When the SS Gairsoppa was torpedoed by a German U-boat 70 years ago, it took its huge silver cargo to a watery grave. Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration’s divers are working to recover what may be the biggest shipwreck haul ever, valued at some $210 million. The British ship was carrying some 219 tons of silver when it sank in 1941 in the North Atlantic some 300 miles (490 kilometers) off the Irish coast. Valued then at 600,000 pounds, the silver today is worth about $210 million, which would make it history’s largest recovery of precious metals lost at sea.
“We’ve accomplished the first phase of this project — the location and identification of the target shipwreck — and now we’re hard at work planning for the recovery phase,” Odyssey senior project manager Andrew Craig said in a statement. “Given the orientation and condition of the shipwreck, we are extremely confident that our planned salvage operation will be well suited for the recovery of this silver cargo.” Recovery is expected to begin next spring. The British government awarded Odyssey an exclusive salvage contract for the cargo, and under the agreement Odyssey will retain 80 percent of the silver bullion salvaged from the wreck.
The 412-foot (125-meter) Gairsoppa had been sailing from India back to Britain in February 1941 bearing a cargo of silver, pig iron and tea, and was in a convoy of ships when a storm hit. Running low on fuel, the Gairsoppa broke off from the convoy and set a course for Galway, Ireland. It never made it, succumbing to a German torpedo in the contested waters of the North Atlantic. Of the 85 people on board, only one survived. The Gairsoppa came to rest nearly 15,400 feet (4,700 meters) below the surface, where for decades it was lost to the world. Odyssey is a world leader in deep-ocean exploration and has numerous shipwreck hunting projects in process around the globe. In May 2007, it announced it had found half a million silver coins and hundreds of gold objects from a ship they code-named the “Black Swan,” which went down in 1804 in the Atlantic off the Strait of Gibraltar. UNESCO estimates there are some three million shipwrecks worldwide, with billions of dollars in sunken treasures that can be recovered from the depths of the ocean.