Archives For Treasure Hunting


News is slowly seeping its way into the press regarding the incredible discovery and excavation of the SS City of Cairo, a World War II British Merchant Navy vessel sunk in the South Atlantic at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic. The stories surrounding the City of Cairo are numerous with an entire book, Goodnight, Sorry for Sinking You, having been written about her sinking and the travails of her survivors. The City of Cairo was traveling from Bombay, India to the UK with stopovers in South Africa and Brazil and among her cargo of 7,422 tons were 2,000 boxes of silver Indian rupees stowed in the Number 4 hold.

In addition to the general cargo and precious metals, the City of Cairo carried 150 passengers with a total complement of 311 souls aboard. Sighted by U-68, a German U-boat captained by Karl-Friedrich Merten, the City of Cairo was quickly dispatched on the night of November 6, 1942 by two torpedoes. Six lives were lost in the initial evacuation into six overcrowded lifeboats. Interested in learning what vessel he had sunk and what she was carrying, Merten surfaced his U-boat to speak with the survivors. He directed them to the closest land and closed with the now semi-famous words, “Goodnight, sorry for sinking you.”

The survivors then began what would become an epic and tragic fight for survival. Unfortunately, the boats rapidly lost touch with one another in the vastness of the South Atlantic. One group consisting of three boats with 155 survivors was picked up on November 19th after thirteen harrowing days at sea. The group had nearly made it to their destination of St. Helena which was 500 miles from the point of sinking. Another group of only 2 survivors was picked up on December 27th only 80 miles from the coast of Brazil. The original group of 17 had sailed nearly 2,000 miles before being rescued. The third group of three survivors were rescued by a German blockade runner, Rhakotis on December 12th. One of the survivors perished aboard the Rhakotis. For the two survivors, their story became even stranger when, on January 1, the Rhakotis was herself intercepted and sunk by Allied warships. Thankfully, the two were rescued and brought home safely to the United Kingdom. In all, 104 persons died as a result of the sinking.

Public information is very limited as the salvors have sought a low profile with the project, but the salvage company Deep Ocean Search is claiming to have recovered 100 tons of silver coins from the wreck of the City of Cairo over the last few years. If true, then it is quite an accomplishment as the wreck lay in 17,000 feet of water and days of sailing from the closest port. The photos of the wreck and coins provided by Deep Ocean Search are quite stunning. There has been no word on whether the company intends to make the coins available for sale or is melting them for sale into the precious metals market.

New Zealand Shipwreck

On May 4, 1866, the American built barque General Grant departed Melbourne, Australia for London with 58 passengers and 25 crew. Among the passengers were several miners returning home and the cargo manifest listed an official load of 2,576 ounces of gold. Nine days out of Melbourne, the General Grant came upon the Auckland Islands, however, weather conditions prevented the ship’s crew from rounding the islands. Late in the evening, the ship collided with the island’s cliffs and drifted into a large cave where it eventually sank from the main mast being driven through the ship’s bottom from being tossed into the roof of the cave.

Despite the ship’s being beaten against the roof of the cave by a rising tide, the passengers and crew chose to spend a perilous night aboard the vessel and try to escape in the morning. Only fifteen souls of the 83 aboard were able to leave the vessel safely and they soon found themselves on the aptly named Disappointment Island before rowing on to Port Ross. For the next nine months the survivors watched and waited for a passing ship to rescue them, but none came. Exasperated, four of the fifteen attempted to sail for New Zealand but were never heard from again after leaving Port Ross on January 22, 1867. Nearly eight months later the survivors were finally rescued by the brig Amherst.

The General Grant was not done taking lives, though, as 29 salvors died in their vain attempts to locate the ship and its cargo of gold. To this day the ship remains undiscovered with her $3,000,000+ gold cargo lying somewhere at the bottom of a treacherous cave on Auckland Island.


