There are many different kinds of people that go looking for lost treasure out at sea. While we might refer to them as “modern day pirates,” we’re not talking about the kind from Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks. 

We’re talking treasure seekers. Anthropologists. Researchers and historians on exploratory missions at sea.

Whatever you call them, there’s no shortage of shipwrecks to be discovered.

Did you know… 

There are an estimated 3 million undiscovered shipwrecks at the bottom of the ocean floor, and there’s no telling what these ships had on them!

Most of the appeal to finding lost ships is the possibility of valuable treasures. However, some people want to find the ships to uncover certain mysteries and figure out why the ship sank. 

Others are fascinated at the seeming “time capsule” under the ocean, something that could give us a glimpse of what life might have been like aboard, or reasons as to why it sank in the first place.

These so-called “treasure hunters” could be a group hired by certain governments, privately funded companies, or individuals with the right equipment and knowledge to try to find the sunken vessels. 

Public interest alone is quite high when it comes to finding lost ships. There are YouTube channels, blogs, and podcasts all dedicated to the mysteries lost and claimed by the sea.

National Geographic and Discovery Channel have both featured shows about people locating and searching for sunken ships. 

Not only is the journey interesting for viewers, but so is discovering what secrets the ship might hold, whether there is something more valuable than history in the ocean’s depths, etc. 

If you came here looking to see how it’s done, you’re in luck.

How does one go about locating and excavating a sunken ship? What kind of valuables have been found on sunken ships? 

Keep reading--but be warned: 

You might just be inspired to become a modern-day treasure hunter yourself!


Scour the Depths: Locating and Excavating Sunken Vessels

Finding a sunken ship has often been referred to as ‘finding a needle in a haystack’. 

And for good reason. 

Amidst the vastness of the sea, marine life, and the dark depths of the ocean floor, finding the remains of a single shipwreck is definitely a challenge. 

Locating a sunken ship is certainly not easy, and it’s absolutely not the cheapest hobby to get into.

To be honest, locating a sunken ship takes more luck than anything else.

Typically, researchers will study and review the last known location of a ship before it sank. 

Depending on the origin of the vessel, the information might be found in historical archives, libraries, or even the anecdotes of survivors. What the researchers are really after is a direction to point themselves in--a place to start the search.

Forward sector scanning sonar makes it easier to try to find sunken ships. Treasure-seekers and researchers alike might use the sonar from a boat on the surface to create an image of what the seabed looks like below. 

Since the ocean is so vast, even if you have a starting point, this can take an understandable long amount of trial and error. 

Using the sonar technology, researchers will make multiple sweeps of a potential wreck site to create a “sonar-shadow.” This can provide a somewhat clearer image of the ocean’s floor, as well as it contents.

Finding the ship in most cases might be the easiest part and that’s saying something.

Once a shipwreck is located, getting to it presents a whole new set of problems that need to be solved. 

Modern day science has allowed treasure hunters to be able to reach new depths in the ocean that they’ve never been able to reach before.

A US company called Odyssey Marine Exploration was hired to retrieve 110 tons of silver from the sunken ship SS Gairsoppa. The problem?

The silver was 4,500 meters below sea level!

A mile deeper than the Titanic’s final resting place.

Many people might picture a scuba diver underwater finding treasures. This only occurs with relatively shallow shipwrecks. Unfortunately, the deepest someone can safely dive is around 332 meters, and that was a record-breaking depth for a scuba diver!

Some treasures have been found this way, either intentionally or even by happenstance. 

So, how was the SS Gairsoppa excavated? 

By using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) named Zeus.

Top of the line ROVs have an Inertial Navigation System that the ROV uses to create a path of where it needs to go, and where it’s already been. 

Bad news: 

The system for the ROV costs around $157,000!

In fact, it costs about $35,000-50,000 per day just to run a ship dedicated to finding lost treasures. Typically, these voyages aren’t a quick trip and back. A crew could be on board for several months before making any real progress.  

In the case of the SS Gairsoppa, it took Zeus 3.5 hours to make it to the wreck site; on top of that, when the battery needed to be charged, it had to make the same journey back.

That’s pretty slow, and costly, even for something named after a Greek God.

The point: 

ROVs like Zeus survey a shipwreck and use sonar along with their Inertial Navigation System to navigate the undersea terrain and to find artifacts. For the serious hunter, it’s one of the most essential pieces of equipment you could have.

But there’s one other tool that no treasure seeker can be without: 

Luck.


Tools of the Trade & Plenty of Luck: Finding Treasure

Looking for treasure from sunken ships isn’t your average hobby. 

A treasure hunter’s equipment is varied and pricey, particularly when they’re area of focus is sunken ships.

But consider this: 

Since some sunken ships and treasures were happened upon by sheer chance, you could get lucky without having to spend anything on fancy equipment.

Again. There’s the luck factor. 

Valuables from shipwrecks have even been known to wash ashore only to be found by beachgoers. 

That’s right. 

You could be taking a nice stroll along the shore and come across something that’d been previously lost at sea--all without putting on a scuba suit.

What’s more, some items have been found by scuba teams that weren’t looking for anything, or who had completely different business in that part of the sea.

It’s when you intentionally look for the goods that you learn to rely on specialized equipment. Some of which is incredibly expensive or isn’t easy to come by. 

