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IT WAS A LONG, 90M DROP onto the deck of the huge liner. The Oronsa is a charted wreck, but the skipper wasn't aware of anybody diving it before and it certainly had the pristine look of a virgin.
As I settled myself and checked my equipment, I glanced down and realised from the armadillo-like texture that there were stacked rows of bowls or plates in the hold below.
Reaching in, I pulled out a handful of the encrusted silverware. Wow! There's absolutely tons of the stuff here, and if it's actually made of silver...
The idea of stumbling across treasure on a dive holds a special allure. Diving is about exploration and discovery, and generally speaking, ships wouldn't be making a voyage unless they were carrying something of value.
So all wrecks appear to offer the prospect that something valuable can be uncovered - even much-dived wrecks have been known to yield amazing finds.
If you do your research beforehand, you can find and dive wrecks that were definitely carrying valuable cargos.
So what are the real prospects of finding treasure? And if you do find it, how likely are you to be able to keep it?
A Google search for 'treasure wrecks' yields 396,000 results. It's safe to say that interest in the subject is extremely high, and continually fuelled by Hollywood images of easy underwater riches.
After all, the recent movie offering Into the Blue showed a legendary gold wreck and a crashed plane full of valuable Class A drugs, within metres of each other, in crystal-clear water, shallow enough for a PADI Open Water Diver. Of course! The plot might seem laughable when put under scrutiny, but the film-makers know their job - they are selling a dream.
We dream of treasure. We love the very idea of it, and many of the divers rummaging through the thousands of wrecks around our coastline are motivated by the hope of finding something fabulous.
And why not? While all training agencies espouse the 'look but don't touch' mantra, in the very next breath we're advising people what to do if
they should just happen to recover something - with the exception of those who are diving on war graves and protected wrecks.
Diving magazines love a good treasure story and Diver is no exception: 'The wrecks of the Lizard are of all ages. Some contain real treasure. Not just book talk of silver and gold, but real, hands-on, in-the-diver's-palm, silver coins and ingots.
'Much has been recovered. More is still there to be found by the lucky Lizard diver,' promised Kendall McDonald 10 years ago in a Diver article entitled A Diver's Guide to the Shipwrecks of the Lizard.
In February of this year, the recovery of a 2m-high bronze eagle statue from the WW2 German warship Graf Spee was widely reported and estimated as being worth 'millions' - presumably that's the price that people who collect Nazi memorabilia would be willing to pay.
Personally, I suspect that you could fill several books with the legal, political and international ramifications of this find before anybody sees the money, but I confess to being a cynic.
Three years of reporting diving news full-time brought me into contact with more than a few treasure-seekers, many of whom could best be described as professional scammers.
'You are obstructing my project and I will sue you!' The man writing the email - who happened to be an American - was very angry.
He had a fantastic project: amateur divers would be able to enjoy the privilege of paying to look for treasure on his behalf!
He became rather abusive after I first pointed out the Health & Safety Executive regulations on the subject, mentioned the Receiver of Wreck, asked whether divers would be paid for what they found and then refused to report on his project as it simply wasn't credible.
'I'd hate to be married to you! All you do is question everything!' he snarled from his keyboard. Actually, the lawsuit never materialised, and his scheme was very similar to another offered by our old friends SubSea Explorer.
In July 2002 SubSea Explorer announced that it was on the brink of recovering General Monck's Loot - a legendary stash of gold coins with an estimated worth of£2.5 billion, lost in the River Tay in 1651.
Team leader Gary Allsopp was quoted in the local press as saying: 'The history of this wreck is fascinating, the technology we'll be using to find it is incredible and the amount of treasure we think is down there is just mind-boggling...
'There are enormous problems in recovering these artefacts but I am confident we can overcome them.
'Although the wrecks have lain out of reach for 350 years, no-one has ever used the technology that we have to try to reach them.'
As proof positive that it had found the position of the treasure, the team presented a cannonball that one of its divers claimed to have found 'accidentally' when he kicked against it with his fin, and talked about NASA satellites pinpointing the positions of the coins.
How very strange then, that none of the treasure was ever recovered...
