Shipwrecks and Treasures



Risky business or serious business, these words are never very far apart and they often describe the very essence of treasure hunting. The business of searching for shipwrecks and sunken treasures has been both successful and lucrative for more than 4,000 years and to "the person on the street" it is probably considered more of an adventure for amateurs than a job for professional researchers and salvage teams. This romantic attitude is kept alive by adventure books and stories about scuba divers who by mere chance find a completely intact wreck, together with an easily found treasure chest filled with sparkling jewellery. The truth is that there have also been examples from real life which are not so different from this kind of pirate romance. These types of rare but well publicized occurrences keep many amateur treasure-hunter dreams alive. However, the idea that valuable findings are discovered mostly by amateurs with fabulous luck is far from true. Most newcomers to this business lack several of the important factors necessary to succeed with the discovery and salvage of valuable shipwrecks.


Today it is an indisputable fact that almost every significant discovery is made by a small number of professionally dedicated working teams consisting of skilled archivists and professional survey and diving teams, doing a concentrated and goal-oriented archival, survey and salvage work. There are several important factors that have proven essential in almost every successful salvage operation carried out. The first and the most important of these is archival research. Lack of sufficient archival research work is the single most common reason behind failure in the treasure hunting business. The most sophisticated survey equipment becomes useless without the prior knowledge of the essential historical documents of the shipwreck, such as a description of the ship, the position of the ship at time of sinking, the circumstances behind its sinking, its cargo and other critical details.


Today, there are only a few archival researchers in the world who have the knowledge and the experience to locate information about ships and their cargoes, then correctly decipher the information that is often several hundred years old. Almost every significant recovery of treasure has first been discovered in the archives by a handful of competent marine historians and archival researchers. Already described is the importance of accurate and good archival research together with the ability to interpret the information correctly. Equally important is the understanding of the technical aspects of a survey and salvage operation. Several teams have failed in their search while using sophisticated survey equipment due to the inability to interpret the gathered data correctly. It takes years to understand and to be able to interpret side scan sonar images. Many wrecks have been missed due to side scan operators being unable to differentiate between rock formations and a shipwreck. For example, when the "Diana", (lost in the Malacca straight in 1817 with a cargo of porcelain), was finally discovered after several years of searching, it proved that the wreck had been passed over three times with a side scan sonar in the first season, but without anyone being able to interpret the images correctly. The correct interpretation of side scan sonar data might be difficult, but even more so is the interpretation of magnetic anomalies.


Today there are only a few knowledgeable geophysicists who have a complete understanding of how the magnetic amplitude and curve is affected by the different size and shape of magnetic anomalies. In the past there was not a single survey / salvage company in the world that had the extensive knowledge of a skillful geophysicist and still there are very few companies that include these knowledgeable people on their survey teams. Another important factor in any successful project is the ability to deal with the legal aspects of the salvage correctly. The laws here in Nova Scotia regulating the salvage from shipwrecks are very complex and there are many aspects that have to be considered before starting a project. Even some of the teams that employ a professional approach have encountered legal difficulties because they underestimated the legal problems before the search began. 

For thousands of years, the world's wealth traveled by water. Two thirds of all the gold mined before this century rests on the ocean floor, while Spanish galleons hauled an average of 50 tons of gold and silver, the wealth that has gone down with 20th-Century freighters dwarfs what was lost on the Spanish galleons. Some of the world's lost treasures lie in fairly shallow waters, often within sight of land, lightly covered in sand and silt. The owners have long departed this world, many perished in the very storms that sent their precious belongings to the bottom of the sea. Time and tide have obliterated their memory from history. Some treasure lays far out to sea, in the deep, dark waters beyond the continental shelf. Those wrecks usually lie on the bottom with hardly a trace of overlying silt or sediment. The ice cold, still ocean depths protect them from decomposition and dispersal. These ships, blown off-course by raging storms and swirling seas, drifted far from the ancient trading routes before disappearing into the depths without leaving a soul to tell the tale. Many treasure wrecks have laid beneath the waves for centuries waiting to be salvaged, their precious cargoes worth thousands of times more today than when they were lost. 

Advances in modern technology lie behind the recent boom in treasure hunting. The availability of high-resolution satellite images, the development of ground-penetrating radar, portable seismic and sonar detectors, computer image enhancement and low-cost proton magnetometers have revolutionized the age-old quest for treasure. These days, anyone can produce a detailed map of magnetic anomalies and subterranean caverns quickly and cheaply. It is now possible to detect and recover sunken treasures from depths unimaginable even a few years ago. Unmanned robots steered by remote video link can dive several miles beneath the ocean waves. Side-scanning sonar can probe the deepest marine trenches and identify the remains of long-lost vessels waiting to be salvaged. The cost of mounting an expedition is comparatively low, especially when using remote operated vehicles. The rewards of success can stagger the imagination.


An inherent characteristic of all survey / salvage operations is the large financial risk involved. This risk, however, is balanced by the possibilities of phenomenal profits if a project becomes successful. Very few companies offer investment opportunities to persons interested in taking part in the fascinating business of shipwreck salvage or treasure hunting, as most are privately financed. However for those that do offer investment opportunities, the expected return on invested capital, time or resources into a treasure hunting company can be as much as 5 to 20 times that of the investment, if the company succeeds in one or several of its projects. Investing in treasure hunting is a risky business, at best. But for those who do roll the dice, the potential return on investment could be staggering. Another exciting and very real part of investing in something as exciting as hunting for sunken treasure is the vicarious thrill of being part of the search, part of the dream, and part of the ultimate adventure.

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