Nature can be unpredictable sometimes. Humans routinely build settlements near major waterways, lakes and oceans because historically water has been vital for any settlement. Whether for fishing, travel, or trade, many major hubs of early civilization were ports and resorts. But that also meant they were at risk of falling prey to things like earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes.
In the modern era, progress often won’t let anything, even a town, stand in the way. That’s why every so often the government will flood entire towns to build dams, hydroelectric plants, and so on. The result is that there are a number of remarkable flooded cities you can visit all over the world which show the distant past, and sometimes the not-so-distant past.
10. The Lost Villages
In the 1950s, construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway began, a series of channels that allowed the Great Lakes to connect to the ocean. A ship could travel from the East coast as far inland as Duluth, Minnesota. The seaway took five years to complete and spans 370 miles. Building it was not without some roadblocks, forever. For instance, the 10 towns in Ontario, Canada that have come to be known as the Lost Villages. As a result of the seaway’s construction, these towns are all underwater now.
Residents of the towns were all moved to new towns amidst some tense negotiations over property values. Another town wasn’t just flooded, they picked it up and moved it a short distance away. They destroyed the dam on July 1, 1958 to allow the flooding to begin. Four days later, none of the towns remained.
In total, over 6,000 people had to be relocated and they moved hundreds of buildings while many more were left to the water. One of the towns, an island known as Sheek Island, had evidence of a 3,500 year old Native settlement, but efforts to preserve it failed.
Modern divers can visit the sites and follow old sidewalks and roads among the ruins. When water levels are low enough, some can be seen from the shores.
Shi-Cheng in China’s Lake Qiando may be the most visually stunning sunken city in the world. Featuring numerous gates and perfectly preserved statues of lions, dragons and more. Even wooden details of the city seem to be preserved. Although the city itself dates back to the year 208 AD, it was not submerged until 1959. That was when the Chinese government opted to create an artificial lake as a tourist attraction along with a hydroelectric plant. Shi-Cheng, along with a number of other ancient cities, were flooded.
It wasn’t until 2001 that the city rose to prominence again when divers from the Chinese government found the town. Other divers can take tours of the site now, but it still has not been fully mapped so it’s not for the casual tourist.
One of the oldest sunken cities ever discovered, the Greek town of Pavlopetri dates back at least 5,000 years. Incredibly, the city was preserved just a few meters below the surface of the sea but was not discovered until the early 1900s. Even to this day a full excavation has not been undertaken, though teams of archaeologists have been visiting the area for decades to get an accurate idea of the age, layout, and contents of the ruins.
Numerous objects from Minoan jars to everyday pottery and housewares have been discovered. Because of the age and location of the site, excavation and study have been difficult. Pollution and currents both risk damaging the site making it hard to investigate safely.
7. Port Royal
One of the most breathtaking sunken cities in the world, Jamaica’s Port Royal is a favorite of scuba divers. A favorite spot of pirates in a bygone era, Port Royal was known for rum and debauchery while serving as a major hub of privateers and traders. It was called “the most wicked and sinful city in the world.” In 1692 an earthquake followed by a tsunami sealed the town’s fate. Over 2,000 people died and the sea swallowed the majority of the town. It apparently took just 37 minutes for the town to disappear.
Today you can take diving tours to 40 feet below the surface and see the town, preserved as it once was. On land there is a small fishing village that remains, but the treasures and history all remain below. If you want to dive and have a look, you need permission from the Jamaican government. Because the disaster happened so quickly, much of the town was left just as it was when people lived there, offering an unusual glimpse into the life of pirates and their ilk.
Few sunken cities have been as subject to as much misinformation as Dwarka. Dwarka is said to be the birthplace of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu and a Hindu deity. So finding the town where Krishna was born or lived would arguably be a big deal. And when the sunken city of Dwarka was discovered, it caused quite a stir.
Located on India’s west coast, there is an extensive city under the water that many believe is the home of Krishna. Evidence of settlements date back to the 15th century BC. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion over what is and what isn’t in the ruins. Social media posts alleging to show images of the lost city are shared frequently with false information. The Times of India even did a point by point breakdown of fake photos, sourcing them back to their real origins, including a man-made reef in Florida and Port Royal in Jamaica.
