8 Lost Underwater Worlds

Submerged statue head covered in aquatic plants
The submerged statues of Baiae are now home to marine organisms. Antonio Busiello / Getty Images

The legendary lost city of Atlantis has never been found, but there are a number of other real-life civilizations that lie sunken in seas all over the world. Most of them have wound up underwater due to earthquakes and other natural disasters—although at least one was purposefully submerged. Like the fictional island described in Greek mythology, these subaquatic cities are also brimming with ancient treasures as only centuries ago, they were thriving metropolises.

Here are eight lost worlds hiding in the sea.

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Heracleion, Egypt

Satellite image of Abu Qir Bay where Heracleion remains are located

NASA World Wind / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

This ancient Egyptian port city was discovered by a French underwater archaeologist named Franck Goddio in the '90s. Goddio was searching for 18th-century French warships in the Mediterranean Sea when he discovered a gargantuan face in the watery depths. He had happened upon the lost city known in ancient Egypt and Greece as Thonis-Heracleion.

Once a powerful port city that controlled all trade coming into Egypt, Heracleion—as it's often shortened to—sunk sometime during the 8th century as a result of various natural catastrophes. Since Goddio's discovery, 64 ships, 700 anchors, 16-foot statues, gold coins, and the remains of a temple to the god Amun have been found 30 feet deep in Abu Qir Bay, among the rest of the underwater ruins.

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Canopus, Egypt

The ancient Egyptian town of Canopus is submerged just two miles west of Thonis-Heracleion in Abu Qir Bay but has been underwater for much longer. Rising sea levels combined with a string of earthquakes and tsunamis sank the port city by the end of the 2nd century BCE. Canopus' remains were spotted in 1933 by a Royal Air Force commander and later excavated, again, by Franck Goddio. That gold and jewelry were found amid the submerged treasures is proof to many experts that the collapse was sudden and catastrophic.

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Phanagoria, Russia

Excavated remains with the sea in the background

kmorozov / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The largest ancient Greek city on Russian soil (or off Russian soil) is Phanagoria, a former thriving trade hub located on the Taman peninsula. It reportedly survived 15 centuries and saw its share of wars and invasions before eventually becoming one-third submerged between the Black Sea and Maeotian Swamp.

Often referred to as the "Russian Atlantis," Phanagoria was first explored in the 18th century but wasn't excavated in earnest until the 1930s. Finds have included coins, vases, pottery, terracotta figurines, jewelry, and metal items.

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Pavlopetri, Greece

Drone shot of an island and sea containing submerged city

DroneSolutionsGreece / Getty Images

Estimated to be about 5,000 years old, the sunken Greek settlement of Pavlopetri dates back to the time of Homer. Although discovered in 1967, it wasn't until 2009 that researchers got serious about unearthing its treasures. Remains dating back to 2800 to 1200 BCE revealed it to be the oldest known submerged town in the Mediterranean Sea—and one of the world's only underwater planned communities, boasting streets, buildings, and tombs.

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Port Royal, Jamaica

Cannons flanking the perimeter of a historic fortress

Raychristofer / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

This land of privateering and notorious pirates was once known as the "wickedest city on Earth." It was centered on the slave trade and the export of sugar and raw materials—and with success, the land became a place of opulence and decadence. However, according to UNESCO, "At the height of its glittering wealth, on June 7, 1692, Port Royal was consumed by an earthquake and two thirds of the town sank into the sea." In just a few minutes, nearly 2,000 people died, and 3,000 people later died from injuries. People blamed the incident on divine retribution for the town's sinful ways.

The only sunken city in the Western Hemisphere, Port Royal offers a unique viewpoint in that it has buildings both on land an in the water. And, because the disaster happened so suddenly, it preserved a moment in time, with lots of details of everyday life.

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Alexandria, Egypt

View of Alexandria and harbor from the water

Kayihan Bolukbasi / Getty Images

The city of Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. Filled with palaces and temples, its architecture and culture once rivaled Rome's, wrote none other than Franck Goddio. It was a cultural, religious, political, and scientific capital that eventually included the royal quarters where Queen Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony would stay.

But disaster hit, and a combination of earthquakes and tidal waves sent much of Cleopatra's palace and parts of the city's ancient coastline into the sea. The ruins remained untouched on the seabed. Goddio and his team of archaeologists and historians have used advanced technology to explore the area since 1992. They have excavated what has been called one of the richest underwater archaeological sites in the world. A monument excavated on the Island of Antirhodos in the eastern harbor of Alexandria may have stood there during Cleopatra’s reign.

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Shicheng City, China

Carved stone in the submerged city of Shicheng

Nihaopaul / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1959, the city of Shicheng ("Lion City" in English) was intentionally submerged to make room for the construction of a hydroelectric power station. The city was 1,339 years old. The 300,000-plus people who had to be relocated could trace their home back for generations. The well-preserved city is now a time capsule containing many statues and five entry gates. It's even open to divers.

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Baiae, Italy

Overhead shot of Baiae and the coastline

Ra Boe / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Baiae is ancient Roman resort town on the northwest shore of the Gulf of Naples. It was once treasured for its hot springs, reportedly livelier than the likes of Pompeii and Capri between 100 and 500 BCE. But rising waters caused by volcanic activity sank the lower part of town sometime between the third and fifth century.

Today, the nymphaeum of Emperor Claudius is preserved, along with several impressive statues, in a submerged archaeological park. Because marine organisms can wreak havoc on these structures, some have been recovered and put on display at the Archaeological Museum of Campi Flegrei.