1958 – 2013
(History and Images courtesy of http://www.arcticdiscoverer.com)
The R/V Arctic Discoverer, began her career in 1958 as the A.T. Cameron, a Canadian Fishing Research Vessel and Icebreaker. Over the years, her name was changed to the Arctic Ranger. In the winter of 1987-1988, the Columbus America Discovery Group purchased the ship and changed her name once again to the Arctic Discoverer.
The Columbus America Discovery Group was a treasure hunting group founded in 1985 and headed by a man named Tommy Thompson. Thompson was a Marine Engineer who had a brilliant career working at the Battelle Institute. Along with his team of scientists, engineers, historians and ocean explorers, they planned to locate and recover the shipwreck of the SS Central America.
After locating what they believed to be the wreck site, they filed claim to the salvage rights in court and began plans for the recovery of the 21 tons of California Gold and numerous artifacts that the Central America sank with in a hurricane in 1857. Along with 425 souls and 160 miles off the Carolina coast, the wreck sat at over 8,000 feet deep.
The group needed a ship that would handle their vast array of scientific equipment and their 12,000 pound robot “NEMO”. They located the Arctic Ranger, a 30 year old ice breaker built in Canada. Over several months, they transformed the weary, weather worn Arctic Ranger into a high tech cutting edge deep ocean research and recovery vessel, the “Arctic Discoverer”. At the time, the Arctic Discoverer was one of a hand full of ships in the world that was equipped with a GPS positioning system.
This system operated two large thruster props placed on either side of the ship. GPS coordinates sent to a satellite would run through a computer on board the ship giving the thrusters commands, the thrusters would make slight adjustments to keep the ship within 18 feet of their desired position over the wreck site, even in bad weather and high seas.
In the summer of 1988, Thompson and his team set out with the Arctic Discoverer, loaded with the ROV NEMO, and a barrage of high tech equipment to attempt their recovery of the Central America.
They were successful, and late in 1988, Thompson announced to the world that they had located the Central America. They eventually recovered around three tons of gold coins, gold bars and numerous artifacts from the wreck site. Of course, there is never a happy ending, especially for treasure hunters. There were lawsuits filed, everyone wanted a piece of the action. Over the next few years, into the 1990’s, the Arctic Discoverer spent many months at sea working at the wreck site while court battles waged on back on the mainland. After almost ten years in court, the Columbus America Discovery Group was awarded 92% of the treasure. Unfortunately this came at a cost of millions in legal fees, investors waiting to recover their investment, the crew waiting for their money, one problem after another finally took its toll, and recovery operations were eventually suspended at the wreck site. The investors would not give anymore money, and now new court battles were being waged, against Tommy Thompson.
In May of 2013, the US Federal Marshals auctioned off the R/V Arctic Discoverer to a local salvage company. The ship had been sitting quietly at a dock in Green Cove Springs, Florida for several years. Her fate was sealed, the most famous treasure hunting ship in US history was now headed to the scrap yard!
For all the bad that happened, a lot of good came from this adventure. Because of the ideas and dreams of Tommy Thompson, history was made for treasure hunting in America. Thompson had successfully done what no one had ever done before, he located and recovered the most famous ship wreck in American history. He had successfully conducted the first deep ocean recovery of a shipwreck using the high tech Arctic Discoverer and an ROV to do the work at over 8,000 feet deep. His find and recovery of the Central America was considered the most important treasure ever found according to Life Magazine. Christies Auction said that the gold from the Central America was considered to be Americas “Crown Jewels”.
It is estimated that 15-18 tons of gold still sits on the wreck site, waiting for the next adventurous person to come along and find it, that is, if you can get the salvage rights.