Underwater volcanic activity, although less impressive than its land counterparts, can still trigger interesting phenomena on the surface, like (temporary) islands popping out of nowhere, ocean bedrock rising or collapsing affecting depth, columns of steam and ash blocking line of sight etc.

In the modern era, the position of these individual volcanoes is known, so I assume ships will avoid known danger places. However, in the age of sail, particularly during the exploration of the pacific ocean, explorers must have been oblivious to their presence.

I am looking for records of ships being sunk, damaged, forced to turn around, forced to dock etc. due to underwater volcanic activity. Time frame: age of sail, exploration of the world. Ships being struck by a tsunami count, assuming the tsunami was caused by an underwater volcano.

Google searching seems to only yield generic results:


or ships that are too modern for the period and not sunk by a volcano


Other assumptions/limitations/clarifications:

The question is not limited to tidal waves. Any effects caused by an underwater volcano count.

The written records don't have to explicitly mention an underwater volcano causing damage, the description of the events can be later attributed to such volcanoes if no other strong explanations exist.

I am going to assume humanity knows about the general existence of underwater volcanoes and their effects in that time period, but not the position of every single underwater volcano in the world. I may be wrong, if so, the answer can combat this assumption. An answer in the form of "no records that match the question criteria exist" is valid.

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    As you say in the question, during the age of sail the voyagers would have been unaware of the existence of these underwater volcanoes. How then could records ascribe loss or damage to them? Tsunami can be caused by earthquakes or landslips (above or below water) in addition to volcanic activity. A ship in the middle of the ocean would have no way of knowing the cause of a freak wave that hit it.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Apr 30 at 8:21
  • @SteveBird true, but a historical record can then be attributed to volcanoes later on, based on descriptions. I also assume humans would know about the general existence of underwater volcanoes, so they could attribute the outcomes of an unknown volcano by similarity to known volcanoes. I was on the fence with tsunami, considering they can be triggered by non-volcano activity as well, but wasn't completely sure if they should be ruled out completely. But as I mentioned, underwater volcano can have more than just tsunami as outcomes.
    – Ccm
    Commented Apr 30 at 8:29
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    " Only 119 submarine volcanoes in Earth's oceans and seas are known to have erupted during the last 11,700 years.[2][3]" Wikipedia 120 in 12,000 years, with the bulk of the events in deep water makes observations unlikely. The more research I do, the probability of an underwater volcano affecting a ship seems less likely.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 30 at 14:39
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    For comparison, there are historical records of supernovae observations, well before humans even knew what stars were.
    – J.A.
    Commented Apr 30 at 14:51
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    @MCW That's 119 distinct volcanoes, not only 119 eruptions. Many of them have erupted lots of times during that time span. Some of them erupt frequently. There are also lots of cases of volcanoes that are not technically submarine (i.e. part of them is above water,) but which have submarine vents. That's actually pretty common for volcanic islands. It's also very likely that there are a significant number of submarine volcanoes that have erupted in that time span that we just don't know about. Even today, it's easy for a submarine eruption to be missed, nevermind 10,000 years ago.
    – reirab
    Commented Apr 30 at 20:47

3 Answers 3


A quick search, focusing on books and 19th century, yields the 1866 book On Steam, as the Motive Power in Earthquakes and Volcanoes, and on Cavities in the Earth's Crust, which has a section discussing submarine volcanoes. Most of the entries are just reports of the phenomenon, some small reports of damage. A sample:

  1. Submarine volcanic action near the equator has been for some years going on We have now two accounts of it observed by ships but a few miles apart from each other the Dallas Captain Wikander and the Melbourne Captain Cowie on March 20th 1861 The latter says We were startled by a heavy and loud rumbling noise and at the same time felt the ship tremble from stem to stern which lasted four or five minutes The noise resembled more the low grumble of distant thunder than the harsh grating noise produced by the ships taking ground The Dallas lost her false keel by the collision Illustrated London News Aug 17 1861 p 157

Another example from the same book:

