Have you ever wondered what $2 million worth of silver would look like? That is precisely what explorers found out when they recovered the wreckage of a British merchant ship. The expedition to find the lost ship, which had sunk off the coast of Ireland in 1941, was launched in January 2010 by the United Kingdom. The UK government commissioned an American salvage company, called Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., with a two-year recovery contract. Not only was the company successful in locating the ship, they wound up making a record-shattering discovery.
Dubbed the S.S. Gairsoppa, after the breathtaking waterfalls near the Indian state of Karnataka, the British steam ship ran precious cargo mainly from India to the UK. The ship was built in 1919 and had over twenty years of fruitful commerce in addition to being used for service in World War II. In 1941, the Gairsoppa was in the midst of a run to Britain, carrying a hefty load of silver ingots, iron ore, and Indian tea. Desperate for fuel after a powerful storm, the ship headed for the nearest harbor at Galway Bay on Ireland’s western coast.
It was en route that the Gairsoppa was spotted by a U-boat – one of the submarines commonly employed by the German Navy to blockade and demolish enemy shipments. To this end, the German sub sent a torpedo smashing into the merchant ship’s starboard side. The blow caused such efficient destruction, the ship sank within 20 minutes. For 71 years, the ship’s hull has sat three miles below the surface of the Atlantic, along with a vast amount of silver bullion in its hull.
Thanks to several survivors who rowed to safety in one of the ship’s lifeboats – particularly Second Officer R.H. Ayres – the British government knew the general whereabouts of the wreckage. In 1989, they called for offers to salvage the ship’s cargo. Soon after, Odyssey Marine Exploration launched its quest, and by September 2011, the team had located the hull. There were 1,203 bars of silver aboard, weighing in at approximately 48 tons. While the silver was valued at $950,000 when it sank, it is now worth over $235 million.
About half of the silver bullion has been recovered so far, and the company expects to have the rest brought to the surface within three months. According to their contract with the UK, Odyssey will hold on to 80% of whatever is recovered (post-expenses), while the rest will go to Her Majesty’s Treasury. According to Chief Executive Officer Greg Stemm, the company is working hard for the pay. The wreck’s great depth has made the task more difficult than they had hoped and augmented the already complex extraction.
The massive load of silver is considered the largest precious metal treasure ever found, as well as the deepest. Discoveries like this one continue to validate our inclinations towards deep-sea explorations, meticulous operations, and shiny objects.
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