Sub Sea Research announced the discovery of treasure aboard the SS Port Nicholson back in February of this year, and since then there have been many debates over whether or not this ship could indeed have been carrying the amount of wealth the company says it was, and if so, why no one knew about this before. SSR has been working with this wreck since 2008, and has acquired a good amount of evidence to support their claim. I sat down with my father, Greg Brooks, to discuss this shipwreck at length.
In 2008, Sub Sea Research acquired US Naval records, Canadian Naval records, and US Coast Guard records which all stated that the British freighter, the Port Nicholson, had been torpedoed and subsequently sunk on the 16th of June, 1942. The records indicated that the ship was followed closely by five escort vessels, which in itself was unusual. The Port Nicholson remains the only freighter that required so many other ships to accompany it during the second World War. These records placed the ship’s sinking at a very specific set of coordinates, but upon inspection, Sub Sea Research discovered that the ship was not where it was said to be.
It is common for ships that have been lying dormant underwater for many years to shift, or when sinking, to be carried by underwater currents a small distance from the place they went down. However, the Port Nicholson was not anywhere near the spot she was initially said to have sunk at. In the summer of 2008, Sub Sea Research spent four months tracking down this elusive vessel, taking Side Scan sonar imaging in a grid pattern over 125 square miles of ocean. Archival information was looked at – tide charts from that day in history were inspected and weather patterns were looked over. They inspected the course of the ship from Halifax, and where it was when it was ordered to go to Boston instead of New York. The ship was finally found, 20 miles from where it was supposed to be. At first, Brooks and the rest of the crew were doubtful that this was the correct ship – after all, even the owners of the Port Nicholson had recorded the incorrect placement of the vessel, same as the Coast Guard and Navy. Shipwrecks, especially 500 foot long shipwrecks, don’t just get up and walk away though, so they continued their research to make sure this was in fact the Port Nicholson.
This ship fit the profile. It was 500 feet long and 50 feet wide. It was likely that the Port Nicholson continued floating after it was initially hit, and the recorded data was just the coordinates of the torpedoing. This data was confirmed through more research, and now they needed some evidence that was more than just circumstantial. The Port Nicholson was hit the same night as the American merchant vessel SS Cherokee, so if this was in fact the Port Nicholson, the Cherokee would be nearby. They found a vessel matching the Cherokee’s description in the vicinity. In 2011, photos of the Port Nicholson were finally unearthed, which were used to identify the wreck further. Later in the summer of 2011, Sub Sea Research’s inspection class Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) found the name of the SS Port Nicholson emblazoned on the bow. This was indeed the ship they had been searching for.
Why is it taking so long to recover? This is the question many people have asked, and its answer is simultaneously the answer to the question: Why haven’t others already tried to recover its wealth?
The Port Nicholson is lying in 700 feet of water, its hull reaching up fifty feet off the ocean floor. This level of the ocean floor is known as the Mesopelagic zone, or the “Twilight” zone. Photosynthesis cannot occur here, as light is only sparse and distant. At this depth, diving is too dangerous to warrant an attempt, because of water pressure and the possibility of anything going wrong. Many sea creatures will not go this deep, including dolphins. The only sea predators at this level are those that sit and wait, large-mouthed and with eyes that are specialized to see in the low-level light. Currents in this zone are unpredictable and often differ from currents experienced at the water’s surface. Sub Sea Research’s inspection class ROV can withstand the trip down to the mesopelagic zone, but it is often swept about by currents and has almost been lost on numerous occasions. The light from the ROV often attracts haddock and shrimp, which are looking for krill and completely block out the ship and any other topography from view. An inspection class ROV is useful for determining the outer structure of the ship, but it is not strong enough to break into the cargo hold.
When the Port Nicholson sunk, its stern end went down first, which shifted all of the cargo to the back of the boat. Upon hitting the ocean floor, the vessel turned onto its side, further shifting the cargo both back and to the side facing the ground. The inner hull is a mess of broken pipes and other materials, making it hard for an ROV to navigate the mazes beneath. It is likely to be damaged beyond repair or lost if it would make the journey. Sub Sea Research is currently searching some containers which became dislodged from the ship and landed nearby. A view of these containers showed some objects which looked like trapezoidal ingots. In the 1940s, the only materials cut into trapezoidal shape were precious metals. If Sub Sea Research is able to prove that these are in fact gold or platinum, they will likely be able to acquire the work class ROV needed to explore the hull. The only divers that would be safe to send down would be saturation divers, which would be useful once a work class ROV is obtained to break a small hole into the cargo hold.
In the northern Atlantic, there is only a three to four month weather window for shipwreck recovery, particularly when it is down as deep as the Port Nicholson is. Early June to September provides the safest currents and the least amount of storms or winds from Hurricane Season.
At this point, Sub Sea Research has the legal go-ahead to continue their recovery effort. This vessel is not a sovereign warship, since it was a freighter owned by a private company. While it was originally a British vessel, it rests in American waters and was given the appropriate timing for claiming of rights before any action was taken.
Sub Sea Research feel deep admiration and respect for the brave souls that were onboard the SS Port Nicholson the night of its sinking. Working on the sea, there is always a matter of fear and admiration for the ocean. On land, help is never far, but out in the sea, things are very different. In June of 2012, the SSR crew made up a commemorative 70-year anniversary plaque for the four men who perished on the Port Nicholson, which will be placed on the wreck.
Now the company focuses on using the month and a half ahead to explore the containers surrounding the wreck and work to prove what they believe to the rest of the world. How close are they? “So, so close,” says Greg Brooks, with a laugh.