Two 19th-Century Shipwrecks Discovered During Search for Flight MH370

The Western Australian Museum has put forth several suggestions for the identities of the sunken vessels

Shipwrecks discovered off the coast of Western Australia. Australian Transport Safety Bureau

For the past four years, experts have been searching the Indian Ocean in the hopes of finding Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which vanished under mysterious circumstances in March of 2014. With the exception of several pieces of debris, these searches have not been able to locate the plane. But during the hunt for MH370, researchers discovered the remains of two shipwrecks that went missing in the 19th century, as the Associated Press reports.

The submerged ships were found some 1,430 miles off the coast of Australia in 2015, during a nearly three-year, state-sponsored search by Malaysia, China and Australia. (That initiative came to an end last year, but the Malaysian government has since approved a new attempt by a private American-based company to locate MH370.) Last week, the Western Australian Museum announced that it had identified the ships as 19th-century merchant vessels, which had been transporting cargo holds of coal when they sank to the ocean floor.

Museum experts were approached by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau to review sonar and video data collected during the search for MH370. Because records of ships lost in the area during the 1800s are incomplete, the museum was not able to conclusively determine the identity of the shipwrecks. But Ross Anderson, the museum's curator of maritime archaeology, reveals in a press release that experts “can narrow the possibilities to some prime candidates based on available information from predominantly British shipping sources.”

One of the wrecks was a wooden ship, which, according to David Williams of CNN, is in a state of advanced degradation. The remains of the cargo and various metal implements (like anchors and fittings) are still visible, but the vessel’s hull structures and timbers have vanished.

Anderson believes that this ship may have been the W. Gordon, which was lost at sea after the brig departed Cape Town, South Africa in June 1876, during a voyage from Clyde, Glasgow to Adelaide, Australia. Another possible candidate is the barque Magdala, which disappeared in 1882 while traveling from Penarth, Wales to Ternate, Indonesia. Whatever the identity of the vessel, it appears to have come to a violent end. The ship’s cargo was found scattered across the seabed, suggesting that it went down “as a result of a catastrophic event such as explosion, which was common in the transport of coal cargoes,” Anderson explains in the statement.

The second wreck, which is made of iron, is in better condition than the first. It lies upright on the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and experts were able to determine that it once had at least two decks. Analysis of a coal sample retrieved from the site suggests that the ship was British in origin. Anderson believes the vessel is most likely the West Ridge, which disappeared on a voyage from Liverpool, England to Bombay, India in 1883.

Both sunken ships would have held crews of between 15 and 30 men, according to Anderson, and it is possible that additional passengers were on board. Sea captains, for instance, sometimes took their wives and children with them on international voyages.

“Then, as now,” Anderson says in the statement, “the disappearance of so many lives would have had a devastating impact on maritime families and communities.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.