Here’s one from way back in 1998 well worth reading: Ship of Gold.
NY Times said this about it back then–
The moment you start reading Gary Kinder’s spellbinding story of a suboceanic treasure hunt, “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea,” you know that the searchers are eventually going to hit it very big. The narrative begins with the discovery in January 1848 of the gold nugget at John Sutter’s sawmill that brought on the California Gold Rush.
From there the story jumps to September 1857 and the journey from Panama to New York of the Central America, a side-wheel steamer carrying nearly 600 passengers returning from the Gold Rush and some 21 tons of California gold worth at the time more than $13 million. Two days after a stopover in Havana, the ship ran into what was described at the time as a storm “of almost unprecedented fury and violence” and eventually sank.
Drawing on the extensive testimony of eyewitnesses and survivors, Kinder (“Victim: The Other Side of Murder” and “Light Years: An Investigation of the Extraterrestrial Experiences of Eduard Meier”) has reconstructed the sinking of the Central America in harrowing and often poignant detail. But you read these chapters a little impatiently. You itch to get on with the treasure hunt. There’s been enough of sinking ships and killer vortexes and floating corpses in this season of Leonardo DiCaprio.
In any case, the narrative picks up pace as the scene shifts to the town of Defiance, Ohio, in the 1960s, and you meet Tommy Thompson, a young genius who wants to know how everything works and who once drove his car cross-country powered with used french-fry oil.
Following wherever his insatiable curiosity takes him, Thompson ends up in the business of salvaging sunken treasure ships, not so much for the sake of fortune hunting as a way of financing the scientific exploration of the ocean floor. Breaking down the problems of deep-sea salvage systematically, he determines the best approach to be the use of an unmanned, remote-control vehicle. Rating the most feasible wrecks on a scale of risks, he and his team arrive at the Central America as their target.
As Kinder writes: “It had sunk in an era of accurate record keeping and reliable navigation instruments. Dozens of witnesses had testified to the sinking, and five ship captains had given coordinates that placed the ship in an area where sediment collected no faster than a centimeter every thousand years. The extrinsic risks looked as favorable: she had a wooden hull, which would be easier to get into, and massive ironworks in her steam engine and boilers that would provide a good target for sonar, even if much of the iron had corroded and disappeared. And it was off the coast of the United States, so they wouldn’t have to negotiate with a foreign government and they could more easily provide site security.”
Finally, if they could find the wreck, “they would open a time capsule representing an entire nation during a crucial period in its formation.”
Once Thompson wins financial backing and gets to work, the fascination of the story lies less in whether he is going to succeed and more in the genius of his approach. For instance, to determine where to search with the advanced sonar device he has leased, he and his team prepare what they called a probability map based on the ship’s last known position, variously reported at the time of the sinking. One of these coordinates seems to make no sense. By going to the historical record and cleverly inferring one man’s behavior during the catastrophe, the team is able to resolve the anomaly.
Once the search begins and a site is found that seems to be the Central America, some members of the team insist that there is no point in looking further. But Thompson, arguing that they have succumbed to treasure-hunt fever, demands that the search go on and that in the interest of scientific discipline all high-probability sectors be scanned. It is a good thing that he persists, for as it turns out, they are still a long way from hitting pay dirt.
Yet when competing hunters threaten to poach on sites that Thompson has discovered, he is able to improvise brilliantly and to snatch almost from under his rivals’ noses what some consider the greatest sunken treasure ever found.
That Thompson stressed scientific discovery over fortune is one of the main points of “Ship of Gold.” As Kinder concludes: “Since 1989, he has used his new technology to provide an opportunity never before available to science: data, specimens, photographs, film and on-site time at sea observing and experimenting in the deep ocean for over 150 scientists, researchers and educators in the United States, Canada, Germany, Monaco, England and New Zealand. They are corrosion experts, underwater archeologists, marine biologists, marine geologists, ocean chemists, ocean physicists, material scientists, bacteriologists, fisheries scientists and maritime historians. The scientists have been identifying life forms, determining life cycles, evaluating data and providing insight.”
This is certainly good news, but it is finally not what draws you on through Kinder’s pages and prompts you to forgive his occasionally clunky prose and his curious omission of pictorial material. Succumbing like Thompson’s subordinates to treasure-hunt fever, what you hunger for is the glitter of the payoff, which you get not only as information but also in the author’s striking word-portrait of a scene glimpsed through a camera eye two miles below the sea’s surface.
“Like deep-ocean sentries, sea creatures guarded the treasure: gorgonian corals, feathery and white, stood erect above the gold; brisingid sea stars, a brilliant pink-orange, sprawled across piles of yellow bricks or perched atop a single bar, their arms drooped possessively; red anemones, their tentacles splayed, stuck to ledges and inside crevices spilling with coins and bars. The scene was live, yet seemed forever like a photograph: piles of gold, much of it yellow as the night it went down, surrounded by the neighbors it had known since that night in 1857.”
And no one risked getting the bends or rapture of the deep.