Recovering vast treasures from beneath the waves

  • Ribbon cutting: BUEI intern Avarie Graham, designer of the graphics, and Dr David Sau, officially open the BUEI new mini exhibit, The Treasure of The Gairsoppa.

    Ribbon cutting: BUEI intern Avarie Graham, designer of the graphics, and Dr David Sau, officially open the BUEI new mini exhibit, The Treasure of The Gairsoppa.
    (Photo by Mark Tatem)

A mini exhibit is now open at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute detailing the $64 million-worth of treasure recently recovered from a sunken warship by a marine company directed by former Premier David Saul.

Dr Saul, director of Odyssey Marine Exploration, was on hand last night when the ribbon was cut on the ‘Treasure of the Gairsoppa’ exhibit at the BUEI.

The SS Gairsoppa was a 412-foot steel-hulled British cargo steamship. In December 1940, the Gairsoppa set sail from Calcutta, India carrying 110 tons of silver, destined for the Royal Mint of England.

“The money was probably going to pay for the troops during the war,” Dr Saul told The Royal Gazette.

On the morning of February 16, 1941 she was spotted by a German aircraft and later that evening she was torpedoed on the starboard side by a German U-boat piloted by German naval officer Ernst Mengersen.

According to the website, the merchant ship had been travelling in a convoy but because she was running low on fuel and the weather was bad, was essentially left behind by the convoy about 300 miles southwest of Galway Bay, Ireland.

The German U-boat had trouble hitting the Gairsoppa due to the bad weather, and actually fired three times before hitting the ship. The Gairsoppa caught fire and settled slowly by the bow. The U-boat could have continued firing but Mengersen decided that with the bad weather the ship would probably sink anyway, which it did.

The survivors managed to abandon ship in three lifeboats before she sank within 20 minutes. However, two of the boats were never seen again and its occupants probably died in the cold and bad weather.

The other lifeboat had eight Europeans and 23 Lascars (from India) aboard, but after seven days most had died of exposure and only six people were alive when the boat approached land.

Sadly, their troubles were not over. The boat capsized in the swell and surf off The Lizard, in Cornwall, England, and all occupants drowned except for the second officer, who was rescued unconscious by a coastguard. Only four bodies were recovered and buried in the Landewednack churchyard. The rest, 85 people including the master, crew members and two gunners, were lost.

Seventy years later, the British Government invited tenders to salvage the cargo of the Gairsoppa, and in January 2010 the government awarded the salvage operation to a United States company, Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Odyssey was awarded a two-year contract to find and salvage the silver. The research vessel, RV Yuhmorgeologiya located the shipwreck using deep-tow low frequency sonar system. A remote operated vehicle (ROV) from the Odyssey Explorer visually examined the shipwreck and confirmed that it was in fact the Gairsoppa. In May 2012 the recovery operation began.

A ROV was used to extract the silver ingots from the wreckage and the ingots were placed in a large metal basket and raised to the surface.

A ROV, similar to the one used to extract the treasure, is on display outside BUEI.

The first silver bars were brought to the surface on July 18, 2012. During the summer of 2012, the ship Seabed Worker recovered 1,218 silver bars (approximately 48 tons).

The Seabed Worker returned to the site in May 2013 and over the next couple of months recovered another 1,574 silver bars. It is the deepest and heaviest recovery of precious metal from a shipwreck site in history.

In total, Odyssey has recovered approximately 110 tons of silver from the Gairsoppa with a value of approximately $64 million.

Almost all of the silver bars were melted and sold for their commodity value. A few were retained as collectors’ items, one of which is on display at the BUEI.

At the opening, Dr Saul, a Lifetime Trustee of BUEI, gave a short speech about the discovery.

He will be holding an illustrated lecture at the BUEI on July 15 entitled ‘The Ship of Silver and The Ship of Gold ... tens of millions recovered from the depths of the Ocean. The Stories of the SS Gairsoppa and SS Central America.”

Tickets for the July 15 lecture are $20 for members; $25 for non-members and $10 for students. Tickets are available by calling 294-0204 or visiting BUEI’s Oceans Gift shop. Ticket holders are entitled to 10 percent off dinner at the Harbourfront (food only) before or after the lecture.

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Published Jul 2, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated Jul 2, 2014 at 7:33 am)

Recovering vast treasures from beneath the waves

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