It’s late summer. A warm sea breeze is blowing in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The town is filled with holidaymakers, locals and pleasure boaters. Many have been out on the water all day, trying to catch a fish, or just breathing in the air of the North Atlantic. Now, as a humid afternoon unwinds, they moor up and start heading to busy bars and restaurants. “Have a drink!” says one local. “I’m Bones,” he adds. “That’s my real name.”
More than 100 years ago, however, there was a near tragedy not too far away. In 1860, 100 miles (161km) off this shore, one of the world’s biggest steamer ships slowly began to fill with water. By sheer luck, the SS Connaught’s passengers were saved, but its haul – millions of dollars’ worth of gold coins – sank to the bottom of the ocean.
It’s because of this that a tall, neatly dressed Floridian has come to Gloucester to inspect his boat. Micah Eldred has pinned his hopes on finding the treasure of the Connaught. He is one of only a handful of people who knows exactly where the huge wreck lies – and he believes he’s figured out how to retrieve its bounty.
The deck of Eldred’s boat is crammed with equipment – winches, cables, even an underwater robot. Almost everything is in place for an expedition to bring that glittering gold out of the darkness. If Eldred and his team succeed, they will become some of treasure-hunting’s great pioneers.
As the cost of technology has fallen in recent years, more and more treasure hunters have emerged
This is a story about a new wave of salvagers, armed with high-tech sonar, navigational systems and robots, who are targeting lost troves of treasure lying on the ocean floor. As the cost of instruments has fallen in recent years, more and more adventurers have emerged, from billionaires to hobbyists. One even became a notorious fugitive.
But this is also a story about a very particular shipwreck. It concerns one of the most miraculous maritime rescues of all time, a hefty cargo of gold coins – and the hardy team now trying to take them back from the sea.
Eldred grew up near the sun-kissed beaches of Clearwater, Florida. He used to go fishing with his dad at sites around the Gulf of Mexico and out along the Florida Keys. He loved diving. He would dive on shipwrecks and remembers watching TV news reports about some guy called Mel Fisher – a professional treasure hunter. In 1985 Fisher became world-famous for his discovery of gold artefacts from wrecked Spanish galleon the Atocha, off the coast of Florida.
At the time, Eldred didn’t get too caught up in ideas about riches lying on the seabed. Instead, as a teenager, he was more fascinated by the stock market. Not just how to make money on it. But how it all came together.
“For me it was more about trying to figure out how does it all work and why is one stock this and one’s that, one’s goin’ up, one goes down,” he says, sitting in a deck chair a stone’s throw from the waterfront in Gloucester. “That was really interesting to me.”
I don’t have gold fever. That’s not the driving factor for me – Micah Eldred, treasure hunter
He left college a semester before graduating because he was making $100,000 a year in the financial services industry. It was only much later, once he had built up a trading business of his own, that he decided he wanted to conquer a completely different industry with a venture called Endurance Exploration Group. It’s with this company that Eldred plans to recover riches from the sea.
“I honestly don’t care if the cargo’s gold or copper or tin,” he says. “You know, I don’t have gold fever. I didn’t get that. I like the historical aspects of it as well, I think that’s really interesting, but that’s not the driving factor for me either.”
If Eldred is fibbing about being immune to “gold fever”, you’d never be able to tell. He has a composed, even reserved demeanour. He’s an American businessman with a degree of restraint. He insists he wants to solve problems – not get rich quick.
“Really, the driving factor for me is the challenge of trying to do this in a way that earns profits. There’s not many people have been able to do this. That’s probably the biggest motivation.”
From a starting list of 1,500 wrecks they narrowed it down to about 20
Four years ago, Eldred and his team of researchers started a search. They wanted to find shipwrecks that had sufficient valuables on board to make them worth salvaging – but also wrecks that would be technically feasible to excavate. Down at the bottom of the sea, there are all kinds of factors that could make the job impossible or overly expensive. It might simply be too deep; there could be strong currents or awkward geology in the way. The ship itself could be impenetrable. From a starting list of 1,500 wrecks they narrowed it down to about 20.
And out of those, the SS Connaught was their number one. This analysis was largely the work of Taylor Zajonc, lead researcher for Endurance. Zajonc and his fellow researchers have spent hours in libraries in the US and further afield poring over old newspaper articles, parliamentary reports and other written sources to find out whatever they can about the Connaught. What sort of ship was she? How much do they know about her last position? Where exactly would the gold cargo have been stored?
Despite his efforts, Zajonc has not been able to turn up ship’s plans for the vessel. He’s come down to Gloucester for the weekend and takes a seat with Micah at a picnic table on the upper deck of the Manisee, Endurance’s survey ship for the summer. There, they explain that those plans might never turn up.
“They just don’t appear to be anywhere where the public can access them,” says Zajonc. “If they exist at all they’re in somebody’s personal collection.”