When I phoned SubSea later that year to ask about it, I was told that, yes, it knew exactly where the treasure was and was just awaiting planning permission from the local council in order to proceed.
With a shamelessness that knows no bounds, I was later sent a press release from this concern offering 'treasure-hunting' courses using state-of-the-art technology.
Amateur divers could pay to be shown how to hunt for treasure, and could take part in real treasure hunts!
With astonishing graciousness, SubSea even promised that the divers might be offered a share of any treasure they recovered.
How could we possibly resist?
'And these courses are recognised by who... BSAC? PADI? The Nautical Archaeological Society?' I asked. The phone went dead.
'Treasure-hunters' love journalists because we are so prone to swallowing the hyperbole and we can give their stories credibility by publishing them. But 'treasure-hunters' hate journalists who ask questions, and I have to admit that I didn't make any friends.
The promise of untold riches, within easy reach - small investment, huge returns! - is the standard lure of the con artist. Combine this with the romance of lost treasure and the adventure of deep sea diving, and the hustle proves irresistible to many.
In the USA, special laws have had to be introduced to limit strictly the speculative claims being made by 'treasure-hunters' to raise finance for their projects. This occurred after it became clear that the vast majority of people were losing large sums of money on projects that stood very little or no chance of ever yielding a result.
So did I find treasure on the Oronsa?
The silverware was silver-plated nickel. The liner's owner, the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, had already fallen on hard times by WW1, and Oronsa was torpedoed in 1918.
I'm sure that there are many semi-valuable items on the wreck - including square portholes the size of a barn door - that will delight many divers, but the real treasure for me was the joy of discovery. On the same dive, Simon Little recovered intact crockery with the PSNC logo on the back. This confirmed the identity of the wreck.
The reality is that most British divers will at some point find something that might be regarded as treasure, but which is of very limited monetary value.
When you consider the costs of diving, and the number of dives it will take you to locate your porthole or treasured item, it's not a financial proposition. It's fun, it's exciting and it provides a fabulous sense of achievement: that's the true value.
Between 1995 and 2005, about 2500 finds have been reported to the Receiver of Wreck. That does not include the 4000 reported during the 'Wreck Amnesty' of 2001, during which
divers were invited to surrender previously unreported items without fear of being penalised.
Receiver of Wreck Sophia Exelby confirmed to me that the overwhelming majority of these finds are of marginal financial worth.
Between 1993 and 2005 there have been only five finds over the value of£5000, and three of these occurred during archaeological excavation of listed sites:
An Armada ship found off Northern Ireland, this wreck was given protected status, and a lapis lazuli recovered by the licensee was bought by the Ulster Museum for£30,000.
This regularly dived 19th century steamship was found to contain valuable marble antiquities when divers from Folkestone BSAC recovered a chest from inside the wreck.
The marble artefacts were being illegally exported when the vessel sank in 1894, and the Turkish government paid a finder's fee of more than£20,000 to recover the pieces. Good work, Folkestone BSAC!
Club-members also found themselves in the position of policing the wreck after news of the find brought unwanted interest in the site. A reported raid on the site by a commercial operation was followed by arrests and the seizure of artefacts.
An unknown wreck carrying gold coins and jewellery was found by the South West Maritime Archaeological Group,
a well-organised and highly successful group of amateur archaeologists.
The wreck became listed as protected shortly before news of the finds became public, because the group believed that an early listing would attract the interest of less scrupulous divers!
The British Museum paid£98,000 for the finds. The group put all the money back into further excavation and exploration of archaeological sites.
You can read all about the initial Salcombe gold wreck find at www.divernet.com/wrecks/gold1297.htm
Known as 'the last lost copper wreck', the St George was found by skipper Steve Wright and diver Dan Stevenson on a trip to North Cornwall in 2001.
The wreck is a small mark that gives a strange magnetic anomaly, and the divers had no expectations when they entered the water.
'It actually wasn't the first choice for a dive site, so nobody was prepared for what happened,' explained Steve Wright, who now runs his own Plymouth-based charter boat.
The first two divers went forward of the boilers - pretty much the only feature left standing - and recovered the bell. The other divers found large mounds of shiny bricks which they initially mistook for... that old favourite, Nazi gold!