What they have discovered in Dwarka are many stone buildings and artifacts. The presence of Krishna is still a matter of debate.
Potosi, Venezuela, was a victim of progress in the 1980s. The Andean village was once home to over 1,000 people, but in 1984 the Venezuelan government had the town evacuated to make way for a hydroelectric dam that would flood the region. The president flew to the town and simply told them all they had to leave.
The town’s tallest structure was a church and even after the flooding the steeple remained above water, the tip and large cross atop the only sign a town had ever been there.
Sometime in the late 2000s the waters began to recede thanks to changing weather patterns and El Nino. By 2010 the entire church was visible again, along with many of the other buildings. Once a pristine, white colonial building the church had grown over with moss and sludge and became a brownish green.
In 2016 the land had been free from water so long it looked like any other ghost town and old residents returned to take pictures and view their old homes. The water level would rise again however and it’s likely the entire town will completely submerge once again.
4. Sant Roma de Sau
Once upon a time, San Romà de Sau had been an old and well-known village in Catalonia, Spain. The local government flooded it, after standing for over 1,000 years, to make room for a reservoir under the Sau dam.
Locals were given time to collect their things and relocate. Efforts were even made to exhume the dead from the local cemetery. However, the town itself would remain and be sent below the water. All except for one very stubborn building.
The Church of Sant Roma was too tall for the reservoir and as a result the tower of the church has remained above the waterline since the town was abandoned in the 1960s whenever the water level drops. Even at its highest, the tip of the tower can still be seen.
The ruins now serve as a tourist attraction and when water levels are low more buildings appear. The church was even fortified with concrete once to preserve it, but the structure is surrounded by a fence to keep people out for safety reasons.
You can find the ruins of Atlit-Yam off the coast of Israel. It’s believed tsunami activity may have taken the town to the sea thousands of years ago. Carbon dating says the city is between 8,300 and 8,900 years old. That makes it not just one of the oldest sunken cities, but one of the oldest cities period.
The city covers 10 acres of land and was only discovered in 1984. Numerous incredible finds have been unearthed there from houses to wells and even the bodies of residents. These bodies have proven to be the most incredible find in Atlit-Yam for very unusual reasons. In specific, the skeletons of a woman and a child were discovered and show the earliest known evidence of tuberculosis.
Other skeletons showed signs of ear damage which lead archaeologists to the conclusion these men may have been divers, their ears suffering trauma from diving for shellfish in cold waters.
The Roman town of Baiae was once located on the Gulf of Naples. It once served as a kind of resort town for Romans of wealth and power and was renowned for being a hub of hedonism. Think a modern Spring Break destination mixed with a splash of Las Vegas.
This wasn’t just a random town; Julius Caesar, Nero and Septimus Severus all had villas there. It was essentially the hub of Roman vacation life and the extravagant ruins bear that out.
Volcanic activity in the area eventually spelled doom for the city. The sea levels didn’t rise so much as a process called bradyseism caused the land to lower below sea levels.
In modern times, archaeologists have uncovered numerous domed structures such as the Temple of Venus and the Temple of Mercury. Detailed marble statues were also unearthed as well. Today you can scuba dive the site to see the ruins but the statues are actually replicas. The originals were removed to be preserved on dry land.
1. Villa Epecuen
The small village of Villa Epecuen was built on Lago Epecuen in Argentina back in the 1920s. Primarily a tourist destination, it sat on the beautiful salt lake and offered the exotic amenities of a seaside resort. With a population that rose to about 5,000, it was served by its own railway station and was a bustling hotspot for Argentinian tourism. All of this started taking a turn for the worse sometime in the 1970s.
Weather patterns had begun to shift and yearly rainfall in Villa Epecuen rose and continued to rise. The lake grew beyond the limits of the dam that protected the town and salt water filled the streets.
Unlike a tsunami or other disaster, this was a slow but painful process. The townspeople knew it was coming, they just couldn’t do anything about it. By 1993, the water was 10 meters deep.
The waters began to recede after about 25 years. The result is the skeleton of a town encrusted in salt that can be visited as a different kind of tourist attraction now. The rubble of the town is visible, as is the tiny walled outline while much of the rest is still below water.