7 of the World's Most Intriguing Underwater Ruins

By: Mark Mancini  | 

sunken places
Yonaguni, discovered in 1986 off the coast of Japan, is a hotly debated underwater archaeological mystery — is it a natural formation or was it created by humans? nudiblue/Getty Images

Over 70 percent of Earth's surface is covered by water. And from time to time, the works of human hands are claimed or reclaimed by its lakes, seas and oceans.

There's more than one way to put manmade settlements underwater. Sometimes, they're submerged intentionally, the casualties of engineering projects. In other cases, natural forces (like earthquakes) conspire to swallow them up.

We invite you to join us on a grand, watery tour of seven submerged places. Distributed around the world, they range from pre-Incan ruins to a Canadian town marked for destruction.

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1. Atlit Yam

Around 9,250 to 8,000 years ago, there was a human settlement near what's now the coastal town of Atlit, Israel. The residents left a series of unconnected walls behind, along with water wells and rectangular building foundations, among other things.

All these objects are now confined to an archaeological site called "Atlit Yam," which spans 430,556 square feet (40,000 square meters). Immersed under 26 to 39 feet (8 to 12 meters) of water, it sits 656 feet (200 meters) away from the coastline.

Some 65 human skeletons have been recovered at Atlit Yam, not to mention the bones of various fish and domestic animals.

sunken places
Atlit Yam is an ancient submerged Neolithic village off the coast of Atlit, Israel.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)

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2. Port Royal's Sunken City

As the seagull flies, Port Royal, Jamaica is about 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of Kingston. One city is the nation's capital; the other is partially underwater.

Along with the rest of Jamaica, Port Royal was seized by the British in 1655. The settlement was a boom town, a major commerce hub loaded with privateers (who were basically government-commissioned pirates). In the year 1692, Port Royal had a population of somewhere between 6,500 and 10,000 residents — including thousands of slaves.

Disaster struck that summer. On June 7, 1692, just before noon, an earthquake rocked Port Royal. Then it was hit with a monstrous tidal wave. Around 30 acres (or 12 hectares) of buildings, streets and tombstones slid into the ocean. "I saw the earth open and swallow a multitude of people; and the sea mounting in upon us," recounted one survivor, the Reverend Dr. Heath, according to UNESCO.

Today, the high and dry section of Port Royal is a small fishing village. As for the buildings claimed by that 17th-century disaster ... well, they're still in Davy Jones' locker. Divers have been studying them since the 1950s.

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3. Rome's "Lost Vegas"

Built on Italy's northwest coast by the ancient Romans, Baia is often compared to modern-day Las Vegas. It was a seaside city where the rich kept luxurious vacation homes, ideal meeting sites for adulterers and political schemers.

But as volcanic vents raised the water level, most of Baia slipped beneath the waves.

Designated as an underwater archaeological park in 2002, the city's treasures are now accessible to the public. Points of interest for snorkelers and scuba divers include rotundas, statues and an ancient sauna.

sunken places
View of the Gulf of Baia in a copper engraving made by Alexandre de Rogissart in 1709.
De Agostini/Getty Images

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4. A Lake Titicaca Temple

In 2000, a team organized by Akakor Geographical Exploring discovered a mysterious underwater temple at the bottom of South America's Lake Titicaca — an enormous freshwater lake in the Andes mountains that's considered the highest navigable waterway on Earth.

"We've found what appears to have been a 656-foot-long, 164-foot-wide [or 200-meter-long, 50-meter-wide] holy temple, a terrace for crops, a pre-Incan road and a 2,624-foot-long [800-meter-long] containing wall," expedition leader Lorenzo Epis told the press.

The structures are thought to be somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 years old.

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5. The 'Atlantis of the East'

From ancient Israel, we turn to 20th-century China. In the 1950s, the Chinese government deliberately flooded a valley inside the Zhejiang Province in order to create Qiandao Lake, an artificial body of water that powers a hydroelectric plant.

The project forced more than 290,000 people to relocate. But something else remained firmly in place when the waters rose. A city known as Shi Cheng had been founded there during the Eastern Han Dynasty (i.e., between 25 and 200 C.E.).

Long consigned to the dustbin of history, Shi Cheng was rediscovered by divers in the year 2001. The underwater city boasts five entrance gates, 265 archways and animal sculptures galore. Travel guides have nicknamed this place the "Atlantis of the East."

sunken places
A detail of some of the magnificent carvings under the water at Shi Cheng, China.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)

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6. Minnewanka Landing

History repeats itself. Across the Pacific, another building project doomed one of Alberta, Canada's lakeside settlements to a watery grave.

Minnewanka Landing was a popular vacation destination — especially with Calgary residents — during the 19th and early 20th centuries. People flocked to its cottages and restaurants, and there was a rustic-looking hotel called the "Beach House." As that name implies, Minnewanka Landing bordered one of the Great White North's charming little lakes.

sunken places
Who would believe there's a town under this water?
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Said lake got a whole lot bigger after dams were built in 1912 and 1941. Again, the motivation was power: A hydroelectric plant operation had been constructed nearby. Rising waters eventually consumed Minnewanka Landing. Now the town's only visible to divers.

But here's the good news: The cold, naturally fresh water has done a bang-up job of preserving the former tourist town's wooden artifacts. If you know where to dive, you can find cellars, wharfs, house foundations and even an old bridge on-site.

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7. Alexandria's Sunken Treasures

Considered one of the ancient world's great wonders, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt stood over 350 feet (110 meters) tall by some accounts. Dedicated in the year 279 B.C.E., it had an imposing stature few manmade structures could rival.

The tower was built on Pharos Island, an outcrop in the city's harbor. It became a point of pride for Egyptians, immortalized on coins and copied by scores of architects. But various earthquakes and construction projects cut the lighthouse down to size over time — with many bits and pieces unceremoniously dumped into the Mediterranean. By the end of 1480 C.E., nothing was left standing.

A few sunken lighthouse remains were rediscovered in 1994. Today, Alexandria's historic harbor is loaded with all kinds ancient artifacts, from obelisks to black granite statues. There's been talk of building an underwater museum.

sunken places
Ancient pillars are seen at the bottom of the harbor in Alexandria, Egypt.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)

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