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When we think of wonders of the world, we typically tend to imagine above-ground attractions — like the Great Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, or the Taj Mahal. But beneath the Earth’s oceans and seas lies an entire world of coral, sea life, shipwrecks, and sometimes even entire ancient cities worth exploring. These seven cities are underwater marvels that you should put on your list to scuba or snorkel through at least once in your lifetime.
Baiae (alternately spelled as Baia) had a bit of a reputation in the ancient world — it was considered the Las Vegas (read: Sin City) of the Roman Empire. Powerful people would flock to the spa town, about 10 miles west of Naples, to party, visit a mosaic-tiled spa and grotto, and conduct otherwise illicit business. Cicero, Virgil, and Pliny all had homes there. The town reached its height of popularity in the second century BCE, and was built on the seaside and surrounded by volcanic craters. Those volcanoes are responsible for the Baiae’s current underwater state. Seismic activity caused most of the town to gradually sink into the Bay of Naples over the centuries. After a pilot snapped an aerial photo of the ruins in the 1940s, the Italian government began to explore the site. Baiae became an archeological park and opened to the public in 2002. Local diving companies offer scuba and snorkel tours over the ruins, where tourists can see preserved ancient roads, paved plazas, columns, statues, and more.
Atlit Yam, Israel
No one knows for sure why Atlit Yam, a neolithic site dating back to 6900 BCE, was abandoned to begin with, but scientists theorize that at some point in time, a tsunami triggered by a volcanic eruption struck the region, and the settlement was evacuated. The village sits right on the coast of Haifa, Israel, and is now about 30 feet underwater. Atlit Yam is currently open only to archaeological divers, who are able to see many fascinating elements of the ancient city. There are homes, graves, wells, and a Stonehenge-like circle of megaliths surrounding a spring. Atlit Yam has another claim to fame: Two skeletons (a woman and child) found in the ruins are considered the first-ever cases of tuberculosis.
Lion City, China
Looking out over the calm waters of Qiandao Lake in eastern China, you’d have no idea what’s hiding about 130 feet beneath the surface: the perfectly preserved ruins of a historic city. Lion City, which translates to Shi Cheng in Mandarin, dates back to at least 1368. Although the city covered only about .31 square miles, it was well appointed. Lion City had five entrance gates, wide streets, fantastical stonework, and 265 archways. In 1959, about 300,000 people were still living there when they were forced to relocate. China purposely flooded the town for construction of Xin’an Dam and a hydroelectric power plant. In 2001, the Chinese government began to explore the city’s remains, with tourist interest picking up steam in 2011. Several dive operators run tours from April to November to see the preserved city, but because it’s still considered an exploratory dive, you must have experience with deep water, night dives, and buoyancy.
Pavlopetri is Greece’s oldest submerged city. It dates back to 3000 BCE, sitting at Vatika Bay in southeastern Greece. Pavlopetri was a maritime trading town, where ships would anchor in shallow water and unload their cargo onto wooden jetties or horses waiting nearby. Artifacts in the city date back to 1200 BCE, providing evidence that it stayed a busy port for centuries. Scientists aren’t sure why it sank or exactly when, but they suspect earthquakes caused it. Nicholas Flemming, a marine geologist at the University of Southampton, discovered Pavlopetri’s remains while diving in 1967. The following year, he mapped out the ancient city’s streets, squares, courtyards, and houses. Thousands of artifacts have been uncovered, including Minoan jars, tableware, grinding stones, and cooking pots. You can currently visit the site without any restriction, but be aware that pollution and erosion are large concerns at Pavlopetri, so proceed with caution and respect if you go.
At Lake Lygnstøylsvatnet, in southwestern Norway, you’ll find a bridge completely surrounded by water. The bridge is part of the former settlement the lake is named after, Lygnstøylsvatnet, which is now completely submerged. The settlement was thriving in the 1800s, with farm buildings, houses, stone fences, roads, and an apple orchard. But in 1908, tragedy struck in the form of a rockslide on a nearby mountain called Keipen. The rocks barreled down the mountain and created a dam across the small river running nearby. The valley flooded and submerged Lygnstøylsvatnet. Today, you can drive to the spot and dive in to explore what’s left of the buildings, bridges, and orchard. Remains are found starting at about 16 feet deep and continuing down another 42 feet into the valley.
Yonaguni Monument, Japan
Yonaguni Monument — submerged in the ocean next to Yonaguni Island, Japan’s westernmost inhabited island that’s only 67 miles east of Taiwan — is shrouded in mystery. The site consists of an enormous rock formation with geometric terraces, perfectly vertical cliff faces, and giant slabs of rock that look like stages. However, no one knows how old it is or if it was human-made or naturally formed. Diving instructor Kihachiro Aratake discovered it in 1987 while he was hunting for a new place to take his students. He believes the sandstone and mudstone formations are artificial, as do many scientists, because of what appear to be pillars, columns, walls, a road, perfectly formed right angles, and a star-shaped platform. But other scientists chalk it up to a seismological formation, similar to the formations found at Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, because the area is prone to earthquakes. Regardless of whether it’s human-made or not, Yonaguni Monument is still a stunning dive site (the top of which is only 16 feet underwater) and could be the remains of an ancient city yet to be discovered.
In 1949, Murru Prison in Rummu, a town in northwestern Estonia, officially opened for prisoners. The Soviet-run prison was set on the edge of a limestone quarry, and inmates worked in the quarry during the days and went back to their cells at night — until the Soviet Union fell in 1991. Estonia regained its independence, and the prison was abandoned. Groundwater had been pumped out of the area for decades, but now unchecked, it flooded the quarry and submerged a portion of the prison with it. The flooding was so fast that quarry mining equipment was abandoned underwater. Today, divers can explore the site, which ranges from about 20 feet to about 32 feet deep. Be warned, though — the water is cold, especially in the winter. If you can brave it, you’ll be able to swim through prison cells and completely submerged outbuildings, and see bars and lamps still intact on the walls.