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Roman shipwrecks, bioluminescent turtles and other amazing discoveries made by superyachts

10 May 2024 • Written by Dea Jusufi

Superyachts have always had incredible potential for scientific research. Features that are native to superyacht design – including transoceanic ranges, air-conditioned interiors and tender storage – can actually serve a dual purpose. And owners are catching on. In the past decade or so, a number of superyachts have made meaningful contributions to the global archives, whether that's discovering a new species or uncovering centuries-old relics. 

BOAT takes a closer look at the greatest discoveries made by superyachts...

Octopus

Builder: Lürssen
Length: 126.2m
What did she discover?: The wreck of one of the world's largest battleships

At the top of the list is, of course, the indomitable Octopus. Under the ownership of the late Paul Allen – the co-founder of Microsoft and the son of a World War II veteran – the superyacht has contributed to historical records several times. She retrieved the bell of HMS Hood, a British battlecruiser sunk by German forces in 1941 and also served as the staging vessel for James Cameron's record-breaking solo dive to the Mariana Trench. 

But her most incredible discovery of all was the Musashi, an imperial Japanese Navy battleship believed to be the world's largest – rivalled only by her sistership, Yamato. Allied forces sunk the Musashi during World War II's largest naval battle, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. More than 1,000 members of the ship's 2,399-person crew were killed as a result.

Read More/Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron on his enduring love of the deep ocean
Credit: Paul Allen
Credit: Paul Allen

In March 2015, a team of researchers (and Octopus) ended the decades-long mystery of Musashi's final resting place. The wreckage was uncovered by an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) which had been programmed to sweep a sonar sensor along the undersea slopes of the Sibuyan Sea in the Philippines, where the ship was roughly predicted to have sunk. One kilometre below the surface, the AUV made the discovery.

"Mr. Allen has been searching for the Musashi for more than eight years," read a statement on Paul Allen's website. "Its discovery will not only help fill in the narrative of WWII's Pacific theatre, but bring closure to the families of those lost."

Read More/ Octopus: Behind the build of Paul Allen's 126m Lürssen explorer

Alucia (now Odyssey)

Builder: Auroux
Length: 55.8m
What did she discover?: The first video footage of a giant squid

In June 2012, Alucia was the base of operations in the search for the Architeuthis dux, also known as the giant squid. A team of researchers set sail from Sagami Bay and underwent a six-week expedition around the Ogasawara Islands – 550 miles south of Tokyo and where zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera had captured some rare still pictures of the species.

The superyacht was equipped with a fleet of Triton Submarines, whose infrared and low light cameras were uniquely suited to the near-crushing darkness of the giant squid's natural habitat.

Credit: Discovery Channel

Fellow scientists Steve O'Shea and Edith Widder both made the descent but ultimately, it was Kubodera who captured the elusive species on film. This is credited to his decision to turn off everything electronic in the sub – including the temperature control system – and aim his camera at a diamond squid he had dangled as bait.

The mission was funded by Japan’s Broadcasting corporation NHK, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) and the Discovery Channel. A documentary on the expedition, Monster Squid: The Giant is Real, was aired on the Discovery Channel in January 2013. It was the first documentary to show full-motion video footage of a living giant squid in its natural habitat.

Dardanella

Builder: Vitters
Length: 36.9m
What did she discover?: A bioluminescent turtle

Unlike the previous two entries, Dardanella's discovery was entirely serendipitous. The group of scientists had moored near Nugu Island in the Solomon Islands to film biofluorescence in small sharks and coral reefs. But on 31 July 2015, marine biologists David Gruber and Markus Reymann discovered something unprecedented. 

"They noticed a 'bright red-and-green spaceship' approaching them in the water during a night dive," read a statement released by TBA21–Academy, who funded the expedition. "Totally unpredicted, the discovery happened when the turtle swam into the camera's view. The pair were diving with a special blue light that acts as a fluorescent excitor with many organisms, transforming the undersea at night into a seemingly psychedelic underworld."

This was the first bioluminiscent reptile ever discovered and recorded – all the more exceptional, as the hawksbill sea turtle was and remains a critically endangered species. According to Reymann, the special blue light that had been so pivotal to locating the turtle had been "miraculously repaired" by Dardanella's engineer just a few hours earlier.

Read More/On board Dardanella with Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza

Harle

Credit: Feadship

Builder: Feadship
Length: 44.7m
What did she discover?: A Roman shipwreck and a rare species of red coral

In October 2019, an expedition organised by Cookson Adventures deployed a number of submersibles from the superyacht Harle in and around the Gulf of Naples. Their most remarkable discovery was a pristine population of Coralium ruburn, located approximately 200 metres beneath an underwater cliff face in Sant'Angelo. This rare, centuries-old red coral was historically pillaged for use in jewellery, with untouched colonies consequently being few and far between.

The mission, organised by Cookson Adventures, also uncovered a Roman shipwreck and its spilled cargo off the coast of Capri. Specifically, a collection of amphorae – ancient ceramic vases used to store oil, wine, milk or grain.

"These deeper dives offer a glimpse into how Mediterranean communities were in the past," said Dr. Nuria Teixido of Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn. "They provide a reference point for the future, for conservation and scientific purposes."

Read More/Listen: A shocking murder, a marine sanctuary and a superyacht supporting ocean research

More about this yacht

Vitters   36.88 m •  1998
Lurssen   126.2 m •  2003

Yachts for sale

Vitters   36.88 m •  10 guests •  €8,000,000

Yachts for charter

Feadship   44.65 m •  12 guests • Price from €250,000 p/w
Lurssen   126.2 m •  26 guests • Price from $2,200,000 p/w

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