Dive Back in Time at These 5 National Park Shipwrecks

Two SCUBA divers at the Cumberland shipwreck at Isle Royal National Park

Shipwrecks often call to mind images of the Caribbean Sea and pirate adventures on the open waters — both of which are somewhat limited notions when you consider the shipwreck sites found within the National Park System. Located everywhere from our coasts to the Midwest, shipwrecks offer an interesting dive into the country’s past and the area’s geography. Whether washed up on shore or still buried beneath the waves, explore the fascinating history surrounding the shipwrecks in these five national parks.

The Francisco Morazan

The remnants of the Francisco Moraza shipwreck in the water at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park
National Park Service

Lush forests, clear lakes, and unique flora and fauna, along with miles of sand beach, comprise Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Before goods and people were transported by roads in Michigan, the Great Lakes were the primary mode of transportation. However, the unmarked gravels and sandbars, coupled with the unpredictable weather conditions of the lakes, caused countless shipwrecks in the heavily trafficked area. The park tracks and collects the pieces of these shipwrecks that wash up on shore over time, examining their connection to the region’s maritime history.

If you take the 2.5-mile roundtrip hike on South Manitou Island, you can see the remnants of the Francisco Morazan. The ship has been located 300 feet off the island’s southwest shore since November of 1960, housing gulls and cormorants. If you are hoping to get an underwater look at some of the many shipwrecks in Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park will delight your senses. Proper training and equipment are recommended due to murky waters and confined passages that create intense dives. Are you up for the challenge?

The Madalay

Remnants of the Mandalay shipwreck at Biscayne National Park
Ana Zangroniz, NPS

Evidence of 10,000 years of human history can be found in Florida’s Biscayne National Park. Home to six shipwrecks, Biscayne is a treasure trove for underwater explorers. It hosts the Maritime Heritage Trail, which is the National Park Service’s only underwater archeological trail.

The Mandalay, which was built in 1928, is one of the drowned ships along the heritage trail. It ran aground on Long Reef in 1966 after the captain rang in the New Year, leaving a novice seaman at the helm. The ship ended up 20 miles off course, resulting in a helicopter rescue operation.

While scuba diving along the Maritime Heritage Trail, you will not only get to see these huge pieces of history, but the diverse, vibrant reef and fish that surround them. The ages of the ships span almost a century, with each vessel varying in size and type.

The S.S. Cuba

Tyler Bight bay surrounded by cliffs on San Miguel Island at Channel Island National Park
National Park Service

Due to its remote location, the five remarkable islands of California’s Channel Islands National Park is home to unique animals, plants, and archeological resources found nowhere else on Earth. Of the over 150 ships and aircrafts lost within its waters, only 25 have been discovered near Channel Islands to date, contributing to California’s rich maritime history. The 16th century arrival of Europeans meant that the region became a busy route for trade, passenger, and military ships. The discovery of gold also brought increased traffic, as the demand for travel and resources grew. From Gold Rush steamships to WWII destroyers, a vast variety of ships have passed through the area, tragically succumbing to hidden reefs and unpredictable weather.

Ships like the S.S. Cuba have been mapped out by maritime archaeologists, helping us better understand the history preserved near the islands. The S.S. Cuba was a cargo-passenger steamer that ran aground in 1923 due to heavy fog – there were over 100 passengers onboard at the time. Its cargo of silver bullion sank with it, but the passengers survived.  

The Oriental

Smokestack of the Oriental shipwreck at Cape Hatteras National Seashore
National Park Service

Plants, wildlife, and people are continuously adapting at North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Considered the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” shipwrecks are a large part of the history and culture of the outer banks. Between North Carolina’s underwater sandbars, colliding ocean currents, and barrier islands, avoiding the many dangers in the middle of a storm was incredibly challenging. The infamous diamond shoals made it treacherous for vessels to follow coastal trade routes, as these shallow, always-shifting, underwater sandbars extend eight miles out from Cape Hatteras. It is estimated that there are over 1,000 vessels that have been lost near Cape Hatteras. Island residents were even known to use the remains of shipwrecks to build local buildings.

Today, you can view some shipwreck remains from shore that date back to 1862. The Oriental, a steamship from the Civil War, contains a smokestack and exposed boiler arising from the ocean and can be seen if one stands opposite the self-guided Nature Trail parking lot and off Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Go explore!

The Noquebay

A scuba diver in orange and blue looking at the remnants of the wooden schooner Noquebay at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
National Park Service

A Midwestern jewel, Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore sits beside Lake Superior’s clean waters and includes 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland. Hiking, boating, kayaking, fishing — this park offers plenty of activities in and out of the water.  However, for many, the greatest draw to the park are the experiences made possible beneath the water.

For history buffs and the pirate obsessed, the awesomeness of Lake Superior’s hiking trails and lighthouses pale in comparison to the possibility of seeing shipwrecks. The Noquebay, one of four shipwrecks in the area, was a schooner barge built in 1872. Tragically, it burned and sunk in 1905. However, this disastrous turn of events allows visitors today to visit large sections of the boat’s wooden hull, boiler, and steering wheel as they sit 10 to 15 feet below.  Divers can also witness history submerged 4 feet deep at the historic docks, which provide underwater views of dock cribs near sandstone quarries that were used in the 1890s.

If you’ve been keen on diving into the lesser-known history of shipwrecks preserved across the system, head to these remarkable national parks and #FindYourPark, o mejor dicho #EncuentraTuParque, along our fascinating (and sometimes treacherous) coasts!

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