The heyday of treasure hunting might be at hand

A diver at the site of the shipwreck off the coast of Tonga Photo: AFP/Matafonua Lodge/Darren Rice

By Joseph Neighbor

Recent advances in deep-water technology have opened vast swaths of the ocean previously unavailable to humans.

Up until the mid-20th century, underwater exploration was limited to a depth of about 200 feet, representing about 5% of the ocean. We now routinely go 20,000 feet and beyond. We’ve even visited the deepest point—the Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench, some 36,000 feet below the surface—multiple times now.

For the first time, we have access to ocean in its entirety.

And in these abysmal depths lay untold billions in sunken gold, silver, and emeralds, not to mention priceless caches of cultural history thought to be lost forever. How much is all this hidden treasure worth ?

UNESCO estimates there are three million shipwrecks underwater right now. No one has any idea exactly what each was carrying, so any guess as to value is speculation. And a gold coin fetched from a shipwreck and brought to market without context is worth the value of gold—no more, no less.

But a gold coin retrieved and documented with archeological diligence and sold as a historical artifact is worth much, much more.

Our new technological capabilities stem not from revolution—sonar has been around for over a hundred years; submersible vessels since the mid-18th century—but of refining, allowing for deeper dives on sounder information.

Take, for instance, the El Faro, a US cargo ship sank by a hurricane off the Florida Keys last October, taking all 33 sailors aboard with it. After weeks of intense search and rescue, the vessel was located at some 15,000 feet, or about three miles, below the surface—a depth utterly impossible to reach or explore a few decades ago.

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