Archives For Russian Shipwrecks

Wilhelm Gustloff

Photo: German Federal Archive

The worst maritime disaster in recorded human history occurred in the closing days of World War II and is little known in popular history. The torpedoing of the M/V Wilhelm Gustloff claimed ~9,000 lives including as many as 4,000 children. By comparison the RMS Titanic disaster cost 1,517 lives. In the waning days of World War II, the once vaunted German Wehrmacht was pressed into ever shrinking pockets of territory by advancing Soviet armies. Admiral Karl Donitz, desperate to evacuate 2 million German personnel and civilians from isolated pockets of German territory on the Baltic Coast, initiated Operation Hannibal – an evacuation almost six times the size of Dunkirk.

Among the ships used in the evacuation was the Wilhelm Gustloff, a former luxury liner built in 1938 to provide holiday excursions as part of Hitler’s “Strength Through Joy” program. Confiscated by the Kriegsmarine at the outbreak of hostilities in September, 1939, the ship served as a hospital ship and floating barracks. The Wilhelm Gustloff departed Gotenhafen on January 30, 1945 with more than 10,000 refugees and military personnel. Less than 9 hours after leaving Gotenhafen, the ship was spotted by the Soviet submarine S-13 which loosed a four torpedo salvo. Three of the four torpedoes (the fourth jammed in the tube) found their mark and within 70 minutes the Wilhelm Gustloff lay 150 feet beneath the Baltic Sea. More than 9,000 souls perished in the sinking, but for propaganda reasons the Nazi regime kept news of the sinking from spreading within the crumbling Third Reich. For numerous reasons, most importantly the overshadowing of the tragedy by the ending of the war and the exposure of Nazi death camps, the disaster is not a pop culture icon like the sinking of the RMS Titanic or the RMS Lusitania.

Some historians have speculated that the looted Amber Room might have been aboard and the Soviets allegedly launched an expedition to the wreck site during the Cold War. Evidence pointing to the Amber Room being aboard is circumstantial at best. The last known sighting of the room was in nearby Konigsberg Castle just days before the ship sailed. The room had been packaged into 27 crates and eyewitnesses report the moving of similar sized crates from trucks to the ship prior to its departure. In the most thorough analysis of the fate of the Amber Room to date, authors Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy posit that the Amber Room was destroyed on land sometime during the frantic evacuations from East Prussia and has been forever lost.

Aral Sea Ship

CC Image courtesy of farflungistan on Flickr

The 2005 movie Sahara centered around the disappearance of a Confederate ironclad at the end of the Civil War. Matthew McConnaughey’s character, Dirk Pitt, is endlessly jibed for thinking the ship could have ended up in the African desert. Although Dirk is eventually proved correct when the ship is discovered in the desert, he would have faced much less derision had he been looking for a ship in the deserts of Uzbekistan.

The Aral Sea, located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was once one of the largest lakes in the world. Beginning in 1918, though, Soviet central planners decided that cotton exports from the region were of vital importance and trumped all other considerations. Beginning in the 1930s, numerous irrigation canals were constructed to divert water from the rivers feeding the Aral Sea to cotton fields throughout the region. This decision devastated the ecosystem of the region, though, and the Aral Sea began to shrink in the 1960s as the irrigation canals robbed the Aral Sea of the inflows necessary to maintain its water levels. The sea had declined so much by 1987 that it split into two separate entities – the North Aral Sea located mainly in Kazakhstan and the South Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. The reduction in freshwater inflows spiked the salinity of the sea, devastating the fishing industry. Additionally, the continued receding of water levels left dozens of vessels high and dry in what has now become a desert.

Fortunately for residents of Kazakhstan, Kazakh authorities have worked to refill the North Aral Sea and it is now growing. Uzbekistan, though, has chosen to continue to divert inflows to irrigation which has resulted in further desertification of the area.

As this year’s recovery season winds down, noted exploration company Odyssey Marine is wrapping up two deep water recoveries (the SS Gairsoppa and SS Mantola) and currently on hold with the excavation of HMS Victory.  The 2012 season marked several firsts for Odyssey – the completion of a shipwreck salvage under government contract, the validation of their deepwater recovery methods and the beginnings of legitimacy for their role in “academic” archaeology with their efforts on the HMS Victory. What lies ahead for Odyssey is a question of much debate.  Below are five of the most discussed targets for Odyssey along with pros and cons for each.

1.  Merchant Royal – widely believed to be the target of Odyssey’s “Atlas” search, the Merchant Royal went down in a storm off Great Britain in 1641 with a cargo of gold and silver valued around ~1 billion in current dollars. This is the Holy Grail of shipwrecks and would be an incredible find both for the monetary and publicity windfall. Apart from the difficulty involved in locating the wreck, there are no significant cons to recovering the Merchant Royal.

2.  Prins Frederik – sunk in 1890 after a collision with the Marpessa in the Bay of Biscay, this Dutch mail steamer carried 400,000 silver rijksdaalders in its bullion room. Disputes over the actual location of the ship (and thus who was to blame for the collision) have created a wide search area and significantly affect the depth of water it could be located in – 500 feet if where the captain of the Prins Frederik claimed or 6,000 feet if where the captain of the Marpessa claimed. A British company claimed to have found the wreck in shallow water in 1994 which could generate legal issues for Odyssey if it is indeed the Prins Frederik. Odyssey could also face legal claims from insurers who paid out on claims or the Dutch government as the cargo was for payment of colonial forces in Indonesia. The Prins Frederik would be an excellent target for an arrangement similar to the Gairsoppa and Mantola where the Dutch government receives a portion of the proceeds after expenses.

3.  I-52 – re-discovered in 1995 by Paul Tidwell, the I-52 was sunk by American naval forces in 1944 while en route from Japan to Nazi Germany. The I-52 was carrying 2.2 tons of gold and now sits in 17,000 feet of water. While Odyssey’s deepwater recovery methods would enable recovery of the wreck, apart from a multi-party agreement on salvage rights between Tidwell, the Japanese government and Odyssey no recovery is possible. Tidwell has also stated he is pursuing recovery of the sub and it is doubtful Odyssey would be brought in on the deal.

4.  Port Nicholson – a British freighter loaded with $3 billion in platinum, the Port Nicholson was torpedoed off the coast of Massachusetts in 1942 and was located in 2008 by Sub Sea Research.  Sub Sea Research gained title to the ship in 2009 and planned recovery in 2012. No word has emerged on whether or not the group has been successful in their salvage and there are doubts as to whether the platinum even exists onboard.  If Sub Sea is unable to recover the wreck due to a lack of expertise or funding, then a collaboration with Odyssey would benefit both parties and be the most valuable recovery yet, surpassing even Odyssey’s Black Swan recovery (and subsequent loss).

5.  Bonhomme Richard – John Paul Jones’ famous flagship went down after his epic battle with HMS Serapis. The past few years have seen renewed efforts to find the ship, but any recovery would be limited by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Because the Bonhomme Richard was an American warship it cannot be salvaged without the permission of the US government. An arrangement with the US government similar to that of the HMS Victory one is a possibility, but doubtful because the upside isn’t nearly as high as it is for other wrecks.

There are dozens of other wrecks Odyssey could be pursuing – the company claims to have dozens of high value shipwreck targets in its proprietary database. Based on Odyssey’s stated business model of pursuing high value targets with easily ascertainable legal ownership and inaccessible to normal salvors, Odyssey will most likely pursue deepwater commodity shipwrecks where the cargo can be quickly monetized and not the storied Spanish Galleons of treasure hunting lore.

Disclosure: I am an Odyssey Marine shareholder.