The recovery of 61 tons of silver from the SS Gairsoppa off the Galway coast highlights the treasure that is now within reach with new technology, reports John Daly
FOR many, the uncharted depths of the ocean floor represent Earth’s final frontier — a dark and dangerous realm with infinite possibilities. Over the centuries, the hunt for sunken treasure has captured imaginations and inspired dreams of adventure and discovery. Last week’s haul of 61 tons of bullion from the SS Gairsoppa, a British cargo ship that sank in 1941 about 300 miles off the Galway coast, served to underline the riches still awaiting discovery in the murky depths.
Odyssey Marine, the Florida-based specialists in deep-water exploration and salvage, recovered almost 100% of the insured silver from the ship. In a series of recovery operations that began in 2012, the company has recovered 2,792 silver bars from the ship, weighing over 1.8m troy ounces. All of the bars are of .999 high-purity silver, and stamped with the brand HM Mint Bombay.
The SS Gairsoppa was part of a convoy of ships sailing from India to Britain during World War Two when it ran low on fuel in stormy weather, and tried to divert to Galway. Carrying a cargo of pig iron and tea, as well as the silver, the Gairsoppa broke off from the convoy and set a course for Galway. Spotted by a German submarine hunting Atlantic convoys, the ship took a direct hit from a torpedo and sank in less than 20 minutes, killing more than 80 crew on February 17, 1941. Three crew members escaped in a lifeboat and reached Cornwall two weeks later, but two of them died trying to get ashore. Second officer Richard Ayres became the only survivor of the ill-fated ship.
The wreck of the Gairsoppa was discovered at a depth of 15,400 feet — 3,000 feet deeper than the wreckage of the Titanic. As part of the operation, still and video imagery from the site were used to confirm the identity and condition of the ship. Photographs revealed clear details, including a ladder leading to the forecastle deck, a waist-high compass used by the helmsman, and the hole in the steel hull blown open by the torpedo. The silver, representing a world record recovery both in its size and depth, was taken ashore in Bristol and moved to a secure location in Britain.
In 2012, the British Department for Transport awarded Odyssey, through a competitive tender process, the exclusive salvage contract for the cargo of the SS Gairsoppa. Under the agreement, Odyssey will retain 80% of the net salvaged value of the silver, with the remainder going to the British Treasury.
“We have accomplished a world-record recovery at a depth never achieved before,” said Mark Gordon, Odyssey president. “We’re continuing to apply our unique expertise to pioneer deep-ocean projects.”
Much of the recovery was conducted using the Seabed Worker, a remotely-operated submersible capable of delving down to a depth of 5,000m. “With the shipwreck lying approximately three miles below the surface of the North Atlantic, this was a complex operation,” commented Greg Stemm, Odyssey CEO. “Our capacity to conduct precision cuts and successfully complete the surgical removal of bullion from secure areas on the ship demonstrates our capabilities to undertake complicated tasks in the very deep ocean.”
The technology will now be applied to other shipwreck projects being scheduled by the company.
“Our success on the Gairsoppa marks the beginning of a new paradigm for Odyssey in which we expect modern shipwreck projects will complement our archaeological shipwreck excavations.”
The company will next begin work on the SS Mantola, a British steamer lost in 1917 and carrying an estimated 600,000 ounces of silver insured under the UK War Risk insurance programme.
The excitement and danger inherent in the recovery of silver from the Gairsoppa was filmed at all stages of the project and will soon be seen on the Discovery Channel.
“Part of our mission is to share the excitement of what we do with the general public in conducting recovery operations on a shipwreck that was over three miles deep — deeper than even the Titanic and something that had never been accomplished before,” said Gordon. “Our team successfully accomplished the record-breaking recovery of 48 tons of silver bullion — the heaviest and deepest recovery of precious metals in history. Seeking and discovering shipwrecks is fascinating and challenging, and to witness the trials and triumphs of the crew hundreds of miles offshore makes gripping television,” he added.
EXPLORING THE DEEP
Odyssey Marine is a world leader in deep-ocean exploration, searching the globe’s oceans for both historic shipwrecks once thought lost forever and modern vessels sunk with significant amounts of valuable metal commodities. The company also explores for deep-ocean minerals like seafloor sulphides, pollymetallic nodules and phosphorites. “No one knows the deep ocean better than our world-class team of researchers, scientists and technicians,” says Gordon. “We’ve surveyed and mapped more ocean seabed than many governments and spent tens of thousands of hours on shipwreck and mineral deposit sites using advanced robotic technology, while, more importantly, applying the highest scientific standards.”
The company’s state-of-the-art technology includes side-scan and multibeam sonar, magnetometer sub-bottom imaging and remotely operated vehicles capable of recovering valuables at previously unreachable depths in an economically feasible manner.
“Although we depend on technologies that have been developed at great expense in other fields, primarily the military, oil and telecommunications industries, we use our unique expertise to modify and customise these technologies specifically to locate shipwrecks and mineral deposits and to conduct resource assessments, archaeological excavations, and cargo recovery thousands of feet deep.”
