“Iceberg, right ahead!” Sailor Frederick Fleet of the Titanic called out into the frigid air. And this terrifying announcement signaled the beginning of the ship’s end – or so we previously thought. That’s because Irish journalist Senan Molony has found evidence that suggests the vessel wasn’t actually doomed because of her collision with the hulking lump of ice. Worse yet, the true cause of the Titanic’s demise may have been purposely covered up since the ship’s infamous sinking.
When the Titanic first set sail, though, no one expected her to meet such a disastrous end. Initially, you see, she was hailed as something of a maritime marvel. The steamer first set off from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912, and made a pair of stops in France and Ireland before traveling on toward New York City. But as we know, the vessel would never make it there. Yes, sadly, just four days into her journey, at 11:40 p.m., the Titanic smashed into an iceberg – filling the ship’s supposedly unsinkable frame with water.
Then, within hours, the Titanic plunged to the bottom of the ocean, taking more than half of the 2,224 passengers with her. And such a large-scale disaster naturally required a proper inquiry, which British officials completed that same year. But while the Brits ultimately blamed the passenger liner’s demise on the iceberg, Molony contends that they in fact knew otherwise. What’s more, he says that he has the proof to back this extraordinary claim up.
Yet the Titanic’s story began further back in the early 20th century, when the British shipping firm White Star Line started to feel pressure from its competition. German companies such as Hamburg America and Norddeutscher Lloyd had begun launching fast-moving passenger ships, you see, and White Star simply couldn’t compete. So, as a consequence, the British business turned its attention to building bigger and more lavish vessels that compensated in other ways for their slower speeds.
In the end, White Star built three ships that fit this new mold: the RMS Olympic, the HMHS Britannic and the RMS Titanic. And the third ship in particular exemplified the fleet’s new direction into luxury cruising. Rather than taking on the English manor-style decor of older ships, the vessel had a much modern, lighter feel that was inspired by the timelessness of The Ritz hotel.
The ship boasted more than just elegant interior design, though; she also came with uncommon upscale features. For instance, passengers could dip their toes in saltwater pools, play squash or relax in a Turkish bath. They could also indulge in the massage room, the sauna and the steam room. The ship played host to high-class restaurants, too, as well as opulent guest rooms – for the first-class passengers, anyway.
That said, even third-class patrons had much-improved quarters. Previously, low-cost tickets gave passengers access to open dormitories without enough food or bathrooms for everyone. The Titanic, by contrast, offered a different kind of travel experience. In total, she could accommodate 1,006 guests in third, 614 in second and 833 people in first class. More than 900 crew members fit on board, too.
But perhaps the most alluring aspect of a voyage on the Titanic was the fact that she had been advertised as an unsinkable vessel. And White Star made that assertion at a time when people had great faith in science and technological advancements. As such, many of those boarding the Titanic apparently did so in the belief that there was no way the ship would sink.
Nonetheless, the Titanic did have safety features that were meant to keep the boat afloat if water did somehow start to seep on board. Below deck, for instance, the vessel had 16 compartments with 15 bulkheads built to exceed the waterline. The area had watertight doors, too, which would close if there was a breach.
So, many of the Titanic’s 2,224 passengers apparently got on board with the presumption that they had booked tickets to travel on the ocean’s safest vessel. Legend even has it that someone embarking on the ship asked a staff member if it was unsinkable. And, reportedly, the employee’s response – as immortalized in the movie Titanic – was “God himself could not sink this ship!”
At first, it was smooth sailing on the Titanic when she began her journey from Southampton, England. She subsequently chugged on to pick up passengers in the French city of Cherbourg and later stopped off in Cobh, Ireland. Then, following that, all 1,316 passengers and 885 employees had boarded, meaning it was time to head for New York.
Four days into the journey, however, the Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, received a message from a nearby ship called the Californian. The latter vessel’s crew warned, “We are stopped and surrounded by ice.” But Smith and his first officer, William Murdoch, decided to disregard the warning – instead pushing ahead at the ship’s near-top speed.