Eldred chimes in. “It really would be nice if we could look at it and say, ‘OK here’s the mail room and OK yeah it had two safes in the mail room’. Now we just narrowed it down from a football field…”
“To a haystack,” quips Zajonc.
But Zajonc was able to find enough information about the Connaught’s history to pique his interest. Not just the fact that it probably contained millions of dollars’ worth of gold, but also the remarkable story of how the sinking unfolded.
“It’s extraordinary, it’s really truly extraordinary,” he says. “I think that we’re very lucky to work on a wreck that has brought out the absolute best in human character.”
Within months the Connaught had completed her maiden voyage. She would never complete her second
It took a thousand men to build the Connaught. They worked on her for nine months straight. She was a mighty ship – 370ft (113m) long – and the second largest steamer in the world at the time, outsized only by Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s gargantuan SS Great Eastern. A side-wheel steamer, the Connaught would traverse the North Atlantic. She’d bring emigrants to the New World, deliver mail and, of course, ferry wealthy passengers back and forth in luxury. Launched at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, on 21 April 1860, within months the Connaught had completed her maiden voyage. She would never complete her second.
On 6 October, the ship was just over a hundred miles from Boston, her next port of call after a stop in St John’s, Newfoundland. Men working in the engine room discovered a leak – water was pouring into the hull. The Connaught was soon listing. Captain Leitch shouted orders to man the pumps, steer the vessel, and eventually to shut the engines off before the ship could be righted again. When she was, the situation seemed manageable. The passengers had some hope that a strong wind would fill the Connaught’s sails and bring her to Boston within the night.
But then a whisper went around the nerve-wracked voyagers – a fire had broken out. No-one seems to know how it began, but before long the smell of burning wood was in the air and flames were coming up through the deck. Buckets of water could not halt the blaze. The passengers and crew peered across the evening sea for signs of a boat that might help them.
The flames were impenetrable. They couldn’t get through. The gold was already lost
And then, a sail appeared bearing north. Then another, to the west. Both seemed to be coming to the aid of the Connaught, now flying distress signals, but one passed by. The northward ship, however, a tiny trade boat called the Minnie Schiffer, continued to sail close and was soon near enough for lifeboats to be launched that could rescue passengers from the stricken ship.
The fires raged at the centre of the Connaught and she was practically on her side, but at least now there was a hope of salvation. While all of this mayhem unfolded, the purser – in charge of valuables aboard the ship – asked if a small gang of men might try to retrieve some of the gold stored below decks. But the flames were impenetrable. They couldn’t get through, they said. The gold was already lost.
But the passengers weren’t. Every single soul aboard the Connaught was saved – nearly 600 people. Captain Leitch was the last to leave his ship. As survivors crammed on to the Minnie Schiffer, which was tiny in comparison to the Connaught, they watched the great steamer, with flames now shooting up her masts, begin to be engulfed by the water. Down she went, taking with her thousands of gold coins and practically all the personal possessions of those who were saved.
And there those items have stayed ever since – or at least, most of them – until now.
In summer 2015, the customs officer at Gloucester got an unexpected radio call. An offshore salvage team called Endurance had found artefacts from a wreck. What artefacts, exactly? Recovered objects would need to be declared: the wreck site itself was not US territory, but located in international waters. Eldred explained as best he could the wonderfully preserved glass bottle, chamber pot fragment and piece of china – stamped with the insignia of the company that owned the Connaught. His team had just brought them up from 1,000ft (300m) after 150 years on the seabed.
The customs officer sighed and said, “Call me back when you have something of value.”
Eldred laughs about it. “Told us to come back when we have the gold,” he writes in an email remembering the incident. But the significance of that piece of broken china, with “Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company Limited” in ocean green lettering is not to be missed. It proved beyond doubt that the ship really was the SS Connaught.
It had taken Endurance years of research and many thousands of dollars to retrieve that piece of china. In 2013, Eldred had enlisted the help of a Kiwi sailor called Piers Lennox-King, who travelled the world running boats for clients and blogging about his adventures. Lennox-King piloted a 100-year-old converted whaling vessel, the Haganes, all the way from Malaysia to the East Coast of the US for that 2013 search.
It had taken years of research and many thousands of dollars to retrieve one piece of china, but it was hugely significant
The team had set out a survey area and the plan was to drag a side scan sonar system over it in the hope of identifying a big old wreck with two giant paddlewheels on either side. The sonar system they used can produce high contrast images of the seabed – and anything that’s lying on it. The sonar found a target, which was confirmed by a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) the following year. Sadly, Lennox-King couldn’t make the 2014 survey – he was too ill. It turned out to be stomach cancer and a few months later he passed away. He’s still talked about by the guys at Endurance.