The cargo of copper was reported to the Receiver of Wreck and - given the difficulty and danger of recovering heavy bars from 60m - a commercial salvage company was brought in to recover the copper and sell it.
The divers received a pre-negotiated proportion of the profit and split it equally among themselves. They each received around£2000, and took home as many copper bars as they could carry, along with a real-life treasure story.
This protected Napoleonic wreck off the Isles of Scilly is at the centre of a bitter feud between rival archaeologists. In 2002, new artefacts became uncovered and a valuable carving was recovered. The find still stirs controversy and the precise value paid for the statue is not public information, but is known to be over£5000.
There is money to be made from wrecks, but, according to the Receiver of Wreck, this is 'voluntary' commercial salvage work rather than diving for treasure.
Salvage companies and owners volunteer to enter into agreements about the recovery of wreck and the division of profits. In most cases carrying out this kind of work with the required degree of safety is beyond the scope of amateur divers - although Torbay BSAC in Devon famously discovered the wreck of the Maine in Bigbury Bay in 1961, bought the wreck for£100 and salvaged the bronze propeller. Top job!
I asked veteran diver and skipper of SpartaCat Tim Bennetto whether he was aware, during his years of experience, of divers finding treasure.
'Not really,' he confessed, 'though I know that divers have found some valuable items, like a gold chain and rings with jewels in them on the Shirala.'
The Shirala is an often-dived wreck in 24m out of Littlehampton. 'In the '70s wrecks could be purchased for very little and the Salvage Association just gave out licences to everybody, so pretty much everything of known value around here has been salvaged.
'It's funny, they talk about divers desecrating the wrecks by taking the occasional porthole, but that's insignificant compared to what has been done perfectly legally by commercial salvage companies,' he continued.
So divers are small fry, but that won't stop us dreaming of finding treasure - and collecting our miscellaneous spidge.
If you want to make serious money from treasure, the easiest way is probably to write a book about finding it and sell the story.
The last word must go to Sophia Exelby. 'There is nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking any finds through the correct process,' she says.
'Honesty is the best policy and, in the small community of divers, I generally get to hear about what goes on. For the vast majority, it's not about money. Divers are passionate about wrecks!'
It's true - you can buy anything on eBay. But only if you believe that everything posted on eBay is above board.
The Mary Rose Trust was more than a little alarmed when an eBay posting appeared in 2004, advertising for sale 14 cannonballs from the Tudor warship - at£5000 a pop!
The Trust swiftly issued a warning that any items advertised for sale were either fake or acquired illegally - the Mary Rose is designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act.
The Receiver of Wreck intervened, and Hampshire Police Marine Unit raided the UK-based eBay trader's home and seized the cannonballs. (You can just imagine the scene: 'Are these your balls, sir?')
An expert examination of the balls quickly established that they had never been near the Mary Rose.
They turned out to be bog-standard 18-19th century cannonballs, recovered from the River Hamble.
A host of disappointed eBayers will have to buy something else to use as a door-stopper.
But you have to ask yourself - how much would the postage and packing be on a cannonball?
It wasn't Nazi gold but copper bars on the St George,
as clearly shown by the one held by Billy 'The Lens'.
Portholes are a form of treasure for some divers.
Simon Little with a plate recovered from the Oronsa bearing the PNSC logo.
Fictional finds by the divers from Into The Blue
...that you're diving with a treasure junkie
- He has to be first off the boat. Always.
- He likes to dive alone - or, as he likes to put it, his buddy is a crowbar.
- He never dives without a liftbag.
- His weightbelt is a toolbelt - if he drops that lumphammer on the dive, he risks a fast ascent!
- You don't so much see him on the wreck as hear him. Bang bang bang!
- He hates conger eels. Congers invariably get in the way of a valuable find, and he's watched far too many repeats of The Deep.
- He has the Receiver of Wreck's number on speed-dial in his mobile.
- He devours Clive Cussler books and has acquired every volume of the Shipwreck Index.
- He's often heard muttering that a 50kg liftbag just won't be enough.
- If you ask him about his next trip, he gets all mysterious.