Then, less than an hour later, the Titanic crew saw the situation for themselves when a sailor signaled the location of an iceberg directly in the vessel’s path. First Officer Murdoch therefore ordered the engines to be shut off, while the ship herself was steered to the left to avoid the frozen mass. But the effort was in vain, and the Titanic scraped its side against the iceberg.
The impact apparently punctured the side of the Titanic below the waterline, and six of her below-deck compartments duly began to flood with water. If only four of these areas had filled, the ship would have survived the collision. But as the ocean poured into a half-dozen containers, the ship started to sink and water began to breach the bulkheads – filling other compartments, too.
The Titanic was unsalvageable at this point, and so the passengers and crew had to begin evacuating the sinking ship. But that necessity presented yet another problem: no one had put enough thought into preparing for a disembarkment at sea. And this lack of foresight ultimately spelled trouble for many of the people on board.
After all, the ship didn’t have the means to evacuate all of the passengers; instead, she only had approximately half of the lifeboats needed to carry everyone on board. And to make matters worse, officers apparently started sending the smaller vessels to sea without filling them to capacity. This, too, came down to faults with their training, as the crew simply didn’t know how many people could safely fit on a single lifeboat.
In addition, the crew left third-class passengers to save themselves – meaning many of them drowned in their lower-deck barracks as the ship went down. At first, though, the Titanic actually sank more slowly than her engineer predicted. Upon hearing that six compartments had begun to fill, you see, he had said that the ship would be underwater in 90 minutes at most.
And yet, two and a half hours after striking the iceberg, the Titanic remained afloat. But then everything changed. The front of the ship slipped underwater, and her stern rose into the air. Passengers then clung to the last floating piece of the doomed liner, only for this to also sink minutes later – dragging everyone holding onto it into the icy water below.
The ocean water, meanwhile, was at a temperature of a mere 28 °F, proving lethal to nearly every single person left floating on the surface. Unfortunately, those who were left stranded in the sea suffered from a slew of fatal side effects, with most dying from cardiac arrest in around 15 to 30 minutes. And the lifeboats could only save a mere five people from the water, even though there was the capacity on these vessels for 500 more survivors in total.
It took around two more hours for the nearby RMS Carpathia to arrive on the scene. Consequently, that ship carried all of the Titanic’s survivors – approximately 710 people – to their destination in New York City. But before the luckiest passengers even arrived in America, investigators had already begun their search for the cause of the doomed liner’s sinking.
Both the U.S. and the U.K. helmed inquiries into the Titanic’s tragic end. And on the American side, investigators concluded that the crew had acted as they should have, meaning the sinking could only be described as an act of God. The Brits, by contrast, determined that while Captain Smith had indeed followed protocol, the ship herself was going too fast – especially with an ice warning in place.
As such, the long-held consensus has been that the Titanic went down solely because of the iceberg. However, journalist Molony came up with a new theory, and he found crucial evidence to back it up. He believed, you see, that the ship’s structure had been compromised long before she had ever set sail for New York City.
And Molony had already dedicated three decades to Titanic-related research when he uncovered what he believed to be new evidence. In the early 2010s, he purchased a stack of Titanic photos from a descendant of the engineering chief of Harland and Wolff – the company responsible for building the ship.
Then, as Molony went through the pile of pictures, he noticed that a previously hidden detail on the Titanic’s hull was depicted in one of the images. In particular, black markings that were around 30 feet long streaked the side of the vessel. And, worryingly, the striations appeared to be in the same spot where the ship would crash into the iceberg.
Yet in order to figure out the cause of the markings, Molony had to turn to the experts. In 2017 he told Smithsonian, “We asked some naval architects what this could be, and nobody knew and everybody was intrigued.” Still, Molony did at least get one good theory as to the streak’s source. The journalist said, “The best suggestion at the time was that this was a reflection.”
