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Biggest Abandoned Ships from Around the World

From the lost city of Atlantis to the shipwrecked Titanic, we humans have always been entranced by the things we’ve lost to the sea.

There’s just something otherworldly about underwater cities and abandoned ships. It’s intoxicating to think that out there, beyond the shallow water, where the old maps used to warn us about dragons, there are entire vessels constructed ages ago and forgotten, left to rot.

Not all abandoned ships are the stuff of legend. There are also abandoned ships that are much closer. Just check out Google Maps, and you’ll find picture after picture of listing ships in sunny tropical bays–or haunting vessels floating just off-shore, quietly staring down the nearby villages. 

Today, let’s take a brief tour of some of the biggest abandoned ships from around the world. To start, we have some questions. For example: How do you lose track of such a huge thing as a ship? How did they get to their final destinations? Why were they abandoned in the first place—and what’s the future for an abandoned ship?

Let’s diveinto it. 

MV Alta

Shipwreck of MV Alta.
Shipwreck of MV Alta. This ghost ship was adrift without a crew in the Atlantic Ocean for two years, until it foundered on the rocks of the southern coast of Ireland in February 2020. By Colm Ryan, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Ships are huge. They’re also equipped with redundant location systems. So, how are you supposed to simply lose one, even in the vastness of the sea? 

The 2,300-ton MV Alta may know the answer, but it won’t be able to tell us much. It was a ship first built in 1976, in Tanzania. In 2018, after several changes in ownership, the Alta sailed from Greece to Haiti. The ship stalled out in the middle of the Atlantic. Its 10 crew members were stranded some 1,400 miles away from assistance. They waited for help, received airlifts of food, and eventually a ride to safety. 

The Alta was less lucky. It was left to float in international waters.

In August of 2019, sailors with Britain’s Royal Navy caught sight of it. They radioed the ship and got no answer. That was the last the ship was seen for several months.

In February of 2020, near Cork, in Ireland, locals were surveying the harsh weather’s impact on their coast. When the storm was over, locals noticed something strange. Perched on one outcropping, marooned where no ship had been present the day before, was a huge vessel. Nobody knew if anyone was inside. Nobody had any idea how it had gotten there. 

Once it was safe to do so, the Irish Coast Guard sent a helicopter to check it out. A quick attempt to locate and communicate with any crew members yielded a puzzling result: There was no one aboard. 

A few quick calls and some maritime forensic work gave them an ID for the 2,300 ton craft. It was the MV Alta, a merchant vessel—a ghost ship, long floating the tumultuous waters of the Atlantic Ocean by itself. 

It had made its arrival in a mysterious manner. Ireland is usually surrounded by hundreds of fishing boats, and the MV Alta, a gigantic vessel, had managed to make it past that barrier, seemingly just popping up overnight. 

The MV Alta became an overnight sensation. It seemed like it might slip off the coastline any time. But the authorities had to wait for low tide in order to figure out what to do with their new shipwreck. 

When they were able to make it out to the Alta, they realized something odd. The Alta had had a brand-new movement tracking system installed, but it had been deactivated. This was highly unusual (and can sometimes be a sign that the ship had been involved in shady activities). Further analysis of the circumstances surrounding the ship’s abandonment also puzzled the authorities. For example, the Greece to Haiti trip itself seemed ambitious for the size and type of ship.

As of the end of 2020, ownership had still not been established. The costs of dealing with the wreck will be considerable and Cork and its inhabitants are currently debating options for managing the wreckage; will they tow it out and let it sink? Will they dismantle and scrap it? Or will they leave it there, as a strange local story…or a reminder to leave your GPS on. 

MV Lyubov Orlova

Motor Vessel Lyubow Orlowa having a rest; seen from Petermann Island (Antarctic Peninsula)
Motor Vessel Lyubow Orlowa having a rest; seen from Petermann Island (Antarctic Peninsula). By Lilpop,Rau&Loewenstein, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

In January of 2014, British tabloids began to tell alarming stories about a mysterious ship floating off the coast of England. As interesting as that might have been in and of itself, the tabloids introduced a twist in the tale to make the event seem even more disturbing and dangerous (because of course they did… tabloids are gonna tabloid). 

This mysterious ship, they reported, was full of cannibal rats. 

Seems like the kind of headline we’d pay attention to. Unfortunately—or, well, fortunately—the existence of actual cannibalistic rodents was never proven. 

However, the mysterious ghost ship was at least based off of real events. 

In 1976, the 90 meter Lyubov Orlova was first constructed as a cruise ship for Antarctic voyages. For this reason, its hull was strengthened to be safe in icy waters.

By 2010, the Lyubov Orlova had completed many, many cruises over its decades of service. It was sent on a final voyage across the Atlantic to America for decommissioning processes. It was, seemingly, still operational; but its owners had racked up $250,000 USD in debt, so the Lyubov Orlova was going to be sold to cover those costs. Additionally, the 51 crew members of the Lyubov Orlova hadn’t received any pay in five months. 

Accordingly, the ship was seized in Canada and prepared to be sold for parts. After waiting in a harbor for over two years, the ship was ready to be towed down to the Dominican Republic for scrapping. Unfortunately, as the ship was being towed to its final destination, the tow line broke. The crew aboard the towing boat tried to reconnect the line, but the winds and waves were too strong. Ultimately, the Lyubov Orlova started to drift eastward.