As previously mentioned, only shallow shipwrecks can be accessed by scuba divers. In this case, all you’d need is scuba equipment if you knew exactly where the shipwreck was. 

As any salty sea dog knows, this is rarely the case. 

Most treasure hunters need sonar equipment to locate shipwrecks to find a precise location. 

Deeper shipwrecks will also require an ROV since humans are incapable of reaching certain depths with tanks and suits alone. 

These ROVs require sensors, navigational systems, computers, and batteries. They also require an entire ship’s worth of crew members that know how to operate the ROV and how to read its findings. 

Silver lining incoming…

Technically, you could search for and scavenge sunken ships and treasure. It may not be common, but others have done it.

The key to successful location and excavation of a sunken treasure?  A lot of fancy and expensive equipment.

With all that said, here’s another question that’s been posed countless times: 

Should certain things stay buried?


The Case for Leaving Sunken Vessels and Valuables Alone

There has been some talk about whether or not sunken ships should be left alone instead of excavating them for their hidden treasures. 

Think about it. 

Shipwrecks are tragic events and often times, improvised burial tombs for those lost at sea with the ship.

Understandably, some believe these tragedies should be treated with a bit more respect than to wind up the lucky haul of a treasure seeker.

Counterpoint: 

As evidenced by the findings aboard the SS Gairsoppa, there are billions of dollars worth of artifacts awaiting on the ocean floor. 

But are they ours to take? 

Do we care more about the money on the ship than the lives lost when the ship sank? What do we as a people actually gain by excavating a sunken ship?

While some might be quick to point out “greed” as the typical motivator for uncovering a sunken ship, there are just as many who say it’s more for cultural enlightenment. 

Just look at archaeologists and anthropologists. 

These professionals painstakingly research and unearth countless wonders lost to time. Of course, some cultures have and still do frown upon things like burial sites, tombs, and the like from being robbed of their contents (particularly when it comes to outsiders). 

However…

For the most part, these individuals are attempting to unlock our history by studying the artifacts left behind. The fossils and relics they uncover could enhance our understanding of a certain culture or time period. 

They could wind up in museums for future generations to appreciate; or wind up back in the hands of the people from whom they were taken, once they’ve been studied. 

Yes, it can be ethically and morally ambiguous to excavate certain lost treasures, depending on the context. 

But does that mean all treasure hunters are just looking to make a quick buck off their findings? No way!

Some modern-day treasure hunters only want to find the sunken ship to get a glimpse into the lives of those that died as a way to pay their respects, and to better understand the events surrounding the ship’s final voyage. 

These kinds of treasure hunters have little want for money and more of a desire to uncover mysteries and find cultural artifacts. Finds that could benefit everyone by being showcased at a museum or returned to the country, culture, or family from which they originated. 

With the ethical ramifications of being a modern-day pirate out of the way, here’s a sampling of some of history’s most valuable recoveries from the sea.

Treasures of the Deep

Although there are millions of undiscovered shipwrecks, there have been a lot of valuable finds to date. 

Keep in mind:

There are also some very famous and notable shipwrecks that might not necessarily be very valuable.

But some of these sunken ships have valuable items worth an immense fortune on board. 

So without further ado…

Here are some of the most valuable shipwrecks ever found. 

San Jose

The San Jose sunk in 1708 with gold, silver, and emeralds on board. It was left on the ocean floor for over 300 years. 

The ship was discovered in 2015 by the Colombian Navy. Oceanographers have estimated that the total value of the treasure found is $22 billion! 


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Nuestra Senora de Atocha

The Spanish ship Nuestra Senora de Atocha sank in 1622 by the Florida Keys.

The ship was discovered in 1985 by Mel Fisher. He found gold, silver, copper, and emeralds which gave rise to the ship’s nickname, “Atocha Motherlode.” The haul had an estimated worth of nearly $450 million. 


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SS Central America

The SS Central American sunk in 1857 with more than 14,000 kilograms of gold on board. There was so much gold that it took around 100 years for everything to be recovered. 

Among the discovered treasures there was a gold ingot that weighed around 36 kilograms. The estimated total worth of the gold is around $300 million. It’s not no wonder the ship is often referred to as the “ship of gold.”


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RMS Titanic

The Titanic is one of the most well-documented shipwrecks of all time, but it is also among one of the most valuable. 

The Titanic sank with about $190-200 million worth of valuables on board, which wasn’t found until 1985. 

However, these valuables may only have been worth so much since they were found on the infamous British passenger liner. Before the tragic capsizing and subsequent sinking of the ship, the valuables might not have been worth all that much.

In the case of the RMS Titanic, the history surrounding the ship’s first and only voyage is what likely gave the findings their final value.


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Land, ho!

It’s intriguing to think of all the shipwrecks that have yet to be discovered and all the questions that could be answered.

Why did the ship sink? 

What was inside? 

What can still be salvaged or found?

These questions aside, if you’re really interested in locating your own lost-at-sea treasure, ask yourself: 

What’s my motivation? What do I want out of this? Should any ship I do find ACTUALLY be found?

And further: 

Do I have the means and tenacity to load up on high-priced equipment and spend plenty of time at see?

Whether your goal is fame, fortune, or to be written about in the annals of history, knowing why these discoveries could become your passion is crucial to understanding whether it’s a “pirate’s life” for you.

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