History Stories

A pair of centuries-old shipwrecks were located thanks to the massive search effort for the missing Malaysian plane.

As a last-ditch search effort for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 wraps up in the Indian Ocean, one of history’s greatest aviation mysteries endures. But in an unexpected twist, historians in Australia say the massive search effort for the missing Boeing 777 has uncovered the fate of two lost 19th century ships.

After Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 mysteriously vanished with 239 people aboard en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, representatives from some 26 countries joined in what is believed to be themost extensive air-sea search in history. Over three years, searchers combed over some 274,000 square miles (710,000 square kilometers), an area slightly larger than the state of Texas, but managed to find only a few pieces of debris from the Boeing 777.

As their cutting-edge detection devices trawled the seas, however, theyturned up something else: two shipwrecks that appeared to have been stranded on the ocean floor for some 200 years. After reviewing high-resolution sonar images of the wrecks, maritime experts at the Western Australian Museum said the two wrecks probably dated to the 19th century, and belonged to sailing ships carrying cargoes of coal.

When the wreckage of the first ship was found in May 2015, Michael McCarthy, a curator at the museum,told Australia’s ABC Network that he thought it was a “mid- to late 19th century wooden hull, iron sailing ship…of unknown origin but of European-style build.” Apart from that, McCarthy said, it would be difficult to identify the ship without knowing where it came from, as there are “hundreds of ships lost in our world’s oceans over time.”

In this handout image provided by Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), an anchor and debris are scattered on the seabed, 4000 metres below the surface of the Indian Ocean, believed to be from a previously unknown shipwreck, on May 11, 2015, off the coast of Western Australia. (Credit:  Australian Transport Safety Bureau via Getty Images)

In this handout image provided by Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), an anchor and debris are scattered on the seabed, 4000 metres below the surface of the Indian Ocean, believed to be from a previously unknown shipwreck, on May 11, 2015, off the coast of Western Australia. (Credit: Australian Transport Safety Bureau via Getty Images)

Now, after a detailed analysis of sonar and video data collected by the search vessels, the museum’s experts think they may have identified the two shipwrecks. According to the Associated Press in Canberra, the wooden ship McCarthy described is believed to be one of two ships: the brig W. Gordon, which disappeared in 1877 while traveling from Scotland to Australia, or the barque Magdala, which went down in 1882 en route from Wales to Indonesia.

The museum’s historians say that the second shipwreck, an iron ship found in December 2015, is most likely the West Ridge, a barque that was last seen heading from England to India in 1883. While they’ve traced the wrecks of the W. Gordon and Magdala to a likely coal explosion, they found no evidence of the second ship’s demise. Its location east of the Europe-Asia trade route, however, suggests it might have been headed for help in Australia.

Though the search for Flight MH370 was suspended in early 2017, the Malaysian government signed a deal with the Texas-based company Ocean Infinity for an additional 90-day search in January 2018. According to the agreement, if the company turned up the plane’s wreckage or black boxes, the government would pay it up to $70 million; if not, there would be no fee.

By early May, some four months after the search began, Ocean Infinityhad found no trace of the missing plane, despite covering an area of some 80,000 square kilometers. The Malaysian government said the search effort would be called off in mid-June, bringing an end to the latest attempt to locate the vanished flight.

If it weren’t for the massive scale of the search for Flight MH370, however, the two shipwrecks might never have been found. Located about 22 miles (36 km) from each other some 1,440 miles (23,000 km) off the coast of Western Australia, the wrecks lie around 2.3 miles (3.7 km) below the surface—too deep for divers to try and retrieve any artifacts that could confirm the ships’ identities. 

“These are the deepest wrecks so far located in the Indian Ocean,” Ross Anderson, curator of maritime archaeology at the Western Australian Museum, told the AP. “They’re some of the most remote shipwrecks in the world.”

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