Shipwrecks and Underwater Graveyards
By Janelle Smith, Recreation.gov
A shipwreck on Pulaski Shoals in Dry Tortugas is illuminated by rays of sunlight piercing the shallow water (Yasmeen Smalley, Share the Experience)
For recreational wreck divers, here are some coastal locations and freshwater lakes where historic shipwrecks loom beneath the surface and create an interesting underwater experience. From the Great Lakes to Guam and from the East Coast to West Coast, these marine sanctuaries and national park locations tell the tales of America’s maritime history.
Check out the National Park Service's new Shipwrecks site and Dive Your Park to learn more about the millions of acres of submerged lands. You'll discover places to dive, photos, find recreation tips on what you might see and kids can download the Jr. Ranger Underwater Explorer Guide.
Shipwrecks hold stories about individuals and relics that transport us to bygone days. Remember to take only photos and leave the wreck sites completely intact. These vessels provide a window into our past and are best left undisturbed for everyone to experience. Be sure to check with local officials to determine if diving permits are required.
Explore by State
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary
A drawing of a paddle wheel steamer and a shipwreck near Channel Islands National Park (NPS, Channel Islands National Park)
About 1,660 square miles (2,672 km) of ocean and near-shore habitat off the southern California coast make up the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Maritime heritage in this location is rich with more than 140 shipwrecks documented between 1853 and 1980; yet only 20 have been located. Weather conditions can change quickly in this area, a main factor for causing many of the shipwrecks among the islands.
War in the Pacific National Historical Park
Wreck site from the War in the Pacific National Historical Park (NPS)
Air and water temperatures that hover about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 Celsius) make Guam a popular destination for divers. The War in the Pacific National Historical Park preserves this strategically-located island and its importance in U.S. history. The period between the Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i, attacks in 1941 and subsequent Japanese occupation of Guam, followed by the American reinvasion in 1944 are the primary focus of the park. Many of the shipwrecks are of Japanese origin.
Cape Cod National Seashore
Diver inspecting a wreck site at Cape Cod National Seashore (NPS)
Known as the “Ocean Graveyard,” more than 3,000 shipwrecks have been recorded along Cape Cod’s coastline. While most of the dive sites are outside of the park’s boundaries, Cape Cod National Seashore provides ample opportunity for shipwreck divers to explore a significant chapter in America’s maritime heritage. Being prepared is crucial before embarking on a diving adventure in this area—check local conditions and consult local diving experts.
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
The Patriot beneath the surface of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. (NOAA)
Located north of Cape Cod, Stellwagen Bank is an underwater plateau that spans 19 miles (31 km) north to south, is six miles (9.6 km) wide and between 100 to 120 feet (30-37 m) below the surface. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary protects maritime heritage for several historic and modern sunken vessels. While dive conditions in this offshore environment at the mouth of the Massachusetts Bay can be challenging, it is also rewarding. For more visitor information about Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, check out our Spotlight article.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
The Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve and waters off of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore's South Manitou Island offer divers a variety of sites. (Janice Glatzer, Share the Experience)
If your travels take you to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, explore sunken shipwrecks and take some time to wander the shores where many vessels reveal themselves in the shifting sands. Located along the shore of Lake Michigan, there are 33 recreational diving sites that include shipwrecks and maritime-related facilities.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Partially submerged boat along the lakeshore. (Adam Jewell, Share the Experience)
Located along the shore of Lake Superior in northern Michigan, the rock formations that make Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore an above-ground destination extends to the underwater environment. The clear waters provide excellent visibility as divers explore this area where 21 shipwrecks have been documented within the boundary of the lakeshore; 13 of these locations are known.
Isle Royale National Park
A-OK from a diver at the Isle Royale National Park. (NPS)
The frigid waters surrounding Isle Royale National Park help preserve 10 major shipwrecks that represent some of the earliest steam navigation dating back to the late 1800s through the 1940s. Located in Lake Superior, Isle Royale is a wilderness area 45 miles (72.4 km) long and two to six miles (3.2 - 9.6 km) wide. The water around the island is clear and the below-50-feet (15.2 m) water temperature is the same year round, two degrees Fahrenheit (-1.1 Celsius) above freezing.
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Interesting historical artifacts from this wreck in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. (NOAA)
On November 23, 1907, after hours of fighting a gale in northwestern Lake Huron, the crew of the wooden bulk freighter Monohansett took a chance to regroup, only to be faced with a fire that quickly sank the ship. All 12 crewmembers made it to safety. Today, the Monohansett's steel propeller and lower hull are visible in 18 feet (5.4 m) of crystal clear water. With more than 50 identified shipwrecks ranging from schooners to steamers and from depths shallow to deep, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a recreational wreck divers’ dream.
Gateway National Recreation Area and Fire Island National Seashore
The Bessie White shipwreck is exposed as sands shift on the beach of Fire Island National Seashore. (NPS)
An area known as “Wreck Alley” just minutes from the heart of New York City is popular among wreck divers. Gateway National Recreation Area and Fire Island National Seashore are surprising entry points to an area where hundreds of shipwrecks dot the landscape below the surface. And outside the park boundaries are well known wrecks like the USS San Diego, Oregon, Black Warrior, Mohawk and the Andrea Doria.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
The Dixie Arrow after being torpedoed near Cape Hatteras National Seashore. (NPS)
Known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”, Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Outer Banks are meccas for wreck divers. Topography, weather and currents made for treacherous sailing conditions and caused many shipwrecks for merchant ships. During World War II Germans launched an attack sinking more than 80 ships. There are also wreck sites among the sand dunes, and depending on shifting sand, one can observe the skeletons of ships as time and erosion converge to dismantle these vessels.
Olympic National Park and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary
Diver inspecting a barge within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. (NPS)
As a protected wilderness area, the 73-mile (117 km) coastline of Olympic National Park is a unique treasure and gateway to the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. While diving from the beach is not an option, boat diving off shore and within the sanctuary provides a window to more than 150 historical shipwrecks on the ocean floor. Weather was the biggest factor in the demise of most ships along this coastal stretch as more traffic flowed in and out of the Puget Sound in the 1900s.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Caves of Devils Island within Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. (Steven Cooper, Share the Experience)
Among 22 islands in Lake Superior is Apostle Islands National Lakeshore where more than 100 shipwrecks create about two dozen known wreck sites; most of which are great for diving. Be aware that the water here is dangerously cold and weather can change quickly. Use the park’s Things to Know Before You Go to help plan your diving trip.