Nevertheless, Molony said that he knew of nothing on the dock or shoreline that could have created a reflection like that. So, he kept digging, as the placement of the markings was too suspicious to ignore. And in 2017 he explained the potential significance of these anomalies to The Independent, saying, “We are looking at the exact area where the iceberg struck.”
Molony added, “We appear to have a weakness or damage to the hull in that specific place before [the Titanic] even left Belfast.” And soon enough, engineers based at Imperial College London presented their own theory as to the source of the streak. Specifically, they thought that the Titanic may have had a fire break out on board before her maiden voyage.
It apparently wasn’t just any blaze, either. You see, the Titanic had a three-story-tall coal store, and some experts believe that the fire had first sparked there. And according to these specialists, a dozen men had tried to extinguish the raging blaze. The inferno would have been difficult to douse, too, as it reportedly reached a temperature of more than 1,800 °F.
By Molony’s estimates, then, the fire could have broken out up to three weeks before the Titanic’s launch day. Allegedly, though, those in charge of her voyage swept news of the blaze under the rug. After all, such an incident could have either delayed the unsinkable ship’s send-off or been the source of bad press.
Molony added that the supposed Titanic fire could have affected the U.K.’s reputation at the worst moment. The journalist explained to Smithsonian, “They’d been facing massive competition from the Germans and others for the valuable immigrant trade. You don’t want a loss of public confidence in the whole of the British maritime [industry].”
Yet ignoring the alleged coal fire proved to be a fatal mistake – according to Molony, at least. As the Titanic expert explained to the Independent, “We have metallurgy experts telling us that when you get that level of temperature against steel, it makes it brittle and reduces its strength by up to 75 percent.”
If this theory is to be believed, then, the Titanic’s heat-weakened steel would have provided little defense against the iceberg jutting from the sea. Instead, her hull crumbled as she collided with the frozen mass. The steel then ripped open, the below-deck compartments filled with water and the massive ship began to sink into the ocean.
Interestingly, though, Molony said that his argument wasn’t necessarily a new one. Apparently, those who had worked on the Titanic’s engines had reported the coal fire shortly after the vessel went down. The U.K.’s inquiry into the sinking actually mentioned a blaze, too. Still, the journalist alleged that despite all these warning signs, the judge helming the inquest seemingly played down the seriousness of the fire.
In addition, Molony felt that the judge had an ulterior motive in playing down the incident. He said, “He was a shipping interest judge. And, in fact, he presided at a toast at the Shipwrights’ Guild four years earlier, saying, ‘May nothing ever adversely affect the great carrying power of this wonderful country.’ So, he closes down efforts to pursue the fire, and he makes this finding that the iceberg acted alone.”
As such, the fire theory makes sense to Molony – and a few other experts, too. Ray Boston spent more than 20 years learning about and researching the Titanic, and he came to the conclusion that a blaze had broken out as many as ten days before the vessel departed. Boston has also said that the supposed pre-departure inferno could very well have foreshadowed “serious explosions” on the ship’s journey to New York.
But plenty of people have their doubts about Molony’s hypothesis. For one thing, he’s not the first to try and rewrite the story of the Titanic and its untimely demise. In the past, you see, some have theorized that German U-boats launched a torpedo into the vessel. Even more bizarrely, some have even said that an ancient Egyptian curse led to the ship’s tragic end.
All in all, then, Molony’s theory sounds much more plausible than these alternatives. Yet other experts stand behind the ruling that it was the iceberg – not a pre-launch fire – that ultimately brought the vessel down. The British Titanic Society’s former secretary Dave Hill told The New York Times, “A fire may have accelerated [the sinking]. But in my view, the Titanic would have sunk anyway.”
But Molony maintains his beliefs, and he countered the iceberg-centric arguments by pointing to the original inquiry’s findings. This, he claimed, had plenty of errors – such as the assertion that the Titanic had plunged into the depths in one piece. After all, when divers pinpointed the wreckage’s location in 1985, they realized that the vessel had snapped in half before coming to rest on the seafloor.
