When Tampa's Odyssey Marine Exploration found a sunken World War II British freighter that reportedly carried 240 tons of silver bars, the question was, could anyone haul the booty three miles to the surface?
Turns out, Odyssey can, and just set a record for the heaviest and deepest recovery of precious metals from a shipwreck.
The Tampa-based treasure hunting company used underwater robots to cut into the cargo holds of the steel freighter and haul up 48 tons of silver bars. It stowed the booty in the United Kingdom and is shipping back out to sea to try and recover the rest.
"With the shipwreck lying approximately three miles below the surface of the north Atlantic, this was a complex operation," Greg Stemm, Odyssey's chief executive officer, said in a statement.
Success in this case proved the company's skills in the deep, Stemm said, that will only help it with other projects.
The wreck is the 412-foot-long SS Gairsoppa, which left Calcutta, India, in 1941 on its way to London with tons of tea and 7 million ounces of silver, worth 600,000 British pounds at the time.
A German U-boat spotted the vessel off the coast of Ireland on Feb. 17 and fired a torpedo that sunk the Gairsoppa to a depth 15,400 feet, 300 miles southwest of Galway Bay.
As a raw metal, the total haul could be worth $200 million, depending on the market price.
Odyssey previously arranged a deal with the British government, which will pay the costs of the operation and take a 20 percent cut of the value, with 80 percent going to Odyssey. That deal avoids a legal fight similar to the one the company had with Spain, when Odyssey recovered millions of dollars in gold from a wreck, only to see a U.S. court ultimately award the treasure to Spain.
Britain takes a share, primarily because that government became the de facto insurer for the British shipping industry during wartime, and thus still holds a claim on such wrecks. Odyssey also has a deal to recover an estimated 600,000 ounces of silver on another British freighter, the SS Mantola.
As with other Odyssey shipwreck projects, The Discovery Channel plans a television documentary.