10 Shipwrecks That Could Sink the Environment

A white platform in the ocean serves as a memorial to a sunken ship visible beneath the water
The USS Arizona, which lies beneath a floating memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, serves as both a reminder of the lives lost aboard the ship during World War II and an ongoing environmental issue due to leaking oil. .

tropicalpixsingapore / Getty Images

Accidents involving oil tankers or drilling rigs can cause huge oil spills and make international news, but they're not the only source of oil contamination in the world's oceans. According to a 2013 report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there are at least 87 sunken ships in U.S. waters that pose a serious environmental concern due to the oil leaks. These ships, which sunk at various points over the past century, still house millions of gallons of oil, held in corroding tanks at risk of failure. 

Some of these sunken ships, like the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, are already leaking oil. Others, like the Jacob Luckenbach, have leaked oil sporadically over the years, despite attempts to extract the oil and patch holes in the ship. Many are World War II era tankers that have not leaked oil yet, but threaten to do so because of their age and the vast oil reserves on board. 

Here are 10 shipwrecks that could threaten the environment due to the oil they carry.

of 10


Named the highest-risk wreck on NOAA’s list, the tanker Gulfstate was torpedoed by a German U-boat in April 1943 and sank 2,900 feet below the ocean surface off the Florida Keys. More than 40 crew members died.

The ship, which was en route from Galveston, Texas, to Portland, Maine, has never been found, but researchers worry it may still contain 3.5 million gallons of bunker oil—the heavy, highly polluting oil used to power large ships. A spill not only threatens Florida’s coral reefs and sea life, but also coastal communities as far north as North Carolina’s Outer Banks. NOAA has recommended the vessel be located to determine its condition and learn how much oil still remains inside.

of 10

USS Arizona

The gun turret of a sunken ship sits above the water, with oil on the surface of the water nearby

kyrien / Getty Images

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the USS Arizona was bombed and sank in a surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time, it was loaded with 1.5 million gallons of bunker oil. Although much of that fuel was lost in the fiery explosion that killed 1,177 service members and burned for two and a half days, an estimated 500,000 gallons remain inside.

The USS Arizona’s oil reserves are slowly seeping into the harbor — between two and nine quarts a day. The oil is visible on the water’s surface at the USS Arizona Memorial near Honolulu, and visitors have dubbed it “black tears.” The memorial is jointly managed by the National Park Service and U.S. Navy, who released a report in 2008 that discussed the environmental impacts of the oil leak. To date, no steps have been taken to mitigate the leak, largely due to the shipwreck's status as a National Historic Landmark.

of 10


In October 1937, the tank barge Argo sank in Lake Erie northeast of Sandusky, Ohio, during a violent storm. Laden with over 200,000 gallons of crude oil and benzol (a chemical similar to paint thinner), the wreck wasn't found for nearly 80 years. During that period, there were repeated reports of an oily sheen on the water near where it likely sank. For this reason, NOAA included the Argo on its list, ranking it the riskiest of five wrecks in the Great Lakes.

In 2015, a shipwreck hunter located the Argo, and reported a strong smell of solvent in the area and discoloration on the water’s surface. Coast Guard divers confirmed it still contained oil and was leaking benzol. Crews removed about 30,000 of a water and benzol mix, but questions linger about what still remains on the ship and the impact it could have on the environment.

of 10

Joseph M. Cudahy

A black-and-white photo of a burning tanker ship that is beginning to sink
The Joseph M. Cudahy was a 430-foot-long tanker built in 1921.

U.S. Coast Guard / Public Domain

In May 1942, the Joseph M. Cudahy was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Gulf of Mexico about 125 miles west of Naples, Florida. The tanker, traveling from Texas to Pennsylvania, carried more than 300,000 gallons of oil. It burned and sank, killing three officers and 24 crewmen. The remaining 10 crew members were rescued.

A wreck presumed to be the Joseph M. Cudahy rests on the ocean floor some 145 feet below where it reportedly went down, though the tanker has never been positively identified. Divers and boaters have seen surface oil slicks there for years, which often get worse after storms and after divers enter the submerged wreck. NOAA named the Joseph M. Cudahy as one of 17 sunken ships that should be further evaluated to determine how much oil is still on board, and whether it would be possible to siphon it out to mitigate environmental risks.

of 10

W.E. Hutton

The W.E. Hutton is a World War II era steam tanker that sank off the coast of North Carolina, after being struck by a torpedo in March 1942. In 2014, the Coast Guard received a call from a North Carolina fisherman who reported seeing “black globs” rising to the ocean surface and an oily sheen several miles offshore of Cape Lookout. A flyover of the area confirmed the presence of oil, and the leak was traced to the W.E Hutton.

