Recovering a Silver Treasure: Photos

Check out Recovering a Silver Treasure: Photos

[slideshow 5583]

July 19, 2012

-- Forty-eight tons of silver bars was recently hauled up from a British cargo ship that was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk during World War II. The name of the S.S. Gairsoppa might have been the last sight seamen aboard three lifeboats saw as they abandoned the sinking ship on Feb. 17, 1941. Here, faint traces of the ship's painted letters are visible. In the bottom frame, contrast has been adjusted to highlight the letters.

NEWS: Record Treasure Hauled From Shipwreck

In service of the U.K. Ministry of War Transport, the Gairsoppa was laden with tea, iron and tons of silver. Because of bad weather and insufficient coal, the 412- foot steel-hulled cargo steamship, en route from India to Liverpool, England, was forced to break away from the military convoy off the coast of Ireland. As the captain re-routed for Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, the Gairsoppa and its crew of 86 men were hit by a torpedo from a Nazi U-boat. The boat sank in icy seas within 20 minutes.

NEWS: Tons of Silver Found on WWII Ship

Left at the mercy of the winds and waves, two lifeboats soon disappeared. A third boat managed to sail for 13 days. When it was sighted, only three British officers and four Indian seamen remained of the original 35 occupants. As they tried to land between cliffs and rocks, the lifeboat capsized twice in the crashing surf. Only one person, second officer Richard Ayres, survived to shore.

In September 2011, 70 years after the dramatic sinking, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., an American salvage firm, announced the discovery of the Gairsoppa's intact wreck about 300 miles off the southwest coast of Ireland, at a depth of nearly three miles. The company was awarded an exclusive salvage contract by the British government in 2010. Here, the bow of the S.S. Gairsoppa is visible with both anchors.

The shipwreck was located using the MAK-1M (deep-tow low frequency sonar system), aboard the chartered Russian research vessel RV Yuzhmorgeologiya. Visual inspection of the site was conducted with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from the Odyssey Explorer.

Lying deeper than the Titanic, the Gairsoppa sank with 2,600 tons of pig iron, 1,765 tons of tea, 2,369 tons of general cargo and 200 tons of silver ingots and coins. The U.K. Ministry of War Transport paid an insurance loss of approximately £325,000 at the time for silver bars lost with the ship.

When the ship was located, the robot-captured video footage showed a unique view into the rusty ship. This image reveals a ladder leading to the forecastle deck, a stern compass, tea chests and even an intact toilet.

Although the video did not show any precious metal, the Odyssey crew was confident that it was still there. Using advanced robotics, as seen here, the deep sea explorer identified the silver bars and in July 2012 announced the recovery of 48 tons of silver from the sunken cargo ship.

This record-breaking operation has produced the heaviest and deepest recovery of precious metals from a shipwreck. The treasure hunters have so far recovered 1,203 bars of silver (a total of 1.4 million ounces). Based on current precious metal prices, they are valued at $38 million.

According to Odyssey, the bars of silver recovered so far represent only about 20 percent of all the bullion residing in the Gairsoppa. Records suggest the Gairsoppa carried a cargo of silver worth £600,000 at the time, which would equate to approximately 7 million ounces of silver. "One record clearly indicates that 2,817 silver bars were loaded at one port and another report lists an unconfirmed amount of silver (most likely coinage)," the company said. "The difference between the amount paid out under the War Risk policy (£325,000) and the £600,000 sterling referenced in contemporary documents is possibly explained by additional uninsured government-owned silver aboard," Odyssey stated. Under the agreement with the British government, Odyssey will retain 80 percent of the silver's value.

WATCH VIDEO: See how Odyssey finds and recovers sunken treasure.