Odyssey’s operations have discovered hundreds of shipwrecks ranging from third-century BC Punic sites to U-boats, and casualties from both World Wars. In 2003, they discovered the Civil War-era shipwreck of the SS Republic, recovering over 51,000 coins and 14,000 artifacts from a site 1,700-ft below the surface. In 2007, the company announced the recovery of over 500,000 silver and gold coins weighing 17 tons from a Colonial-era deep-ocean site code-named Black Swan. In 2008, Odyssey discovered what is considered one of the most significant shipwrecks in British history, HMS Victory, Admiral Sir John Balchin’s flagship, lost in 1744. The recent discovery and successful recovery of the SS Gairsoppa underlines the role technology plays in salvage, with vastly-improved sonar equipment, global positioning systems and advanced deepwater robots capable of scouring the world’s oceans for booty.
UNESCO estimates there are some three million shipwrecks worldwide, with billions of dollars in sunken treasures and priceless knowledge that can be recovered from the depths of the ocean, including vast amounts of naturally occurring copper, silver, gold and zinc deposits.
“The majority of the world’s ocean floor has not yet been explored,” said Gordon. “We know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the deepest parts of the oceans. It’s exciting to be working at depths like these and to be among the pioneers of deep ocean exploration.”
Earlier this year, Odyssey Marine published a series of scientific papers on its discovery and excavation of the Buen Jesús Nuestra Señora del Rosario, one of the vessels sailing with the Tierra Firme treasure fleet bound for Spain in 1622. Sank in a hurricane off the Tortugas, south of the Florida Keys, the wreck was originally excavated in 1990 and 1991.
“This was one of the most important shipwreck finds of its time,” said Stemm. “The archaeological world had long wondered what a colonial shipwreck would look like in the depths of the ocean, and whether it was possible to actually conduct archaeological fieldwork using robotics. Both these questions were answered by the Tortugas shipwreck. The excavation team also proved that it was possible to conduct a sensitive archaeological excavation using remote technology.”
The shipwreck was discovered in 1989 at a depth of 405 metres. Nearly 17,000 artifacts, ranging from gold bars to silver coins, pearls, ceramics, beads, glassware, animal bones and seeds were recovered from the site during the excavation.
“The Tortugas shipwreck dates to the Golden Age, the dazzling world of creativity epitomised by El Greco, Velázquez and Cervantes,” said Dr Sean Kingsley, director of Wreck Watch International. “Rather than staring at paintings, the Buen Jesús lets us dive into the world of the past and study an extraordinary moment in time.”
In advance of the Centenary of World War I next year, UNESCO has called for special attention to the world’s underwater cultural heritage.
Describing the seabed as “the biggest museum of the world”, it estimates shipwrecks around the world range from the Titanic and the Belitung all the way back to the 4,000 submerged vessels of Kublai Khan’s legendary fleet. There are also sunken ruins and cities, like the pirate stronghold of Port Royal in Jamaica, which disappeared beneath the waves after an earthquake in 1692, and Egypt’s ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria. The recent discovery of Neolithic villages beneath the Black Sea may even help explain Noah’s great flood, according to scholars.
“Protecting our underwater heritage is extremely important and increasingly urgent as no site or shipwreck is now out of bounds for treasure hunters,” said Lyndel Prott, director of UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage Division. “New technologies have made deep-water wrecks easily accessible and these technologies are getting cheaper.”
The result of this new ‘gold-rush’ is the destruction of whole chapters of human history. “Treasure hunting is driven by commercial logic and not by the concern for increasing our knowledge of history,” explains Mounir Bouchenaki, Assistant Director-General for Culture at UNESCO. “Time is money, so the treasure hunters must work quickly to raise as many artifacts as possible and sell them.”
An archaeologist can spend 10 years or more studying and excavating a ship, conserving objects and publishing its findings, while often records are not kept and artifacts are spread worldwide in private collections.
“This is tragic for humanity, as a whole. Where there is no knowledge, there is no memory.”
When a site is excavated properly, everybody profits. The archaeological survey of the Pandora, which sank off Australia’s Queensland coast in 1791, for example, helped complete the story of the mutiny on the Bounty. In Sweden, the wreck of the 17th century warship Wasa is one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions, and underwater excavations at Bodrum in Turkey made it one of that country’s most popular sites.
In 2001, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage was enacted to protect “all traces of human existence that have been preserved in a submerged environment for at least 100 years and have a cultural, historical or archaeological character”. According to the convention, submerged archaeological sites should be considered as heritage and should be studied without being subjected to looters or commercial exploitation. Critics from the salvage industry argue that such a measure will only deprive the public from access to their heritage, and lead to its destruction by natural forces.
However, Robert Grenier, the chairman of the International Committee on Underwater Heritage of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, disagrees.
“It has been well demonstrated that shipwrecks can last thousands of years underwater as valid and fruitful archaeological sites. If shipwrecks are seriously damaged by natural destruction in given areas, the damage generally occurs well within the first century of immersion. After that initial period, the degradation can be more or less stopped or slowed down until the site reaches an equilibrium and stabilises itself for centuries.”