Indeed, Molony suggested taking the oldest Titanic-related inquests with a grain of salt. He told Smithsonian, “Just because an official finding says it doesn’t make it true.” The journalist reiterated this point of view to The Independent, saying, “The official Titanic inquiry branded the sinking as an act of God.”
Molony continued, “It’s a perfect storm of extraordinary factors coming together: fire, ice and criminal negligence… She should never have been put to sea.” So while most of the Titanic’s secrets went down with the ship, Molony’s theory presents a new angle to a tale that never becomes less fascinating – or heartbreaking.
However, the Titanic’s fate is far from the only tragedy that our oceans have seen. A research team just off the coast of Colombia is awaiting confirmation of a monumental discovery. And as the images finally come back from a camera nearly 2,000 feet below the surface of the Caribbean sea, they know they’ve found something special. Yes, the “Holy Grail” of sunken treasure ships lies beneath them – one that has’t been seen for 300 years. Welcome to the final resting place of San José.
A few months earlier, the same team – consisting of experts from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Maritime Archaeology Consultants – had examined the area and come up empty-handed. Searching for centuries-old shipwrecks isn’t easy, after all. And despite all of the scientists’ hi-tech equipment, on this occasion the ocean had refused to give up its secrets.
Undeterred, however, the team scheduled a second survey for November, and this one would turn out to be rather more successful. But they weren’t the first treasure hunters to go looking for this particular wreck. In fact, more than three decades earlier, another group believed that it had found the location of San José – a Spanish galleon that had sunk in the 18th century. And with her had gone a cargo that was worth a fortune.
Believing that the wreck of San José had come to rest off Colombia’s coast, Sea Search Armada had contacted the country’s government. Its 1981 request to salvage the site, however, had been met with a somewhat unenthusiastic response from the South American nation’s authorities. And years of legal wrangling had followed, calling a halt to any further exploration of the area.
In fact, it would be decades before anyone went near the wreck site – presumably in part due to the secret nature of its location. It was at this point, you see, that the Colombian government approved a state-sponsored survey of the area. And this meant that the galleon ‒ and its cargo of riches ‒ would be seen for the first time in more than 300 years.
San José sailed at a time known these days as the Age of Discovery. From the start of the 15th century to the mid-1800s, European countries explored the world by ship. Spurred on by the desire for fresh trading partners, nations such as Portugal, Britain and France opened up the globe via its oceans.
However, it was Spain that perhaps had the greatest early success during this period. Christopher Columbus made his famous journeys to the Americas on behalf of the Spanish, after all. The legendary explorer made landfall in what is now the Bahamas in October 1492, several months after he’d left Andalusia. And he later ventured to Cuba and the coast of Central America.
Believe it or not, Columbus discovered South and Central America entirely by accident. The navigator was originally destined for India, you see, but he came across an island called San Salvador in the Caribbean instead. And this mistake opened up the New World to European explorers. More specifically, Spain would soon become the area’s dominant power.
In fact, over the next 100 years, Spain took over an enormous chunk of the Americas. After invading Peru and Mexico among other places, the European country extended its rule from Argentina and Chile to the southwest of today’s America. And of course, building this empire led to the plundering of native resources and the near-extinction of many indigenous populations.
In addition to creating an empire, the Spanish also funded and successfully completed the first round-the-world sailing. In 1519, under the command of Ferdinand Magellan, five vessels left Seville to undertake this quest. But more than three years later, only one of them returned to Spain. Four ships and most of the crew – including Magellan – never made it back.
During Spain’s conquest of the oceans and the Americas, any plunder – often gold, exotic foods or precious stones – would be taken to Europe via its navy. And San José was one of the ships on which this valuable cargo would be transported. Built in 1698, she sailed at the head of a fleet of 17 treasure vessels.
At the turn of the 18th century, this fleet of warships became necessary. Spanish king Charles II died without an heir, you see, and he had willed the monarchy to a Frenchman: Philip, Duke of Anjou, who was Louis XIV’s grandson. However, other European empires were uncomfortable with a joint French and Spanish power. And so began a battle that would encompass much of the known world.
