrecks in history.

The RMS Titanic

the SS Titanic

The RMS Titanic, one of the world's most infamous and tragic shipwrecks, sank in 1912. Its final resting spot remained a mystery for decades, until its wreckage was discovered on the ocean floor 26 years ago. This gallery contains haunting images of the Titanic — the ship before it sank, passengers during rescue efforts and the ship in its current deteriorating condition. (Image credit: flickr commons)

Perhaps the most famous shipwreck in history, the loss of the RMS Titanic killed slightly more than 1,500 passengers and crew when it struck an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912. Although the Titanic carried more lifeboats than legally required at the time, there were far from enough seats to save everyone on board. The situation was only made worse by the fact that many passengers did not believe the doomed ship was in great danger, so a number of lifeboats were lowered only partially full.

The Le Joola

The Le Joola ferry docked.

The ferry Le Joola in 1991. The vessel would capsize in 2002, killing almost everyone on board. (Image credit: Yaamboo, distributed by Wikimedia under a Creative Commons License)

At least 1,863 people died when the Sengegalese ferry the MV Le Joola capsized on Sept. 26, 2002. The wreck happened in rough seas during a storm off the coast of The Gambia. In less than five minutes, the ship went down. Not all passengers had tickets, so an exact death toll is difficult to come by, but there were only 64 survivors pulled from the sea.

The Tek Sing

A three-masted Chinese junk from the 1800s.

An 1848 engraving of a Chinese junk. (Image credit: Public domain; 1848)

In 1822, the Chinese sailing vessel, or junk, called the Tek Sing ran aground on a reef on the way to Indonesia. The ship was bringing a haul of porcelain to the then-Dutch colony, but also held a crew of 200 and around 1,600 Chinese immigrants bound for the islands. An ill-advised shortcut doomed the ship and most of the passengers; only about 200 people survived until another ship happened by and rescued them the next day. The similar loss of life to the most famous shipwreck in history has led the Tek Sing to be called "the Titanic of the East."

The Halifax Harbor Disaster

The Halifax Harbor explosion in 1917.

The only known photograph of the 1917 Halifax Harbor explosion, taken about 15 seconds after the blast. (Image credit: Library and Archives Canada)

One of the most disastrous maritime accidents in history was felt on land. On Dec. 6, 1917, an ammunition-loaded French cargo ship, the SS Mont-Blanc, collided with the Norwegian steamship the SS Imo. The result was an enormous explosion that killed close to 2,000 people and injured at least 9,000 more. Because the collision happened in the Halifax Harbor close to land, nearly 500 acres (2 square kilometers) of the city of Halifax were destroyed.

The Doña Paz

The The Doña Paz docked.

The The Doña Paz several years before the accident that would sink the ferry and kill almost 2,000 people. (Image credit: Lindsay Bridge, via Flickr)

The Philippine passenger ferry the Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker on Dec. 20, 1987. Within two hours, the ferry was below the waves and as many as 4,375 people were dead. The ferry was only built to hold 1,424 passengers, but the two dozen or so survivors pulled from the shark-infested waters around the wreck site estimated that at least 4,000 were on board, having bought illegal tickets from the operators. While the official death toll was recorded at 1,749, most realistic estimates place it at more than 4,000.

The MV Wilhelm Gustloff

The Wilhelm Gustloff in 1939 before it sank.

The Wilhelm Gustloff in 1939. The ship would be torpedoed in 1945, killing at least 9,000 people, mostly refugees. (Image credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27992 / Sönnke, Hans / CC-BY-SA)

The German hospital ship the MV Wilhelm Gustloff set sail on its final voyage from Gdynia, Poland, to Kiel, Germany, where they were to evacuate German refugees, in the last days of World War II. The official passenger manifest listed 6,050 people on board, but many civilians had boarded without being recorded. In fact, an estimated 10,582 passengers and crew were on the doomed ship.

On Jan. 30, 1945, a Soviet sub spotted the MV Wilhelm Gustloff and fired four torpedoes into the ship. The overcrowded passengers panicked, and many were trampled in the rush for lifeboats. It was a cold night, so contact with the icy Baltic Sea water was fatal within minutes. The best estimates put the number of dead at around 9,400, making the MV Wilhelm Gustloff disaster the deadliest in maritime history.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.