The ROV’s discovery, though, had been key. During a pass near the wreck, the camera lights illuminated an unmistakable structure: a paddlewheel. Murky, decayed, difficult to make out, but to Eldred, the sight was unmistakable.
“He was pretty excited when we found that. I don’t care what he says,” remembers Ray Darville Jr, an engineer for Endurance. “When he seen the paddle wheel he was jumpin’.
“He was blowin’, you know what I mean?”
How to profit from treasure (legally)
Imagine you were lucky enough to find a huge haul of gold in the ocean – could you just take it home?
The process of making money from an underwater salvage operation is not trivial. In the case of the SS Connaught (see main story), the ship is in international waters which means the team excavating it can file a legal claim at home in the US. The procedure involves advertising to see if any descendants of the ship’s passengers wish to make their own claim. If they did, they would have to convince the court their claim is legitimate. Any such claimant might be entitled to a few percent of salvage profits.
Only after that the salvagers would be free to sell on their find – which may be collectible – via specialist dealers.
That initial enthusiasm would fade, however, the next time they visited the wreck.
When the Endurance team sent down a bigger ROV in 2015 to begin the process of bringing up artefacts, they realised the Connaught was entangled in huge fishing nets that had snagged on parts of the wreck over the years. The nets hadn’t shown up on sonar, and the first ROV survey in 2014 hadn’t been comprehensive enough to reveal how many they were.
To get to the treasure, they will need to remove the nets first – which is not going to be easy.
On board the Manisee, moored up at Gloucester a few weeks later, Eldred shows Zajonc the ROV footage of the nets on a laptop. Quietly, they watch as the video plays.
“Crazy isn’t it,” says Eldred. Zajonc eyeballs the screen as images roll showing the thick netting, which rises a hundred feet off the Connaught in a gigantic balloon shape. He replies soberly, “This is massive.”
To get these nets off, they are going to need help. Eldred says he knows just the man to do it. A group of engineers are already working on it – not in Gloucester, but down in Maryland.
On a bright September weekday in coastal Maryland the weather is hot and humid. The employees of Eclipse Group, a specialist in marine salvage, are huddled in the air-conditioned office of the warehouse and workshop where they build subsea tools and modify equipment.
Steve St Amour drives into the rustic parking lot outside the facility. He trots through the building to the rear of the interior where a man in overalls and protective mask is noisily machining a giant metal claw. Sparks fly wildly from the huge contraption. “There it is,” he says. This, a device originally intended for use by a caterpillar-tracked digger to pick up logs in the lumber industry, is what Eldred is pinning his hopes on.
The claw is having some attachments removed so it can be fitted to a hydraulic frame – purpose-built by Eclipse. The whole apparatus will be attached to a crane and winch system on a survey vessel. From there, it will be lowered 900ft (275m) or more towards the nets where it will grab them and, with any luck, pull them clean off the Connaught.
Using a claw is not the sort of thing that has been done much, if ever, before
The nets are too big to slice through with robot-operated cutting devices – they’ve already tried that. The claw, then, is the preferred approach for now. But it’s not the sort of thing that has been done much, if ever, before. And there’s no guarantee it will work.
Still, St Amour isn’t worried – during his extraordinary career he has passed far bigger hurdles. He’s dived to the Titanic more than once. He’s worked with movie director and subsea explorer James Cameron. He recovered wreckage from Air France flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on 1 June 2009. And he’s found a string of other military and civilian aircraft which went down at sea.
For St Amour, it’s only now – after years of recovery and air accident investigations – that the treasure hunter in him has been let loose. He reveals that around his neck he’s wearing a coin from the Atocha, which was given to him personally by Mel Fisher years ago after a chance meeting.
A long time before that, when he was still in his teens and his parents were going through a difficult divorce, he decided to leave home and move on to a boat that he had bought with money saved up from scrubbing ship hulls. St Amour spent that summer lobster-catching and trying to find the Whydah – a famous pirate treasure ship that sank off the East Coast in 1717.
That was 1981. “Clifford beat me to it,” remembers St Amour, referring to treasure hunter Barry Clifford, who discovered the Whydah and a heap of treasure three years later.
St Amour, a stout guy with brown hair cropped close at the back and sides, has the exacting look of someone who doesn’t like to be beaten to anything – but he obviously likes to do things carefully.
Indeed, he doesn’t usually work with treasure hunters. “The majority of them don’t know the first thing about what they’re trying to do,” he says. “You know, it’s a get rich scheme using other people’s money.”
When he was first contacted by Eldred and Zajonc, he rolled his eyes. The duo were extremely cagey about their project and St Amour wasn’t immediately convinced. But when he learned Eldred was putting his own money into the venture and had carefully mapped out the financials, he decided to take it seriously. He decided he liked Eldred.
