U.S. treasure hunters return to 'Ship of Gold' sunk in 1857 hurricane

Thu May 1, 2014 2:36am EDT
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By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON S.C. (Reuters) - A deep-ocean exploration company is seeking to recover a lucrative haul of gold aboard the shipwreck of the SS Central America, nearly 160 years after it sank off the coast of South Carolina in a hurricane.

The work that began this week follows a long court battle over treasure salvaged from the shipwreck in the late 1980s by a pioneering young engineer whose efforts were detailed in a 1998 bestselling book, "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea."

The 280-foot (85 meters) sidewheel steamship carried as much as 21 tons of gold ingots, freshly minted gold coins and raw gold from the California mines, as well as the personal wealth and belongings of its 477 passengers, most of whom were lost when the ship sank in September 1857.

The ship's gold that is thought to remain on the ocean floor was valued at $760,000 in 1857 but worth millions today, according to Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc, a Tampa, Florida-based company, which won the contract to revisit the shipwreck.

"There's no doubt in our minds that there's going to be an economic return," Mark Gordon, the company's president and chief operating officer, said on Monday.

Gold recovered from the ship by a team led by Ohio engineer Tommy Thompson, which discovered the Central America using sonar and robotic technology he developed, became the focus of an extended legal fight over rights to the treasure and return for investors. Thompson has been a fugitive since 2012 when he failed to appear in court.

Last year, a court in Ohio appointed a receiver who will distribute some of the profits from further exploration to the former investors. In March, the receiver awarded Odyssey the contract to revisit the shipwreck, which lies 160 miles (257.5 kilometers) offshore and about 7,200 feet (2.2 kilometers) below the surface.

"We know that the wreck was only partially excavated, only about 5 percent of the site," Gordon said.   Continued...

Odyssey's remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Zeus returns to the surface following work on a deep-ocean shipwreck site in this undated handout provided by Odyssey Marine Explorations, Inc April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Odyssey Marine Explorations/Handout via Reuters