By Chantae Reden | Published on July 20, 2022

As you sail over the waters of the Caribbean, the color changes from powder blue to turquoise to deep cobalt. Hints of yellow and orange speckle the surface as the deep sea gives way to shallow reefs. Under blue skies, it's paradise. But for ship captains of the past facing stormy weather, these waters were challenging to navigate. Add in pirates, political feuds and mutinies, and the waters get even more treacherous. Today, you can still visit many of the most famous Caribbean shipwrecks.

Look beneath the surface, and you'll discover hundreds of sunken ships strewn throughout the Caribbean with hulls taken over by marine life. The original Caribbean shipwrecks date back to the 17th and 18th centuries — relics from the Golden Age of Piracy. Today, their wooden structures have been largely reclaimed by the sea. Other famous Caribbean shipwrecks include the surviving steel hulls of mighty warships, super yachts, humble tugboats and giant freighters that linger on the seabed, bound to be forgotten by all except the occasional curious diver.

Two scuba divers exploring a reef on a shipwreck. The Caribbean.
Two scuba divers exploring a reef on a shipwreck. The Caribbean.

What It's Like Diving Among Shipwrecks

It's eerie to see a sunken ship on the sea floor. On a clear day, rays of sunlight pierce the blue water like fishing line, wrapping around the shipwreck's hull as if to lure the ship back to where it belongs. But the sea has other plans. After a ship sinks in the Caribbean, it becomes a new habitat for aquatic life. Coral frags attach themselves to the hull, and fish take shelter in its shadows.

As a scuba diver and free diver with hundreds of dives under my fins, I've learned that diving among shipwrecks with a tank and without can offer wildly different perspectives of the same ship. No matter how you do it, exploring at a wreck dive site feels like a humbling journey to a bygone era.

Tropical fish swimming near an underwater structure. The Caribbean.
Tropical fish swimming near an underwater structure. The Caribbean.
St Kitts Scuba Diving
Scuba Diver Underwater in St Kitts

Thanks to a tank of air, scuba divers have time to examine the finer details of the ship, often penetrating its interior. It's a peek into the past, with clues of what life onboard was like hidden around every corner. The weightlessness as you move through the vessel (taking care to squeeze through hatches and windows) feels almost otherworldly. Dive with scuba gear to linger and admire the various corals, anemones and critters tucked between the crags of the ship reef. You'll feel like you're examining the ship through the lens of a magnifying glass.

Free divers only explore shipwrecks one breath at a time, taking a break at the water's surface in between each dive. With no loud breathing apparatus or bubbles to scare marine life away, sea creatures often come much closer to free divers than scuba divers. If visibility is good, you can often see the full scale of the ship from the surface. Because free divers must be mindful of their body at every moment, diving at a shipwreck is as much of an inner journey as it is an outer one.

Free diver swimming up from a large underwater shipwreck. The Caribbean.
Free diver swimming up from a large underwater shipwreck. The Caribbean.
I only experienced the difference between the two types of diving after I'd been free diving at the same shipwreck for weeks. I thought I knew the outline well and could envision every major of part of the wreck with my mind's eye. Once I put on my scuba gear, I realized I didn't know the layout of the ship as well as I'd thought. Reef sharks and sea turtles who'd swam close to me as a free diver now gave a wide berth thanks to my bubbles. But with a tank, I could slow down and watch small happenings in the reef, like anemonefish protecting their young in the safety of their anemone, tucked behind the ship's wheel. Both offer intimate experiences in varying ways.
After a ship sinks in the Caribbean, it becomes a new habitat for marine life. Coral frags attach themselves to the hull, and fish take shelter in its shadows.

Famous Sunken Ships In The Caribbean

The Caribbean is one of the best places in the world to go wreck diving, either as a free diver or scuba diver. From century-old warships with corals encrusted over their cannons to modern freighters with barely an algae patch on their hull, there are many types of shipwrecks to admire.

Dive The Gargantuan Freighter Ss Stavronikita, Barbados

Barbados is often called the shipwreck capital of the Caribbean — much to sailors' chagrin. It has some of the best diving in the Caribbean, too. Perhaps the most famous Barbados shipwreck out of the hundreds in its waters is the SS Stavronikita, a 365-foot Greek freighter that was sunk in the late 1970s and has since been a refuge for all types of marine life. Impressive gorgonian fans cloak the ship's upright hull, with reef fish big and small swimming throughout the wreck. Swim slowly, and you might spot a sea turtle munching on a sponge or coral. In the surrounding blue, barracudas abound. The mast of the ship starts at a depth of 30 feet, with the stern at 100 feet, making it an ideal wreck dive for intermediate to experienced divers.

Explore Shipwrecks Galore At Carlisle Bay, Barbados

Colorful Fish around Coral Reef, Roatan, Honduras
Colorful Fish around Coral Reef, Roatan, Honduras

Beginner divers (both scuba and free divers) can hop from one wreck to the next at Carlisle Bay. Here, you'll find many famous sunken ships, such as the Berwyn, Cornwallis, Bajan Queen, Fox, Eilon and C-Trek. The Berwyn, a French tugboat, sunk over a century ago after coming under fire during World War I. Rumors claim the crew onboard wrecked the boat intentionally, fleeing the ship and taking refuge in the pubs of Barbados. It's customary to toast to the former crewmates with a rum punch after your dive.

For free divers and snorkelers, there are few better shipwrecks in the Caribbean to discover than the Bajan Queen. Also in Carlisle Bay, this 120-foot tugboat was sunk in 2002 and has yet to fully be overtaken by the elements. Bajan Queen also happens to be one of the most accessible shipwrecks in the Caribbean, starting just a few feet under the ocean's surface. Sea turtles, rays and reef sharks often cruise around its hull, and experienced divers can venture to its engine room.