This conflict became known as The War of the Spanish Succession. Britain joined the combat, fighting against Spain in its American territories. And it was against this backdrop that San José fulfilled her purpose, ferrying taxes and treasures from the New World. Attacks on the fleet weren’t unusual at the time, however, and they were – at least once – very effective.
That occasion was in June 1708, when the treasure fleet was journeying from Portobelo in Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Laden with cargo including gold, silver and emeralds, San José was leading the way. But just 30 miles from the vessels’ destination, a British contingent spotted them. And the ensuing battle had tragic consequences for the Spanish – and San José.
The skirmish – later named Wager’s Action – lasted more than 12 hours, even continuing through the night. But while much of the Spanish fleet survived, San José did not. The ship didn’t go down as a result of direct action from the British, though. Remarkably, by all accounts, the treasure vessel exploded unexpectedly before the Brits were able to board it.
After the explosion, San José instantly sank. The ship’s entire load – tons and tons of precious stones and metals – headed for the ocean floor. Along with it, all but 11 of her 600-strong crew were sent to watery graves. And there they stayed, undisturbed for 300 years.
But while San José’s crew and cargo lay resting on the seabed for centuries, they were never forgotten. Efforts to find the wreck – popularly described among treasure hunters as “the Holy Grail” of archaeology – and, of course, the treasure that it holds have continued for decades. And in 1981 a group of salvagers thought that they’d discovered San José’s precise location.
However, the salvage company, Sea Search Armada, never got the chance to go down and look for the sunken treasure. Since the wreck lay in Colombia’s territorial waters, you see, the organization needed permission to retrieve it. But the request was denied. And the government subsequently created a law that essentially banned access to San José and her precious cargo.
This decision kicked off years of legal wrangling over rights to the wreck. In fact, Sea Search Armada sued the Colombian government on three separate occasions between 1989 and 2015. But in the end, the site was designated state property. And all the while, San José’s alleged location was kept a strict secret.
But in 2015 a team of scientists went looking for San José and her treasure. And this time, they had the blessing of the nation’s government. A research vessel called A.R.C. Malpelo carried archaeologists out to the Caribbean sea – just off Cartegena – with a marine submersible in tow, too.
This hi-tech submersible – called Remus 6000 – is an underwater vehicle that’s capable of seeing things that humans can’t. Operated by a team from Massachusetts’ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the machine has an amazing pedigree. In fact, its services were called upon in 2011 to find wreckage of a very different kind in a very high-profile case.
On June 1, 2009, the deadliest accident in Air France’s history occurred off Brazil’s northeastern coast. Flight 447, which had been headed to Paris from Rio de Janeiro, had had 228 passengers and crew on board. But after a series of mechanical and human errors, the Airbus A330 had fallen out of the sky. The craft was destroyed when it hit the Atlantic, resulting in the loss of everyone aboard.
But while initial salvage efforts turned up some parts of the plane, the aircraft’s black boxes remained elusive. These pieces of equipment ‒ the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder ‒ are vital to understanding the last moments of a flight. Due to the extremely rough underwater terrain at the craft’s presumed crash site, though, authorities tried in vain for two years to locate them.
So in 2011 the Woods Hole team took Remus 6000 out to the Atlantic to aid in the hunt for the black boxes. In less than a week, the submersible’s sonar technology located a significant amount of debris from Flight 447. And the discovery led French authorities directly to the boxes.
So, the submersible no doubt has serious form when it comes to locating wreckage in hard-to-reach areas. And with that in mind, it’s no surprise that the Colombian government invited the Woods Hole team to help hunt for San José. In fact, as Woods Hole’s team leader Mike Purcell said in a press release, “Remus 6000 is the ideal tool for the job, since it’s capable of conducting long-duration missions over wide areas.”
That said, Woods Hole’s initial sweep of the area in June 2015 turned into a disappointment. Not only were the team unable to find anything in relation to San José, but they also ran out of time during their mission. And as a result, parts of the search location weren’t surveyed at all. This setback didn’t put the experts off, though.