As one of Odyssey Marine’s longest-serving offshore team members, Irishman Andrew Craig has taken part in all of the company’s major discoveries as a senior project manager. He was one of the first to see the Republic’s paddlewheel since it sank beneath the waves in 1865, and was also involved in the exhilarating task of recovering nearly 600,000 coins from the Black Swan site.
Additionally, he supervised the team bringing up the largest artifact ever recovered by Odyssey — the four-ton, 42-pounder bronze cannon from the HMS Victory site. Originally from Lorrha near Nenagh, Andrew’s father ran Gurteen Agricultural College.
“There was no previous history in the family of going to sea. My passion for all things underwater developed when I took up diving in 1995,” he explained of the journey that has taken him all over the world. “I then worked as a commercial diver, where I refined my specific interest and skills.”
Having completed a degree in Underwater Technology at Plymouth University, he discovered Odyssey Marine Exploration.
“After finding out Odyssey was the only company working on deep-ocean projects full time, I banged on their door until they hired me,” he laughs. “That was over 10 years ago and, since then, I have worked my way through the ranks from a junior side-scan tech to senior project manager.”
On board the Odyssey Explorer, his duties include interpreting data to pick out potential shipwrecks, working out how to perform tasks with the remotely-operated vehicles or developing re-navigation plots elusive targets. “We use ROVs because most divers are limited to 50m and even saturation divers are only able to go down 200m. We specialise in wreck sites beyond that depth so that we can be fairly certain that they will be untouched by looters when we find them,” he says.
Viewing untouched history on the ocean floor has yielded many memorable moments. “I’ve seen all sorts of interesting things from an incredible variety of shipwrecks dating back a number of centuries to submarines, cars, trucks, a tank, a few unexploded bombs, and even a broken up container full of wine and champagne bottles. On one occasion, a school of dolphins surrounded the ROV when we were doing a night recovery and a giant turtle swam all they way up to the camera lens and hit it with his nose.”
Often at sea for lengthy periods, Andrew occupies his downtime with the variety of distractions offered by the Odyssey’s on-board activities: “My day tends to be taken up with work most of the time, but I do try to get to the gym where TV show watching and cycling can be combined to great effect,” he says. “Typically, I fall asleep at the end of a long day with a good electronic book.” While life can be physically demanding during the extended periods of marine activity, the rewards of being at the cutting-edge of historical salvage more than compensate for its difficulties.
“I am constantly amazed how artifacts survive at the bottom of the sea for centuries, so, when we find something that turns out to be historically significant, it’s a very special feeling to know we were responsible for discovering it and, in doing so, are able to share its story with the people all over the world.”
As a career choice, Craig cautions on demands of this maritime lifestyle: “Working with heavy machinery on a floating platform in very heavy weather can be a bit hairy at times, but we always make sure the safety of the crew comes first no matter what.”
“If you’re interested in exploration, enjoy working hard, are good at improvising and don’t mind spending 30-60 days at a time away from home, then this is for you.”
For the past 12 years Ireland’s offshore waters and coastal seas have been subject to one of the largest seabed surveys in the world in a joint venture between the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Marine Institute. Photographic and sonar images of over 300 shipwrecks have been compiled during the survey in co-operation with the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s Underwater Archaeology Unit, part of the National Monuments Service. The collaboration led to the production of a recent book, Warships, U-Boats & Liners — A Guide to Shipwrecks Mapped in Irish Waters, tracing the history of 60 of the most historic shipwrecks around the Irish coast. The book combines archaeology, history and marine mapping with never before seen graphic imagery detailing the condition of these ancient vessels.
The Underwater Archaeology Unit is responsible for the management, protection and recording of underwater archaeological sites and wrecks in Ireland’s inland and coastal waters.
Since its establishment in 1997 the unit has created an extensive archive, with over 13,000 documented to date. Recent finds include the 1796 French Armada wreck, La Surveillante, in Bantry Bay, an early-medieval bridge at the great monastery of Clonmacnoise, the processional cross from a crannog site in Tully Lough in Roscommon and the Lough Kinale book shrine from Co Longford.
One of the main sites for ongoing exploration centres around the Spanish Armada, which was decimated by storms in the autumn of 1588 off the west coast. In August, 2012, the RV Keary, an aluminium catamaran operated by the Geological Survey of Ireland, stationed itself off the coast of Rutland Island, near Burtonport, to search for wreckage of the legendary fleet.
The dive was carried out by the Underwater Archaeology Unit, led by Corkwoman Connie Kelleher. “It’s really trying to figure out how best to preserve the wreck site itself,” she said. “A university could use it for a field school to teach how to record and excavate. While some people might say we should invest in education, my argument would be that this is education. We can always argue against funding heritage, whether natural or built heritage, but if we don’t continue to address it, protect it and actively manage it, Ireland’s rich cultural resources will be lost. This is a finite resource. Once a species or a heritage site is gone, it can’t be replaced.”
With over 80% of Ireland’s national territory lying beneath the sea, it provides a potentially rich seam of historical and commercial value for future generations.