Cape Town shipwrecks

Shipwreck of the Kakapo. Photo courtesy Ian Junor

Early explorers

From the days when Portuguese explorers rounded the Cape in their wooden galleons to modern-day shipping, the aptly named “Cape of Storms” has claimed many a vessel.

A route to the East

The desire to discover a sea route to access the bounty of the East in the days of the early explorers led to the demise of countless ships along the rugged and treacherous South African coastline. All in all, researchers have documented more than 2 500 wrecks along the South African coastline since 1500 – hundreds of these in the waters off the Western Cape – but believe many more await discovery in their watery graves.

Cultural record

Known shipwrecks represent a diverse range of cultures from almost 40 countries and include ships of Portuguese explorers, the Dutch, English and French East India Companies, the British Royal Navy, 19th-century passenger and mail-shipping services, and maritime casualties from both world wars.

South African casualties

South African shipping is also well represented, with documented wrecks of mining, fishing, agricultural and coastal vessels adding to the total.

Underwater heritage

These shipwrecks afford divers and marine archaeologists a unique window into the culture of their time. Due to their inestimable historical value, they are highly valued and protected by the National Heritage Resources Act as part of our heritage.

Dive permits

The South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) wreck permits and guidelines (Sahra forms 303 and 403) are issued to archaeologists and divers for the exploration of historical wrecks. Strict conditions apply. Permit applications can be obtained from the Maritime Archaeologist at Sahra’s head office at the Castle in Cape Town. It is illegal to remove any part or object from a wreck without a permit from Sahra.


Some of the better-known wrecks dotted along the Western Cape coast include:
• The Arniston – a British East Indiaman, wrecked near Waenhuiskrans in 1815
• The HMS Birkenhead – an iron-hulled troopship that struck the rocks near Gansbaai in 1852
• The HMS Guardian – a 44-gun Roebuck class ship damaged by an iceberg in 1789
• The Joanna – a gold-laden first East Indiaman wrecked near Cape Town in 1682
• The SS Maori – a steamship wrecked near Llandudno in 1909
• The HMS Sceptre – a 64-gun Royal Navy vessel wrecked near the Cape of Good Hope in 1799
• The HMS Thames – a former cruiser that later became a training ship that was scuttled in 1947
• The SS Thomas T Tucker – a munitions carrier that ran ashore at Olifantsbos point in 1942

In 1900, The Kakapo's captain Nicolaysen thought Chapman's Peak was Cape Point, he turned sharp east and the ship landed on Noordhoek Beach, instead of False Bay. The entire wreck is clearly visible. Photo courtesy of daretothink

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