More than half a millennium after Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the actual remains of his three ships—the Nia, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria—remain lost to history.
On Oct. 12, 1492, the 15th-century adventurer landed in what is now the Bahamas, bringing the pre-Columbian era in the New World to a close.
According to National Geographic, the three ocean-going sailing ships have never been located, despite being a once-in-a-lifetime find for eager archaeologists and shipwreck hunters.
Nobody knows where the ships, two of which eventually made it back to Europe, ended up, whether they even survived or ultimately sunk.
According to the magazine, if Columbus’ ships sank in an area like the Caribbean, they would have been easily destroyed by a species of wood-eating mollusk known as “termites of the sea.”
New York Post reported that these critters could destroy an exposed timber wreck in a decade and are the arch-enemy of underwater archaeologists working in the area.
Any wooden ship that could withstand shipworm predation would also have to fight five centuries of tropical storms and hurricanes in shallow waters, said Donald Keith, an archaeologist. He has been looking for Gallega, a ship from Columbus’ Fourth Fleet that went missing in 1503.
“Ships lost in cold, dark, deep water have a much better chance of staying intact and maintaining their’ time capsule’ value,” he said.
Side-scan sonar is a standard instrument used by archaeologists to locate shipwrecks on the seabed, but if a wreck is under feet of sediment, sonar can be “simply blind” to it, says archeologist Greg Cook.
The magnetometer is another crucial instrument for detecting metallic remains below. Still, because ships of this era utilized little metal in their construction, they can “hide very well” in a search, Cook says.
“It’s a search veritably for three needles in a haystack,” observes James Delgado, vice-president at Search Inc. and former director of maritime heritage for NOAA.
Only the destiny of Santa Maria is known. The 150-ton vessel, the largest of Columbus’ fleet, sank on Christmas Day, 1492, in present-day Haiti. Columbus had it removed and used the wood to build a hamlet he named La Navidad.
It is uncertain whether the Nia and the Pinta, smaller caravels, ever returned to the New World or traveled elsewhere following their voyage home.