Later, in 2013, after years of drifting, the Lyubov Orlova was spotted some 1300 nautical miles from the Irish coast. Icelandic and Irish news stories began to circulate, each telling the story of a ‘ghost ship’, a modern Flying Dutchman.

British tabloids took the story and ran with it, saying, “A ghost ship carrying nothing but disease-ridden rats could be about to make land on Britain’s shore, experts have warned.” Their source for the rat tip? One sole expert. As it turned out, that expert turned out to be a Belgian salvage hunter. Unfortunately (or, again, perhaps very fortunately) he switched up his story when interviewed by other prominent news sources, saying, “I think that maybe if there were rats at all, they’d probably died anyway because it’s a year ago. They can’t survive longer than four or five days without water and food, so it’s probably empty.” 

The Lyubov Orlova has not been sighted since, and most believe that it has since sunk. 

Still, the image of a moving castle of crazed, hungry rodents moving closer and closer to the British Isles had captivated the world’s imagination. To this day, if you Google ‘cannibal rat ship,’ the Lyubov Orlova’s name dominates the search results. An enduring legacy, for sure. 

MS World Discoverer

World Discoverer wreck off Guadalcanal
World Discoverer wreck off Guadalcanal. By Philjones828, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Easily visible on Google Maps lies a half-submerged cruise ship, cutting through the bright blue waters of its Solomon Islands bay like an eerie grin.

The MS World Discoverer, an 87-meter vessel, was outfitted for luxury experiences. Among the experiences most prized aboard the Discoverer were the educational offerings: Each day of the cruise featured presentations and even shore expeditions led by marine biologists, naturalists, geologists, and historians. 

The vessel was scheduled for an inspection and further construction, including the addition of two more elevated suites and a state-of-the-art fire protection system, but that never happened.

The story of the MS World Discover is an unfortunately ironic one. It was a cruise ship built to travel icy seas and temperate ones alike. The Discoverer carried passengers from Antarctica to the Falkland Islands, Chile, and Argentina. When it was being constructed in Germany in 1974, its architects reinforced its hull to make sure it could handle submerged ice. In fact, its double-hulled construction was one of its selling points: In theory, it would allow passengers to safely watch the movement of icebergs and ice floes up close. 

Unfortunately, instead of ice, the Discoverer met its match against a submerged tropical coral reef in 2000.

Once the crew of the Discoverer realized what had happened, they grounded the ship in the Solomon Islands to avoid a fatal wreck. Officials on land received their distress signal and ferried everyone aboard to safety. Very soon after the Discoverer was grounded, it was listing—or angled—at twenty degrees. At this angle, it would have been just possible to hold yourself upright, but only barely. As the ship was listing further, slowly but surely, the crew decided that it was safer to cut their losses and run.

Since 2000, several companies have attempted to lay claim to the ship, at the very least for the cost of scrap material. However, any valuable materials aboard were found and used or sold by locals who looted the ship . Over the twenty-plus years since it was abandoned, tidal activity has allowed it to slip further and further into the water and sped up the deterioration of the vessel’s interior. 

Now, the Discoverer is listing at 46 degrees. However, the ship is accessible:  but it’s very likely that, soon, the ship will finally break in half and sink to its final watery resting place. 

MV E Evangelia: Rumors of Insurance Fraud on the High Seas

The wreck of E Evangelia, a Greek-owned refrigerated cargo ship built in Belfast in 1942 as Empire Strength and beached in Costineşti, Romania in 1968. By A.G. (a friend of nat.u toronto), is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Sometimes, when ships go down, it’s a tragic accident.

Other times, there are indications that things could be slightly more fishy

Here’s the story: MV E Evangelia was first built in Northern Ireland in 1942, during the second World War. Its initial name was the Empire Strength. Its purpose? To transport vital supplies—mainly frozen beef—to and from various ports to help keep soldiers fed. 

Over the span of its life, the ship would have many names. It was called the Saxon Star in the later ‘40s, the Redbrook in the early ‘60s, and, finally, the E Evangelia in 1965 when she was purchased by her final owners. They were Greek, and they used the E Evangelia as a refrigerated cargo ship for three years before abandoning the vessel near modern-day Croatia. 

Today, you can easily take out a rowboat and paddle or even swim through the Evangelia’s wreckage. The Evangelia suffered an almost-perfect fracture down the center of her frame. On the starboard side, it’s clear that much of the ship’s plating has gone missing, and the entire center of the Evangelia has collapsed. The hull, now beautifully corroded, has broken off and begun—slowly—to sink. 

So, how did the Evangelia get to be 30 kilometers north of Constanta, Croatia? 

The precise story has never been confirmed. 

There are those who believe that the reason it’s never been clarified is because the reasons were murky at best., No entity has laid claim to the Evangelia.

One theory is that it was done for insurance fraud. Given that the Evangelia was a highly capable ship with a spotless service record, and that it was extremely close to its destination port when it was abandoned in well-mapped waters, it seems unlikely to many that the damage to the ship was caused by accident. 

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