French Submarine Surcouf

While the Royal Navy was experimenting with aircraft carrying submarines, the French Navy continued to pursue the unconventional submarine cruiser concept. The pinnacle of their (and all other navies’) experimentation was the submarine Surcouf which was commissioned in 1936. Surcouf displaced nearly 4,400 tons and was outfitted with dual 8-in. guns, 10 torpedo tubes, nearly half a dozen anti-aircraft and machine guns and a spotting aircraft in a stern hangar. Never before nor since have such large guns been mounted on a submarine. Named after a 19th century French privateer captain, the Surcouf was intended to be deployed as a submersible raider with the capability of shelling shore targets, merchant ships and unsuspecting surface warships and then sneaking away while submerged.

During World War II, the Surcouf had a rather lackluster reputation in the hands of the French Navy and Free French Navy. Barely escaping capture when the Nazi blitzkrieg overran France, the Surcouf fled to France where the Royal Navy later boarded her at gunpoint during Operation Catapult and the resulting confusion ended in the deaths of several sailors. The boat was then turned over to the Free French Navy and was used to assist in a coup launched on December 25, 1941 against the Vichy French administrator of Saint Pierre and Miquelon – a French colony off the coast of Canada.

Following several months of inconsequential service in which the sub constantly required maintenance, the decision was made by the Free French high command to dispatch Surcouf to Tahiti via the Panama Canal. After a temporary stop at Bermuda on February 7, 1942 the Surcouf sailed for the Canal Zone. The sub was never seen again and numerous theories have been proposed as to her fate. The two most widely accepted theories are that the sub collided with the American freighter Thompson Lykes on the night of February 18th or was sunk by American aircraft on February 19th.

The sub has never been located and there are rumors that the sub was carrying a portion of France’s gold reserves, however, this is most likely wild conjecture for several reasons. First, the Surcouf was operating primarily in the Caribbean and North Atlantic in her final months and thus would have had no access to the gold reserves. Second, and more importantly, the sub was experiencing significant mechanical difficulties and it is highly unlikely that gold reserves would have been entrusted to an unreliable vessel. Finally, the Surcouf had been ordered to Tahiti which is an unlikely destination (unless for transshipment) for any gold reserves.

british destroyer

HMS Edinburgh Firing Sea Dart Missiles
© UK MOD/Crown Copyright 2012

Today the Royal Navy retired the HMS York, its second to last Type 42 destroyer. Its last Type 42, HMS Edinburgh, sailed on its final deployment earlier this week and will be retired upon its return. The Type 42 destroyer class has served the Royal Navy since the 1970s and two were lost in the Falklands War. York and Edinburgh will soon be replaced by new Type 45 destroyers which are among the most powerful and sophisticated anti-aircraft vessels in the world.

During her long career, York sailed 750,000 miles in defense of British interests and saw service in Iraq (2003), Lebanon (2006) and most recently Libya (2011). Her sister ship Edinburgh also served in the 2003 Iraq conflict and has deployed on numerous anti-terrorism and narcotics interdiction missions around the globe. Both ships are currently for sale on the UK MoD’s disposal site and their sale will be used as a diplomatic tool to further relations with another nation(s). Another notable warship sale occurred earlier this year when the US Navy sold for scrap the Sea Shadow, a copy of which appeared in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

The last vessel to bear the Edinburgh name was a Town-class cruiser lost in World War 2 in the Arctic Sea. The ship fell prey to Nazi sea and air forces while escorting a convoy from Murmansk, Russia to Great Britain. Aboard the vessel was 465 bars of gold bullion weighing 4.5 tons. Several salvage efforts were launched but it wasn’t until September 1981 that the first bar of gold was recovered. Over the course of two dive seasons, 460 of the 465 bars were successfully recovered. The recovery operations were performed under a contract similar to that between the UK government and Odyssey Marine for the Gairsoppa and Mantola recoveries in 2012.