  1. A Volcano in the Ocean The ship Orient 1032 tons Capt John Harris the arrival of which with a cargo of wool & c has already been announced and which sailed from Adelaide Nov 10 brings the report that on Friday Nov 17 at 7.15 am when in lat 51 44 S and long 160 49 with a moderate wind from NNW and a clear sky the ship commenced ringing the bells and trembling violently as if she were passing over a rough bottom in shallow water In an instant all was confusion on board as the crew and passengers thought she was settling down. The violent trembling lasted two or three minutes with nothing visible Sounded the pump well and found no water and sounded over the ship's side with the deep sea lead but found no bottom The conclusion arrived at by all on board was that the ship had experienced the effects of a submarine volcano Morning Advertiser Feb 16 1866

Extensive damage is likely to result in the loss of the ship for 'unexplained' reasons. If you read any 19th century reports/books from people on such journeys, many ships were lucky to survive simple storms or the severe dangers rounding the horn. It would be difficult to attribute a lost ship to volcanic caused activity...(I do recommend Two Years Before the Mast to get a feel for travel in this era)


Perhaps somewhat anecdotal, such an element appears in Jule Vernes' book Captain Antifer: after a feverish hunt for a treasure the heroes discover that it had been hidden on an island of volcanic origin, which has since then submerged. The action is set in 1830-1860s:

Unintentionally, it is the young woman who will provide her husband (and his uncle) with the solution of the enigma, enabling him to interpret the recalcitrant parchment: the treasure is hidden off Sicily, at the exact center of a circle described by the three divergent islets which they visited. Everybody hurries there – to find only an empty sea. Julia Island, of volcanic origin, had emerged from the depths of the sea in 1831 and was used to bury the treasure – but unfortunately, it returned to the depths shortly after its emergence. Adieu, then, to Kamylk-Pacha's gold and precious stones!

Antifer, cured permanently of his dreams of opulence, is able to laugh off his misadventures – to the great relief of his family.

The island mentioned in the book indeed exists:

Julia Island (also known as Graham Island) which figures in the book's dramatic conclusion, is historical and did indeed appear in 1831 and disappear in 1832, creating an international dispute over ownership at the time. In the early 21st century there were indications that it might reappear because of additional volcanic activity[7] just as predicted in the book – though far too late for Captain Antifer and his companions (also predicted).

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    Yes, there are many such temporary islands, particularly in the Pacific Ocean. It would be interesting to know if any records exist of such islands suddenly poping out and damaging a ship or outright wreck it on the ground. I suppose the possibility of this happening is pretty low.
    – Ccm
    Commented Apr 30 at 14:37
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    @Ccm I suspect that the speed of an island coming out of water is much smaller than the time it takes for a ship to pass over it - it is like expecting a low flying airplane to be poked by a growing tree. More likely a ship would unexpectedly run aground... which could always be blamed on an imperfect map. I recall reading about a Soviet submarine captain nearly getting court-martialed after running aground on an underwater shoal... which was not marked on maps.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Apr 30 at 14:55
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    @Ccm If a ship were sailing over a volcano that were erupting enough to form an island, it would have much bigger problems than the island suddenly popping up. Shallow submarine eruptions are very explosive because the water flashes to steam upon coming into contact with the magma/lava. Also, water around an active submarine eruption is significantly less buoyant, due to the volcanic gas in the water. This can be sufficient to sink a ship even without an explosive eruption.
    – reirab
    Commented Apr 30 at 20:56
  • @reirab volcanic gases are usually not healthy for humans either.
    – fraxinus
    Commented Apr 30 at 22:57
  • @fraxinus True, though if you're close enough to a volcano that's forming an island for that to matter, you'll probably die by other means first. Unless the volcanic gases in question are part of a pyroclastic flow, in which case that will probably be what kills you.
    – reirab
    Commented May 1 at 0:57

Yes, there are historical records of ships being affected by underwater volcanic activity. One well-known example is the eruption of the volcanic island of Krakatoa (now part of Indonesia) in 1883.

The eruption of Krakatoa caused a series of massive explosions and tsunamis, resulting in significant loss of life and property. Many ships in the vicinity of the eruption were destroyed or damaged by the volcanic activity and resulting tsunamis.

For example, the British ship Norham Castle was anchored near Krakatoa when the eruption occurred. The ship was hit by a series of tsunamis generated by the eruption, causing severe damage and loss of life among the crew.

The wiki article "RMS Norham Castle" has a reference to: Winchester, Simon, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, New York: Harper Collins (2003), pgs. 230-235.

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