Those who know the world of treasure hunting might understand St Amour’s caution. It is, after all, littered with stories of desperation, deceit and disappointment. Take the notorious case of Tommy Thompson, for example, a former fugitive who was jailed recently.
When Thompson excavated a ship called the SS Central America in the 1980s it was hailed as an unprecedented feat of subsea engineering – but no-one thought the tale would turn as sour as it did.
It was hailed as an unprecedented feat of subsea engineering – but no-one thought the tale would turn as sour as it did
One of his achievements was designing the underwater robot, Nemo, which retrieved gold from the wreck at a depth of several thousand feet off the South Carolina coast. Later, however, Thompson’s investors claimed that they had been excluded from the profits. During ensuing legal proceedings in 2012, Thompson disappeared and a warrant was issued for his arrest. But Thompson was not apprehended.
It was only in late 2014 that US Marshals discovered Thompson, by now a fugitive, had been holed up in a Florida mansion with his girlfriend. “Thompson was smart – perhaps one of the smartest fugitives ever sought by the US Marshals,” US Marshal Peter Tobin said in a statement.
In April 2015, Thompson was dragged into an Ohio court. Thompson’s chief scientist Bob Evans was in the courtroom. He was never paid his share of the dividends either. Evans had had enough of reading about the case in the papers – he wanted to see his former colleague for himself. Sitting in the dock, Thompson surveyed the courtroom and instantly recognised Evans right at the back. A small nod of acknowledgement from each.
Evans says that when Thompson was brought, in shackles, past him at the end of the short hearing, they locked eyes again. “Hi Harv,” said Evans, using a nickname. “Hi Bob,” replied Thompson. That was it. Thompson was sentenced in December to two years in prison and fined $250,000.
It’s all over for Thompson, but Evans has begun plans to salvage the Central America once again. According to Evans, it’s a less daunting task than it might have once been, in part because of the new technology that’s emerged in recent years – technology that is also benefiting Eldred and his efforts to excavate the Connaught.
The wreck site is big, dark, and very difficult to plot
Back in the Eclipse office, Eldred has arrived and ROV pilot Oded Ezra is showing off an interactive map he’s put together over a sonar image of the wreck, featuring survey data and subsea video clips. Eldred, looking over the map, calls out a random cell number. He jokes that that’s his bet of where the gold is.
The map is useful because the wreck site is big, dark, and very difficult to plot. This technology was out of reach for treasure hunters in the past, according to Tim Weller, another Eclipse employee.
Eldred has also been talking to a company called Bluefin Robotics, just south of Boston. They make underwater drones that “fly” up and down by themselves, scanning the seabed across a grid plotted by their operators. They’re not tethered to a boat like an ROV so they have to intelligently navigate by themselves and then return to the ship in one piece.
Bluefin’s drones have been used in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared on 8 March 2014 with 239 people on board. They also helped Microsoft executive Paul Allen find a lost Japanese battleship.
In the coming years, technologies to salvage sites like this will only become more capable, but no-one really knows how much gold and silver is out there waiting to be found.
No-one really knows how much gold and silver is out there waiting to be found
Still, the sheer scale of the spoils promised by some shipwrecks and their long lost troves is breath-taking. Only a couple of months ago, the President of Colombia announced that the wreck of Spanish galleon the San Jose, which sank in 1708, had been found. A diplomatic and legal battle has erupted over rights to the treasure – after all, some say the cargo is worth billions of dollars.
Eldred, however, says it’s not the gold that drives him. “It would be a lot of people’s dreams,” he admits. “But to me, it’s a subsea engineering job that we’re trying to make respectable. To me, the excitement comes from building a business that’s really complicated.”
The gold is “just a plus”, he comments. But getting – and profiting from – that gold would be no minor achievement. It would define Endurance, overnight, as a brilliant success story. The firm would likely make millions in profit, and even Eldred would buy a few coins for himself – as celebratory keepsakes.
Once people thought that riches swallowed by the sea were lost forever. Perhaps they were wrong
Back in Maryland, Eldred and the guys from Eclipse are talking about looming challenges at a local bar in Annapolis called Heroes. There are TVs on every wall and objects from various emergency services on display including helmets and even a riot shield. Three guys from the fire department are having lunch at a nearby table. They look like regulars. So does practically everyone.
The treasure hunters return to the topic of where exactly the coins on the Connaught might be. For a moment the conversation gets obsessive about the details and the magnitude of the task rears its head. When you really look at it, it seems nearly impossible. But Tim Weller pipes up. “We’ll get ‘em,” he says.
Eldred clearly believes it too. When he talks about it, you can feel the quiet determination. The years of planning and the personal investment.
Once, people thought that riches swallowed by the sea were lost forever. But perhaps in this case they were wrong. Eldred, for one, doesn’t want to be outdone by this old wreck.
Those coins have been down there long enough.
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