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Shipwrecks in South Africa

Did you know that there are more than 2000 shipwrecks in South Africa? The remains, dotted along our coastline, are a stark reminder of the ships that once sailed our treacherous seas. For many years, during the time of intrepid explorers and slavery, there were no lighthouses in South Africa. And albeit navigational aids, gale force winds, rough waters and thick fog have consequently claimed the lives of many.

Shipwrecks tell powerful stories, and are undoubtedly part of South Africa’s rich past. Today, only a few vessels are still visible. Some are hidden beneath the ocean and others come with its fair share of ghost stories, urban legends, and mystery.

Put on your explorer’s hat and sail back in time to find out more about the shipwrecks in South Africa.

Shipwrecks in South Africa from the 16th century

The earliest known shipwreck was the Soares which ran aground in 1505. The 16th century was the age of exploration; it was the time of traders. Bartolomeu Dias, was the first European to sail around the southernmost tip of Africa. Later, another Portuguese explorer, Vasco Da Gama, continued Dias’ journey across the Indian Ocean to reach the East.

Here is an interesting fact. Have you ever wondered why the southernmost tip of Africa is called Cape Agulhas? During the time when Portuguese vessels rounded the Cape, something strange happened to their compass needles. Legend has it that the compass needle would swing, unable to determine true north from magnetic north. Dias named it Capo das Agulhas, which translates to Cape of Needles. Meanwhile, the Cape of Good Hope we know today was historically known as the Cape of Storms, the graveyard of ships.

Most of the shipwrecks in South Africa however occurred in the 19th century during the peak period of maritime traffic. In fact, the Great Gale of 1865 claimed ten ships in one single night off the coast of Cape Town. And to reduce the number of wrecks, more and more lighthouses were erected along the coastline of South Africa.

Bredasdorp, not too far from Cape Agulhus – the southernmost tip of Africa and where some say the two oceans meet – is home to the Shipwreck Museum. The museum is the only shipwreck museum in South Africa, and it pays tribute to 150 vessels that saw the end of their journey’s along the Cape’s tumultuous coast.

The most famous shipwrecks in South Africa

The Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape, and the Cape in the Western Cape, are known for its numerous shipwrecks. Some of the most famous shipwrecks in South Africa include the Grosvenor, the Arniston, HMS Birkenhead and the Santo Espirito.

The Grosvenor is believed to have carried innumerable valuable treasures – diamonds, rubies, and gold – and it was heading back to England from India. The mystery of the Grosvenor that went aground in 1782 is that efforts to discover it all came to a dead end. One can’t help to wonder where those treasures are today.

The town of Arniston was named after the Arniston, a ship that was on its way from Sri Lanka to England. Unfortunately, it sailed into a storm and struck a reef in 1815. To date, this wreck is considered one of the deadliest, only six of the 376 passengers survived.

Another tragedy was the 1852 HMS Birkenhead which is deep under the water, off the shore of Gansbaai. All the women and children survived as the captain gave order that they should board the life rafts first. This was one of the first ever documented examples of this policy.

And finally, there is the Santo Espirito, a ship that calls on modern day-explorers. Close to Morgan Bay in the Eastern Cape, this ship ran aground in 1608. If you are lucky you might still be able to find treasures from the Santo Espirito on the beach. Carnelian beads, money cowries and shards of Ming porcelain still wash up on the sand and among the rocks.

If you like scuba diving and dont mind cape towns cold water ask us to include a shipwreck dive in your tailor made package

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