- He can quote you the market value of a porthole in under 3 seconds.
- His back garden looks like a junkyard.
- Late at night and after a few drinks, he starts to get all misty-eyed about the 'big find' that got away - the lift-bag that was never recovered, the bell that was just out of reach, the treasure that he spotted just as his gas ran out....
According to the Receiver of Wreck, these are the top six places where divers collect their finds in the UK:
This large WW1 wreck was carrying many small semi-precious items such as watches and perfume bottles. Being in a very diveable spot - Swanage - at a relatively shallow depth means that it continues to turn up the highest number of reported finds.
In 20m out of Dover, this 2700-ton steamer was rumoured to be carrying thousands of newly minted shillings. Commonly declared items are the hundreds of bottles - gin, rum, champagne - that were definitely on board. Local divers Paul Wilkinson, Peter Lee and Mick Lucas own salvage rights.
This 2500-ton British steamer sank off the Isle of Wight in just 17m, and the large numbers of shell casings still on the wreck provide a constant stream of business for the Receiver of Wreck.
4) W A Scholten
A 2500-ton Dutch passenger liner that sank in 1887 off Dover - the wreck is broken up and small items litter the seabed. Perfect for rummaging!
This beautiful 5800-ton P&O liner in 43m out of Weymouth was a hot favourite for items declared under the 2001 Wreck Amnesty. It's a popular dive site, and large enough still to have plenty of rummageable finds.
Tin soldiers, safety razors, cold cream, cutlery - you name it, it seems to have turned up on this WW2 wreck! At 6800 tons it's a huge area of wreckage, in 30m, at that popular dive spot the Farne Islands in Northumberland.
Jamie Powell (above) was a member of the 1995 expedition to dive the wreck of the Lusitania. The expedition, led by pioneering technical diver Polly Tapson, ran up against US-based millionaire Gregg Bemis, who had purchased ownership of the wreck in the USA.
Faced with the prospect of an injunction preventing them from diving, Tapson revealed that divers had seen lead cases that could contain valuable paintings - a Rubens was rumoured to have been on board.
The Irish government intervened, claiming that while Bemis had purchased the 'shell' of the Lusitania, the contents (and any treasure) came under its jurisdiction and ownership.
This legal dispute allowed the divers to carry on, but
led to Bemis obtaining a warrant for 'international piracy' against the dive team in a US court. So how does Jamie feel about being a pirate?
'I think it's quite comical,' he told me. 'I don't have any official notification, and it's not going to stop me diving, it's just funny.'
The full complexities of the Lusitania ownership are described in Gary Gentile's books The Lusitania Controversies and amply demonstrate that where there's treasure, there's usually a whole heap of trouble!
In 2002, four British divers took their hard-earned stash of 311 gold coins, 2000 silver coins, diamonds and jewellery to an auction house to sell. Everything appeared to be above board: the divers had obtained permission from the Italian authorities to salvage the wreck of the Glenlogan, a British merchant steamer sunk in 1916 off Stromboli Island.
They had invested£120,000 in hiring a commercial salvage vessel with a mechanical grab to carry out the work, and had reported their finds to the Receiver of Wreck.
The auction house examined the treasure and contacted the Receiver of Wreck after it became clear that these finds were not from the Glenlogan. A quick investigation revealed that the divers had salvaged a different wreck, that of the paddle-steamer Pollux. This sank in 1841, while carrying a Russian countess, a Neapolitan duchess and their jewels.
So did the divers just make a lucky mistake? The two wrecks lie some 390 miles apart, and your GPS would have to be throwing a major wobbler to make that kind of error!
Officers from the Metropolitan Police Arts & Antiquities Unit seized the treasure. It was returned to the Italian authorities to go on display in a museum in Elba.
The finds prompted the Italian authorities to take action, and in 2003 a submarine robot was hired to examine the wreck, which lies in 100m.
The value of the treasure on board is estimated to be worth£12 million. The robot revealed that the silt that encrusts the wreckappears to contain silver and gold coins.
Freaky fact: In Greek mythology, Pollux was the brother of Castor - the name of another wreck discovered to contain treasure illegally taken from another country (Turkey).