Earlier, NOAA had assumed the tanker no longer contained the 2.7 million gallons of heating oil that was on board when it sank. However, after the fisherman’s discovery, Coast Guard dive crews located a finger-sized hole in the rusting hull that was indeed leaking oil. The hole was repaired, leaving an unknown amount of oil still trapped on the ship. The sealed tanker is now on a list of shipwrecks to be monitored in case the oil leak resumes again.

of 10


The tanker Coimbra, carrying more than 3 million gallons of lubricating oil bound for England from New York, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in January 1942. It broke into three parts and sank off the coast of Long Island. The explosion was so massive that Long Island residents 27 miles away could see the flames. The captain and more than 30 crew members died.

Despite the violent explosion that likely burned away much of the ship’s oil cargo, there have been several mysterious oil spills and incidents of tar balls washing ashore on Long Island beaches over the years. Many experts believe the Coimbra, which could still contain over a million gallons of oil, is the likely culprit. For this reason, NOAA ranks the submerged vessel among its 36 highest-risk wrecks and included it on its list of 17 sunken ships that need further evaluation.

of 10

Edmund Fitzgerald

A large tanker ship floats in calm water with a forested coastline in the background
The Edmund Fitzgerald was built in 1958 and was 729 feet long.

Greenmars / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald during a storm on Lake Superior in 1975 is among the most famous shipwrecks of the 20th century. The freighter, carrying 26,000 tons of iron ore pellets from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit, Michigan, broke in two after succumbing to high waves and gale-force winds. There were no distress calls, and the bodies of all 29 crew members were never found.

The Edmund Fitzgerald is one of five Great Lakes shipwrecks on NOAA’s list of potential threats. It’s classified as a medium pollution risk and no oil leaks have ever been reported, but many experts believe it may still contain more than 50,000 gallons of the highly destructive, heavy-grade oil it carried as a fuel source.

of 10

Jacob Luckenbach

The Jacob Luckenbach was a freighter that sunk off the California coast in July 1953 after a collision with another ship due to poor visibility. It was outfitted with supplies for the war effort in Korea, including 457,000 gallons of oil. Though the entire crew was rescued safely, the shipwreck has still proven costly due to intermittent oil spills

The mysterious oil spills resulted in the death of more than 50,000 birds between 1990 and 2003. In 2002, after retracing the birds’ paths and studying ocean currents, researchers honed in on the Jacob Luckenbach as the source. The freighter had been leaking oil for years, resulting in about 300,000 gallons entering the ocean. 

In response, the U.S. Coast Guard implemented a $20 million project to siphon oil from the ship. Though largely successful, researchers discovered new signs of oil leaks in 2016, evidence that the sealed ship is leaking again.

of 10

George MacDonald

The George MacDonald was a tanker ship that sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1960 after suffering a catastrophic mechanical failure. Though researchers estimate that the tanker sunk about 165 miles from Savannah, Georgia, the wreckage has never been located. It was traveling from Texas to New York with more than 4 million gallons of oil on board. When the ship began to flood and sink, all crew members were safely rescued, and the captain began releasing some fuel reserves in an attempt to save the ship.

Unlike many of the shipwrecks from World War II, the sinking of the George MacDonald was relatively peaceful, and researchers believe the ship lies on the ocean floor in one piece, and fuel may or may not still be on board. NOAA recommends attempting to locate the ship and survey the area for mystery oil spills.

of 10

R.W. Gallagher

The R.W. Gallagher was a tanker ship that sunk in 1942, one of several that was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico near the Louisiana coast. After being struck, the ship caught fire, and 10 crew members lost their lives. According to historical documents, the wreckage and a large oil spill was located in 1944 by the U.S. Navy.

Due to the violent nature of its demise, researchers believe most of the 3.4 million gallons of fuel on board have already escaped into the ocean. However, other factors might mean the shipwreck still contains oil. According to NOAA, the R.W. Gallagher was one of very few tankers at the time that had 24 separate compartments containing oil, increasing the odds that some of the compartments were not damaged by torpedoes. In addition, the vessel sank bottom-up, and the inverted orientation has likely trapped oil under the hull.