Using Underwater Drones to Recover Sunken Treasure

The United States of America is again facing an economic crisis with inflation rates reaching record levels. Impacted by the events of a global pandemic, the cost of everything from milk and eggs to cars and homes has increased when the nation needs an economic surge. Hopefully, as we have learned from economic history, things will bounce back. More than 100 years ago, America faced a different kind of economic crisis. Due to a declining international and domestic economy, banks required reserves of gold and silver to back up cash in circulation. Then tragedy hit when the SS Central America destined for New York with 30,000 lbs of gold to support the banking system sunk, spurning the Panic of 1857.

By 1859, thanks to reforms made by President James Buchanan, the economy began to stabilize, even though the SS Central America’s treasure was seemingly lost forever. The ship, nicknamed the Ship of Gold, left Panama on September 3, 1857, with treasure from the California Gold Rush and 578 passengers and crew members. After getting caught up in a category 2 hurricane off the Carolina coast, the Ship of Gold sank with the majority of its treasure and 425 people, including the ship’s Captain, Commander William Lewis Herndon, on September 12, 1857.

Just in time for the 131st anniversary of the ship’s sinking, American marine engineer Tommy Gregory Thompson located the wreckage after receiving $12.5 million in financing from 161 different private investors. Part of the money went to Tommy’s team developing what would become one of the first ever underwater drones called the Nemo 3. After winning a legal battle that claimed Tommy as the owner of the loot, Tommy recovered 5% of the treasure using a newly designed drone called Nemo. However, he got greedy, sold off $52 million without informing or paying back his investors, fled and hid for several years, and eventually was sent to prison.

But thanks to advancing drone technology, a new recovery crew based out of Florida took up the helm. Odyssey Marine Exploration, founded in 1986 by Mark Gordon, began excavating the wreckage in 2014. Odyssey Marine Exploration, with more advanced drone technology is expecting to return far more to the surface than Tommy’s haul. And as Mark Gordon said at the onset of the recovery mission, “What we’re really hopeful for is to actually bring some more value back to the economy, specifically to the investors who have waited over 20 years for this day.”

The drones used by Odyssey Marine Exploration are large remotely operated vehicles with HD cameras, robotic arms, and storage containers.”We’ve zoomed in on a coin, and we can read the date on it, it’s that high quality. It’s a really cool toy,” explained ROV Technician for Odyssey Marine Exploration, Tom Money. After the team’s first attempt, they recovered 5 gold bars equaling 1,000 ounces in weight, and 2 mid 1800s $20 gold coins. The mission to recover the rest of the treasure is still underway, with experts predicting the haul to total around an estimated $86 milliion. And though the treasure from the SS Central America will not have any impact on the current economic crisis, it will help close a chapter in history.

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