The oceans have always held sway over us, but in the last ten years or so, they have taken on a heightened sense of importance. Whether it’s images of environmentalists cleaning sea birds caked in spilt oil, talk of rising sea levels, or the sight of once-untainted waters speckled with plastic bags, now more than ever, the sea is an important symbol of our impact on the natural world.
In that same ten years, countries all over the world have opened underwater museums. These mysterious sites combine adventure, history and culture, offering divers and non-divers alike the chance to witness some of the most remarkable wonders hidden beneath the waves. Thankfully, the majority of these sites, such as the Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park in Grenada, strive to raise awareness about the threats posed to our oceans today.
In other cases, these underwater museums have injected a much-needed boost in tourism, funnelling money into local communities. It also just so happens that diving beneath the waves is one of the most enjoyable ways of getting to know a country’s history. We are a sea-faring species, and just as our past can be traced by digging beneath the soil, the oceans are home to thousands of years of human exploration – for better or for worse.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at five of the most mind-bending underwater museums around the world.
Top five underwater museums:
Parthenon of Shipwrecks, Greece
Further Information: Alonnisos Dive Center.
Greece opened its first underwater museum back in 2020. Located just off the coast of Alonissos island in the western Aegean, the ‘Parthenon of Shipwrecks’ is a treasure trove of fifth-century ancient Greek amphorae. The haul fell to the ocean flaw after a merchant ship carrying thousands of jugs of wine from Chalkidiki in northern Greece and the island of Skopelos was caught in a storm. The artefacts lay undiscovered for thousands of years until local fishermen happened upon them in 1985.
The wreck, which lies 50 feet below the waves just off the shore of the Peristera islet, is the most important discovery of its kind. Because of looting concerns, this protected area was once only accessible to archaeologists. However, the wreck, which sank back in 425 B.C is now open to recreational divers, offering the opportunity to step back into the rich history of Ancient Greece.
Baia Underwater Park, Italy
Further Information: Archeological Marine Park Bia.
For centuries, Baia was an opulent spa resort for the Roman elite. Built over natural volcanic vents, Baia became known for the healing properties of its natural hot springs, with the likes of Nero, Ceasar, Cicero spending long leisurely hours in the spas of Baia. Those with enough money went so far as to build permanent villas in the area. Talk about luxury.
Alas, Baia fell into ruin after it was invaded by Muslim forces in the 8th century, at which time much of Southern Italy was falling to conquerers from the Arab world. In the 16th century, the city, now utterly abandoned, was slowly consumed by the ocean – largely due to the same volcanic vents that once made Baia the jewel of Campania. Today, you can see those ancient ruins by taking one of the archaeological museums’ glass-bottom boat tours, or by diving down with a scuba guide. With its crumbling ruins and well-preserved mosaics, Baia is truly one of the greatest wonders of the underwater world.
Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park, Grenada
Further Information: Sculpture Park Grenada.
The sculptures in Jason de Caires Taylor’s underwater garden are only as important as the wildlife surrounding them. These ornate marine artworks are constructed out of concrete and steel and have been bolted to the ocean floor, serving as artificial reefs that provide the “ideal habitat for filter-feeding organisms”.
Submerged at a depth between two and eight meters, this stunning array of more than 65 sculptures is also home to some of the most dazzling species of fish in the Caribbean, including juvenile striped parrotfish, banded coral shrimp, peacock flounder, and fireworms. Glorious in their impermanence, these sculptures are living works that were designed to interact with the underwater environment around them. One day, they might disappear completely; consumed by the azure waters in which they reside.
Shipwreck Trail, Florida Keys
Further Information: Shipwreck Trail.
Beneath the waves of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, lies a trail of historic shipwrecks. Buried in the sands just off the coast, some of these wrecks are very shallow, while others are very, very deep. As such, the nature of the trail depends on how much experience you have as a diver.
The oldest shipwreck on the trail is the San Pedro, which dates from 1733. It left Havana, Cuba carrying silver coins from Mexico and crates of Chinese porcelain. Bound for Spain, it got caught in a hurricane mid-passage and fell beneath the waves. It wasn’t discovered until the 1960s when treasure hunters unearthed ballas, cannons, and remnants of cargo. In contrast, the youngest wreck is the Thunderbold, which was built during World War II and was donated to the Florida Keys Artificial Reef Association, which deliberately sunk it in 1986.
Further Information: Atlit-Yam.
Atlist Yam in Haifa, Isreal is perhaps the most remote and inaccessible site on this list. It also isn’t, technically speaking, a museum. However, it’s just too fascinating not to mention. Beneath the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean lie the submerged ruins of a neolithic village known as Atlit-Yam. Dating between 6900 and 6300 BC, the settlement lies around 10 metres beneath sea level and spans an area of 40,000 square metres.
Marine archaeologist Ehud Galili discovered Arlit Yam in 1984. Since then, his team have uncovered the ruins of houses, graves, and even wells. At the very centre of the expansive settlement, seven megaliths are arranged in a semicircle. The presence of a freshwater spring at the centre of the stone circle implies that this may have once been the site of water rituals.
The most widely held belief is that Atlit-Yam was abandoned in a hurry after a tsunami hit the coast, perhaps sparking a volcanic eruption elsewhere in the Mediterranean. The Minoan civilisations on Crete would meet a similar fate thousands of years later in 1650 BC.