Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration divers are working to recover the SS Gairsoppa which was torpedoed by a German U-boat 70 years ago. The British ship was carrying what may be the biggest shipwreck haul ever — about 219 tonnes of silver valued at around $214 million.
The identity of the ship was confirmed on Monday, along with its location and the documents citing its precious cargo which was then valued at £600,000. According to the Odyssey, it would be history’s largest recovery of precious metals lost at sea. This project is expected to start next spring.
“We’ve accomplished the first phase of this project: the location and identification of the target shipwreck and now, we’re hard at work planning for the recovery phase.” said Odyssey senior project manager Andrew Craig in a statement. “Given the orientation and condition of the shipwreck, we are extremely confident that our planned salvage operation will be well suited for the recovery of this silver cargo.”
After a long and competitive process, the British government finally awarded Odyssey the exclusive salvage contract for the underwater treasure. According to this contract, Odyssey will retain 80 percent of the silver recovered from the ship.
The Gairsoppa was part of a convoy of ships headed back to Britain from India in February 1941 carryig silver, pig iron and tea, when a storm struck. Because it was low on fuel, the ship broke off from the convoy and headed for Galway, Ireland. However, a German torpedo in the North Atlantic ended its journey before it even reached Ireland. Three crew members managed to reach the Cornish coast after two weeks via lifeboat but only 1 of them survived — the lone survivor of the 85 people on board. It sank 4.7 km below the surface and remained there for decades, inspite of a previous effort to locate it. Fortunately, Odyssey found the shipwreck fairly quickly.
Odyssey chief executive Greg Stemm said they were fortunate to find the ship in an upright position. This made it easily accessible. They would be able to unload the cargo through the hatches with a floating ship alongside a cargo terminal.
Odyssey is a leading deep-ocean exploration team that conducts numerous shipwreck hunting projects worldwide. In May 2007, it had found a ship they code-named the “Black Swan” which sank in 1804 in the Atlantic off the Strait of Gibraltar. The ship is said t contain half a million silver coins and hundreds of gold objects. Their find is being contested by Spain.
Recently, the firm conducted remotely operated vehicles from its main ship, the Odyssey Explorer, to take a look at the Gairsoppa. Still and video imagery were used to confirm the identity and evaluate the condition of the ship. They have released photographs that show clear details of the shipwreck, some of which feature a ladder leading to the forecastle deck, a waist-high compass of the helmsman, and the hole in the steel hull created by the torpedo.
“Technology is opening up a very big door,” Peter Cope, a former British submariner who researches shipwrecks for Odyssey and other firms, told the New York Times. “Think of how many ships were sunk in the First and Second World Wars. There are millions of ounces of silver… down there.”
Modern technology has helped a lot in the Odyssey’s operations. They use highly improved sonar equipment, global positioning systems and advanced deepwater robots to search the oceans for sunken treasures.