In fact, the research team went back to those Colombian waters five months later. And their determination started to pay off. In a 2018 press release, Purcell explained, “During that expedition, we got the first indications of the find from side-scan sonar images of the wreck.”
In fact, these sonar results showed a debris field that convinced the Woods Hole team that they’d found San José herself – or at the very least, something else incredible. Purcell said, “From those images, we could see strong sonar signal returns. So we sent Remus back down for a closer look [and] to collect camera images.”
To get that close-up view, though, the researchers sent Remus 6000 down to the depths almost 2,000 feet below the surface. In fact, it came to rest just 30 feet from the debris field. And the images that the submersible sent back were simply astonishing. Pots, weapons and even hundreds of tea cups littered the ocean floor. But it was a collection of cannons that really caught the experts’ eyes.
“I just sat there and smiled,” Woods Hole engineer Jeff Kaeli told CBS News of the images. He had been alone when the pictures came in. “I’m not a marine archaeologist, but I know what a cannon looks like,” he went on. “So in that moment, I was the only person in the world who knew we’d found the shipwreck.”
At this point, then, the Woods Hole researchers were convinced that they’d found San José. They would need closer images before they could confirm the find, though. That’s because they knew that the ship’s cannons feature intricately engraved details. And sure enough, when Remus 6000 got nearer to the wreck, it photographed dolphins carved into the weapons.
Yes, the carved sea creatures were all the proof that the team needed. They now believed that they had indeed found the site of the long-lost vessel San José. Purcell explained, “With the [new] images, we were able to see new details in the wreckage. And the resolution was good enough to make out the decorative carving on the cannons.”
From there, the Woods Hole team’s lead archaeologist, Roger Dooley, confirmed the incredible find. Incredibly, three centuries after it had sunk, human eyes had once again glimpsed San José. But while the discovery was heralded at the time, details about the wreck’s artifacts and exactly how they’d been found weren’t made public until three years later. So why all the secrecy?
The scarcity of details about the wreck – even now – has its roots in a couple of issues. The first is the legal wrangling that started up again after the announcement of the discovery. Indeed, Sea Search Armada repeated its claim to any loot, since it had, it claimed, originally found the wreck. In addition, other nations, such as Spain, who had owned the galleon, and those countries whose wealth it contained, may also be interested in the treasure.
The second and perhaps most important cause of the information vacuum is the treasure itself. If the cargo indeed comprises untold riches, as the log book of San José’s sister ship indicates, whoever owns the wreck would instantly become obscenely wealthy. You see, estimates of the value of the sunken silver, gold and emeralds top out at a whopping $17 billion. Yes, you read that correctly: $17 billion.
The location of such a precious haul, then, is a secret well worth keeping. Not least because, as one lawyer told National Geographic magazine in 2018, “Sober people just lose their minds” when it comes to treasure. But while the legal disputes continue, the wreck of San José is off limits to anyone wishing to get their hands on the loot.
The legal arguments can’t go on forever, though. So what might happen to the wreck once it’s all said and done? Well, the Colombian government has pledged to build a new research facility and accompanying museum for the preservation and display of any recovered artifacts. But there are some who believe that raising San José and her contents could lead to significant loss.
In 2018, for instance, UNESCO publicly asked the Colombian government to leave San José and her cargo exactly where they are. This is partly due to the agency’s insistence that any commercial gain from the wreck threatens the cultural significance of the site.
However, there’s another reason to leave the site alone. As so many of San Jose’s crew members died during a battle, the wreck is considered a war grave. In 2015 Stanford University archaeologist Juston Leidwanger told CBS News, “It makes [salvage] very touchy because one is not supposed to intervene in war graves. Can you pluck treasure from the sea without disturbing a war grave? I doubt you can.”
So while the arguments over ownership continue, San José remains at the bottom of the ocean. But, one day, we just may see the riches that 18th-century Spanish royalty once laid claim to in the light of the 21st century. And then we’ll know what $17 billion worth of treasure really looks like.