The world’s seabeds are littered with wrecks and treasures. Despite many decades of increasingly active searches for the best, the rarest and the most valuable of them, UNESCO’s figures suggest there are still around three million undiscovered shipwrecks scattered across the globe. To excavate them all would apparently take more than 400 years and uncover treasures worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but as the following discoveries prove, the hidden secrets of the seabed are about much more than just money.
Billion-dollar wreck: Nuestra Señora de Atocha
In July 1985, after 17 years of exploring the seabed in search of the remains of a 28-strong Spanish fleet beset by a hurricane in 1622, Mel Fisher (pictured above) and his band of treasure hunters finally found the big one. ‘Nuestra Señora de Atocha’ was the largest and most prestigious vessel in the group and when it was holed on the coral off the Florida Keys, it sank with its vast cargo of precious stones, jewellery, gold, silver and tobacco still on board. In fact, the value of this ravaged fleet was so vast that the Spaniards spent a decade attempting to salvage the remains. They brought back a great many of the riches from some of the other ships but the Atocha herself was never found.
Since Mel Fisher’s amazing find in 1985, artifacts worth around half a billion dollars have already been brought to the surface. However, it is far from over. The wreckage site is still being explored and the most valuable part of the ship (the stern castle, where the captain’s cabin would have concealed the most precious cargos of all) has yet to be located.
Priceless Knowledge: Devon’s Bronze Age wreck
Salcombe is just a small estuary town on England’s South Devon coast, but in May 2009, it witnessed a find of international importance when divers from the local ‘South West Maritime Archaeological Group’ stumbled upon one of the world’s oldest wrecks. At nearly 3,000 years old, this Bronze Age find is particularly significant, not just because it predates the birth of Christ by a millennium, but because in addition to the weapons and the precious gold jewelry, the raw materials for making bronze (tin and copper ingots) were also found in their hundreds. According to researchers from Oxford University, the implications of this is that trade links between prehistoric Britain and mainland Europe were far better developed than was previously imagined. Nearly 500 artifacts have so far been brought to the surface and examined but there is little doubt that there is plenty more to come.
Port Nicholson: The Three-Billion Dollar Boat
The Port Nicholson was a British World War II freighter torpedoed by a German U-boat 50 miles off the Massachusetts coast in June 1942, while en route from New York to Nova Scotia. It was one of many merchant ships targeted by the Germans, so on the face of it, its sinkage (though tragic) seemed unremarkable. However, when it was rediscovered in 2008, resting at a depth of 200 metres by Greg Brooks from Sub Sea Research in Maine, it was reportedly carrying nearly 54 metric tons of platinum. At current market values of around US$1,450 per ounce, that makes it the richest wreck in the world with a value of nearly US$3 billion.
According to Brooks, the precious metal had been intended as a wartime payment from the Soviet Union to the Americans. There are also reports that the ship may have been carrying an additional $165 million worth of other metals. Certainly, there is some skepticism over the veracity of these claims – and as wartime manifests were either unreliable or deliberately falsified, that doubt persists. But claims on the prize, from the British, who owned the ship, from the Americans, who were destined for the payment, and from the Russians, who made the original payment, are likely to delay any definitive answers.
In 1901, sponge divers off the Greek island of Antikythera in Greece, discovered a Roman wreck containing treasure plundered from across ancient Greece. The seabed exploration that followed is broadly considered to have been the world’s first major subsurface archaeological expedition, and it proves that the importance of an object can far outweigh its monetary value. The treasures included coins, jewels, statues, glassware and pottery – but the real highlight of the wreck, unearthed in 1976 is known as the ‘Antikythera Mechanism’. Dating from the second century BC, it is thought to be the world’s first analogue computer and the brainchild of mathematician, philosopher and inventor, Archimedes. It is apparently designed to simulate planetary movements and thereby predict lunar eclipses – and x-rays have shown that, with 50 or 60 gears, its astonishing complexity and sophistication is unlike anything that the world would see for another 1,000 years. The assembled collection of Antikythera artefacts can be viewed at the National Archaeological Museum in Greece.
Whydah Pirate Ship
In 1984, explorer Barry Clifford discovered a shipwreck on the seabed off Cape Cod that would go down in history. He had unearthed the Whydah – a complete pirate ship and to date the world’s most famous relic of the heavily romanticised ‘golden age’ of piracy. Having started life in 1715 as a slave ship in London, Whydah’s speed, maneuverability and heavy armaments made her a very natural target for roaming pirates. In the event, she was captured by Black Sam Bellamy in the West Indies and although she would sink just 18 months later, her prolific pirate skipper would have plenty of time to amass a vast hoard of booty. Since her discovery, more than 200,000 artifacts have been recovered from the site, with everything from gold and silver coins to swords and pistols, plus valuable African jewelry and a range of personal belongings and seamanship artifacts. With the discovery estimated to be worth in the region of half a billion dollars, it’s a story that the National Geographic Society has brought to life in spectacular fashion with its ‘Real Pirates’ exhibition. See www.whydah.com for more.