New Jersey shipwreck

CC Image Courtesy of messycupcakes on Flickr

Step aside Snooki and Pauly D – Florida diver Allan Garner may be set to become the Jersey Shore’s latest celebrity. Garner has filed an admiralty arrest claim on the wreck of the SS Ella Warley. The ship sank in 1863 after colliding with the SS North Star off the New Jersey coast. The North Star, owned by Commodore Vanderbilt, survived the collision and made it safely to New York City. The reason for the collision was disputed, although there were allegations of the Ella Warley’s captain and some of her officers being drunk at the time. Concerning the accusation of drunkenness, the New York Times editorialized, “we believe [it] has not the slightest foundation in truth.” Six crew members of the Ella Warley perished while the North Star suffered no casualties.

Built in 1848 as the SS Isabel, the Ella Warley displaced 1,115 tons and carried cargo and passengers between Charleston and Havana. Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, the Ella Warley ran the blockade several times between Charleston and Nassau until it was captured by the USS Santiago de Cuba.

At the time of its sinking the ship was laden with a cargo worth $175,000 and a safe containing $5,000 belonging to Adams Express Company. In addition, a passenger had $8,000 in gold aboard. While the cargo, which according to contemporary accounts consisted of hay, leather, provisions, dry goods and “express matter,” is most likely worthless, the safe’s contents and gold are quite valuable. Assuming the safe’s $5,000 was in gold, then there is the possibility of ~687 ounces of gold lying on the seabed floor amidst the wreckage. At today’s prices, this would mean the wreck is worth more than $1.2 million.

If no one objects to Garner’s claim by Thursday, then the US District Court for the District of New Jersey will award full ownership of the wreck and its contents to Garner. Successors in interest to the insurance company which paid out any claims for cargoes lost on the wreck, Adams Express Company and descendants of the passenger who lost $8,000 in gold are potential claimants and could be awarded a percentage of any recovery. Considering the wreck has been known among New Jersey’s diving community for 20 years, the likelihood is quite high that Garner has found something worth arresting.

Update: The $1.2 million value is for melt value and not the value of the gold if it were in specie form. If the gold were recovered in specie form, then the wreck could be worth upwards 20x of melt value as shipwreck specie commands a significant premium in the collector market.

polish palace

Kazimierz Palace
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Polish archaeologists and police are exploiting historically low water levels on the Vistula River to recover dozens of marble and alabaster decorative elements looted from Polish landmarks in the 17th century. Utilizing a Mil Mi-8 police helicopter, archaeologists are carefully lifting the sculptures from the riverbed and transporting them to drier locales for conservation and restoration. The decorative elements were looted from Poland’s Royal Castle and the Kazimierz Palace by Swedish forces after they captured Warsaw during the mid-17th century. The loot was loaded onto barges and prepared for transit to Sweden via the Vistula and then the Baltic. At least one barge, though, sank en route and scattered its precious cargo along the riverbed. Polish archaeologists have known about the treasures, but river conditions have rarely cooperated such that they could retrieve the pieces. Efforts over the last 3 years have yielded some results, but nothing like the finds archaeologists are making now.

Today, Sweden is most often associated with IKEA furniture, safe cars (cb radio optional), cars born from jets and ABBA, but the Swedish Empire once encompassed 1.1 million square kilometers and dominated its northern European rivals. By comparison, the Holy Roman Empire was 1 million sq. km. and modern Sweden is 450,000 sq. km. The Empire was founded in 1611 by Gustavus Adolphus, a brilliant military commander, who defeated his rivals in the Thirty Years War and began the expansion of Sweden’s borders. Between 1600 and 1721, the Poles and the Swedes clashed no fewer than 6 times in conflicts lasting up to 11 years. It was during one of these wars that the decorative structures being recovered today were looted from Poland’s Royal Castle and the Kazimierz Palace. In addition to waging war against the Poles, the Swedes also attacked and occupied territory in modern day Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Russia. The Great Northern War which concluded in 1721 marked the end of Sweden’s status as a great power and the empire’s territorial breadth began to slowly recede.

jolly roger

CC Image Pirated From Scott Vandehey on Flickr

To recognize International Talk Like a Pirate Day, here are a few piratical items of note…

Captain Morgan, the Diageo owned rum distiller, funded excavations at the site of the real Admiral Morgan’s shipwreck this summer. No word if any rum has been found aboard the wreck or if the salvage crew were cited for operating an ROV under the influence.