Snorkel And Dive The Ss Sapona, Bahamas

Aerial view of the Sapona Shipwreck of the Bahamas. The Caribbean.
Aerial view of the Sapona Shipwreck of the Bahamas. The Caribbean.

The SS Sapona was once a powerful 282-foot cargo steamer that cruised the waters of the Caribbean during World War I. In 1926, a severe hurricane caused the ship to veer off course and run aground near Bimini, where it rests to date. Now, it's one of the most facinating shipwrecks in the Bahamas.

Above water, the creaking, rusty hull of SS Sapona looks like a lifeless skeleton of its former self. But put your mask on and peer underneath the water to discover a place that's teeming with sea life. Because the wreck dive starts at the water's surface, it's a perfect place for free divers and snorkelers to warm up before going deeper. Scuba divers can scour the bottom in search of frog fish, nudibranchs, starfish and crabs. Reef sharks, grouper, sea turtles and rays of various types are also often spotted checking out the wreck.

Geek Out At The Ss Kittiwake, Cayman Islands

Large artificial reef made from the underwater shipwreck of the USS Kittiwake. The Caribbean.
Large artificial reef made from the underwater shipwreck of the USS Kittiwake. The Caribbean.
To many ocean goers, the SS Kittiwake is the Goldilocks of Caribbean shipwrecks. It's shallow enough for recreational free divers and snorkelers to explore, yet it has enough swim-throughs onboard to keep even the most well-travelled scuba divers interested. The SS Kittiwake is one of the most famous shipwrecks underwater due to its intact condition. Open-water divers can penetrate three of the five decks, while experienced wreck divers can venture to all five. In its former life, the 251-foot SS Kittiwake was a submarine rescue ship built in 1949. It crossed the world over from the Caribbean to the Atlantic to the Indian oceans during its five decades of use before retiring in 1994. In 2011, the ship was cleared of all potential environmental contaminants and sunk in the white sands off Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman. Visibility here is often crystal clear, so save space in your luggage for an underwater camera.

Stick To Your Guns At Mv Captain Keith Tibbetts, Cayman Islands

View of cannon guns on a sunken shipwreck. The Caribbean.
View of cannon guns on a sunken shipwreck. The Caribbean.

The MV Captain Keith Tibbetts is one of the most peculiar shipwrecks in the Caribbean. This 330-foot frigate was built by the Soviet Union in 1984 to be used by the Cuban navy. In 1996, it was sold to the Cayman Islands, which sunk the ship between the islands of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. The wreck was pummeled by a hurricane in the early 2000s, giving it a more dramatic appearance than you might expect from a purposefully sunken ship — but this only adds to its appeal. Strong swimmers can reach the wreck on a calm day from the north side of Cayman Brac, though there are regular boat trips departing from the islands.

While this shipwreck was seemingly unwanted by its former owners, it's become a beloved home to the groupers, scorpionfish, corals, sponges, reef fish and rays who have taken a liking to the security that the ship's turret guns provide. Experienced divers can penetrate the wreck via large entry points in its sides.

 Admire The Ghost Ship Of Antilla, Aruba

Antilla shipwreck in Aruba. The Caribbean.
Antilla shipwreck in Aruba. The Caribbean.

At 400 feet long, the Antilla is thought to be one of the largest and most famous Caribbean shipwrecks. It's often referred to as the Ghost Ship by the dive community thanks to its odd demise. It was built in 1939 in Germany for one of the largest German shipping companies at the time. In 1940, the Antilla was anchored off Aruba, then a Dutch colony. Over on Europe's mainland, Germany invaded the Netherlands, and the Antilla suddenly found itself in hot water. Dutch mariners attempted to board the Antilla, though the German captain refused to let them aboard. Instead, the captain ordered for all valves to be open and then set fire to his own ship. Crew members onboard abandoned ship and were promptly arrested by the Dutch. No lives were lost in this shipwreck fiasco.

Today, the Antilla is one of the most scenic underwater shipwrecks. A few parts of it teeter just above the ocean's surface, serving as a haven for seafaring birds. From the water, you can watch as pelicans dive for fish, embarking on a high-speed underwater chase. On the wreck, you'll find an array of soft and hard corals, carpets of anemones, crustaceans, moray eels and octopus. Reef sharks regularly cruise by, too.

What To Know Before You Go

No matter if you're a seasoned free diver or a snorkeler who feels best while wearing a life vest, there are shipwrecks for you to enjoy. Some have harrowed histories and sit hundreds of feet under the sea, while others were sunk as artificial reefs and are found nearer to the ocean's surface.

Nearly every port of call in the Caribbean is home to a scuba diving center, where you can take a range of courses, including one-day discovery sessions and dive instructor training. Likewise, free diving is becoming popular throughout the archipelago, with free diving schools on Bonaire, Belize, Roatán, the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands. Best of all, many dive centers conduct their dives at one of the nearby wreck sites — a win for anyone who enjoys a bit of culture with their coursework.

When you're looking for a shipwreck to dive, depth is usually the most important factor. Choose a shipwreck that is well within your diving limits, so you can venture out without worrying about whether you'll run out of air. Diving with a trusted guide will help you discover nuances of the wreck that you might not be able to find on your own.

Written By

Chantae Reden is an adventure writer and photographer who rarely strays far from the coastline. She is a freediver, surfer, scuba diver, and has a mild obsession with sharks. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Escape, and she's a guidebook author for Moon Travel Guides. Discover more of her stories on her travel website,

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Antilla shipwreck in Aruba. The Caribbean.
Antilla shipwreck in Aruba. The Caribbean.

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