The Sub Sea Research crew had spent months in 2008 futilely scouring a wide swath of ocean off Cape Cod in search of the SS Port Nicholson, a merchant ship that sank in 1942 while laden with platinum now believed to be worth $3 billion.
But on the morning of Aug. 27, 2008, as the rest of the crew slept, deckhand Dave St. Cyr spotted an unmistakable three-dimensional sonar image on the monitor in front of him. It was a large ship resting on its side.
“I woke up the captain, and I said to him, ‘You might want to see this,’ ’’ St. Cyr said.
By the end of this month, the Maine company expects to begin harvesting the bountiful treasure, considered to be among the most valuable precious-metal finds ever from a shipwreck. Playing a key role in the effort: a remotely operated vehicle tethered to the Sea Hunter, a 214-foot salvage ship currently docked in East Boston.
The Port Nicholson, a British steamer, was sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to New York when a German U-boat torpedoed it during World War II, despite a heavy military escort. Four people died, while 87 were rescued.
Since then, it has remained on the ocean floor about 30 miles off Provincetown. The cargo, then valued at about $53 million, was a lend-lease payment to the United States from the Soviet Union.
“Maybe I’ll buy a small island in the Caribbean,’’ joked Greg Brooks, a partner in the private Sub Sea Research company that searches for shipwrecks worldwide. He and his wife Kathy started the company in 1984.
Sub Sea Research obtained legal rights to the shipwreck and its cargo after completing an admiralty claim in federal court and publishing announcements in three major newspapers. A judge will determine a final ruling on ownership after the cargo is lifted out of the water.
About a decade ago, Sub Sea Research brought up a few million dollars in silver coins from a pirate ship off the coast of Puerto Rico, and most recently the crew focused on shipwrecks off the coast of Haiti. But with the political instability that has upended that country in recent decades, securing any sort of legal agreement was difficult, Brooks said.
“There are shipwrecks from the 1500s still there, about 20 or so really good ones, and we’ve tried to negotiate,’’ Brooks said.
In May 2008, the crew left Haiti and returned to Maine. That month, the company’s historical researcher learned about the Port Nicholson through recently declassified files, and the search was on. It took months to find the ship, because it was about 15 miles from where it was reportedly sunk.
After a sonar device located the wreckage, the crew sent down a remotely operated vehicle with a camera, which identified the shipwreck by the lettering on the side of the vessel and other markers. The crew then used the remote to search for the cargo, but after numerous passes were unable to locate it.
Crew members then realized, through research of another shipwreck, that at least 30 boxes scattered in and around the ship that seemed to have been used for ammunition were actually full of platinum ingots. Each box weighs approximately 130 pounds, too heavy for the Sub Sea Research remote to lift. The crew is currently awaiting arrival of the stronger remotely operated vehicle to lift the boxes.
Turning the ingots, or bars, into cash will take some considerable effort.
“It’s not an easy task,’’ Brooks said. “There’s a good possibility there are about 10 tons of gold down there, too, and maybe some industrial diamonds.
“We know people who own smelting manufacturing companies who will buy what we have,’’ he said. “But at the same time, we don’t want the market to drop because of this. We’ll have to be careful.’’