At American Underwater Services, we specialize in commercial diving services. Marine salvage is one of our areas of expertise. The vast majority of the vessels we’ve recovered from the depths of the ocean or lakes are commercial or personal pleasure craft.
For this blog post though, we’re going to have some fun and look at the top five treasure-laden shipwrecks that have been salvaged over the past few decades. These include pirate ships, Spanish treasure galleons, and 19th-century sidewheel steamer.
British Treasury Ship
In 1941, a German U-boat sank the S.S. Gairsoppa with a single torpedo hit to her hull. She was built in 1919 and repurposed as a cargo transport ship during the Second World War. In those days, ships traveled in convoys, usually headed up by a military vessel that was intended to protect their precious cargo.
On the day she was sunk, the S.S. Gairsoppa carried a cargo of silver bullion that was estimated to be worth $194 million in today’s money. In 2011, the U.K. Government Department of Transport put out a contract, and a marine salvage company won the rights to retrieve the cargo. Under the terms of the agreement, the U.K. government would retain 20% of all pieces salvaged, with the rest going to the salvage company.
S.S. Central American
In September of 1857, the S.S. Central American, a sidewheel steamer, had just left the Panamanian port of Colon when she encountered a Category 2 hurricane.
Onboard the ship was over 10 tons of gold that was mined during the California Gold Rush.
Over the next 24 hours, winds over 105 mph battered and tore her sails while water started to pour in her hull. To complicate things even further, her boiler was looking like it was about to fail. Over the next few hours, passengers tried desperately to fight a losing battle against the seawater pouring in. She finally sank at 8 pm that evening.
The S.S. Central American was re-located in 1988, and the gold was recovered. Its worth was an estimated 100-150 million dollars. Over 39 insurance companies filed lawsuits, and after a long legal battle, 92% of the gold was awarded to the salvage company.
The Whydah is the only pirate ship that’s ever been scientifically identified and salvaged. It was the flagship of notorious pirate captain “Black Sam” Bellamy. The boat itself had a long and storied history.
It was first built as a passenger ship, then ran cargo, and finally slaves from Africa. On the return journey of her maiden voyage as a slave ship, Black Sam captured the boat, and she began a long and storied history as a pirate ship.
On April 26th, 1717, she encountered a massive storm and sank to the bottom just off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Black Sam perished, and that was that for 260 years. In 1984, treasure hunters finally found her and retrieved over 400 million dollars of treasure and thousands of artifacts. The shipwreck even got a museum dedicated to her, which exhibits some of the recovered goods.
Nuestra Señora de Atocha was a Spanish treasure ship laden with jewels, jewelry, silver, copper, gold, and indigo. She was on her way back to Spain when she sank off the Florida Keys in the year 1622. What made this ship so remarkable was the fact that it took two months to load and record her contents before she set off on her journey back to Europe.
In 1985, famous treasure hunter Mel Fisher finally located the wreck, almost 17 years after he started looking for it. He and his crew pulled up over 450 million dollars’ worth of treasure from the bottom along with thousands of artifacts. The Guinness Book of World Records crowned the Nuestra Señora de Atocha as the most valuable shipwreck ever found at that time.
Black Swan Project
Treasure hunting and salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration located a sunken Spanish frigate called the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. Odyssey kept the origin of the treasure confidential by giving it the name “Black Swan Project.” However, they couldn’t keep the recovery a secret, and the Spanish government soon found out and sued the salvage company.
After five years of litigation that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, Odyssey Marine was ordered to return the treasure to Spain. However, not all was lost—Odyssey was granted the equivalent of 80% of the fair value of any artifacts found or sold. While they didn’t walk away with over $500 million, they did manage to make some money out of this ordeal.
Marine Salvage Company
American Underwater Services is a nationwide commercial diving business and we specialize in marine salvage. No matter if you have a 16’ fishing boat or a massive Spanish Treasure Galleon from the 1600s, just give us the location, and we’ll bring it her up from the bottom depths. Give us a call at (817) 377-8512 or contact us here to learn more about our commercial diving and boat salvage services.