Excavations continue on both Captain Sam Bellamy’s Whydah and Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. Artifacts from both wrecks can be viewed at their respective museums in Provincetown, Massachusetts and Beaufort, North Carolina.

According to the Maritime Executive, there were 17 pirate attacks just last month. This month, pirates even fired upon an Italian naval helicopter. A map of pirate attacks in 2012 can be viewed here.

Last year, 35 people lost their lives while being held hostage by Somali pirates. As of August 30, there were 11 vessels and 188 hostages being held by Somali pirates. In addition to the human costs of piracy, experts estimate that the financial costs of piracy was around $6.6 – 6.9 billion in 2011 alone.

Piracy along the coast of Somalia has become such a problem that one of the primary reasons for the 2007 creation of the US’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) was the fighting of piracy. It’s rumored that the servicemen of AFRICOM will star in Disney’s upcoming film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Somali Tides.


CC Image courtesy of Enrique Ruiz Crespo on Flickr

Australian shipwreck diver Hugh Edwards believes he has located the wreck of the 18th century Dutch East Indiaman Aagtekerke in waters off the Abrolhos Islands in Western Australia. Lost in 1726, the Aagtekerke was en route from Africa to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta, Indonesia). This isn’t the first wreck Edwards has discovered in his 50+ year diving career. In 1963, Edwards located the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia which had wrecked on its maiden voyage in 1629. Over a period of four years from 1970 – 1974, marine archaeologists worked to recover and preserve artifacts from the Batavia and they are now housed in the Western Australia Museum in Perth. The author intends to make a site visit to the museum in the near future and will post his findings when he does so. Additionally, a replica of the Batavia serves as a museum ship in Leylstad, Netherlands.

In the same year Edwards found the Batavia, he located another Dutch East Indiaman, the Zeewyck, which had sunk in 1727. In subsequent trips to the wreck site Edwards discovered several artifacts including an elephant tusk that didn’t coincide with the historical record for the Zeewyck. After nearly 50 years of piecing together various clues, Edwards has come to the conclusion that the Zeewyck and the Aagtekerke sank within 300 meters of one another and their debris field intermixed. Translated journal entries from survivors of the Zeewyck indicate that they had come across debris from another shipwreck when their own ship sank and the presence of the elephant tusk (the Aagtekerke was carrying 214 tusks and the Zeewyck none) seem to confirm his thesis.

Edwards is continuing to explore the site and is hoping to locate the ~30,000 silver coins believed to be among the Aagtekerke’s cargo. Under Australian law, any artifacts raised from the site would belong to the Australian government, however, under generally recognized principles of admiralty/salvage law, Edwards might be entitled to a salvage award for any artifacts he recovers.

Finland Shipwreck Champagne

CC Image courtesy of David Parsons on Flickr

According to the German publication Deutsche Welle, another 8 bottles from a 168 bottle collection of champagne are set to go under the auctioneers hammer. The champagne was discovered two years ago by diver and (ironically enough) brewery owner Christian Ekström. Ekström was exploring a wrecked schooner off the coast of the Åland Islands when he came upon the bottles at the site. Researchers believe the schooner sank in the 1840s making Ekström’s find the oldest champagne ever found. Now, two years after the discovery, 10 of the bottles have been sold at auction with one, a Veuve Clicquot, selling for a record breaking $26,700. Authorities on the Åland Islands plan to hold auctions of the champagne over the next few years as a method of bringing tourists to the area.

Ekström’s find isn’t the first fermented treasure trove found in the Baltic as there have been both beer and other champagne caches discovered in recent years. The discovery and re-creation of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s whiskey, though, is still perhap the most noteworthy alcoholic find of the past few years.

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.