SS Gairsoppa - Frequently Asked Questions
September 25, 2012
What was the SS Gairsoppa?
The SS Gairsoppa was a 412 foot steel-hulled British cargo steamship launched in 1919, servicing the British India Steam Navigation Company. Throughout her career, the Gairsoppa was engaged in commercial shipping activities in the waters off the Far East, Australia, India and East Africa. In 1940, the UK Ministry of War Transport enlisted the Gairsoppa to transport vital military supplies in World War II. The Gairsoppa was sunk by a German U-boat torpedo on February 17, 1941 approximately 300 miles off the coast of Ireland. She was reportedly carrying a diverse cargo that included substantial quantities of pig iron, tea and up to 7,000,000 ounces of silver. To learn more about the history of the Gairsoppa click here.
Why did the UK Department for Transport award Odyssey the contract for the cargo aboard the Gairsoppa?
At the time of her sinking, the Gairsoppa operated under the service of the UK Ministry of War Transport, and a private cargo of silver was insured through the UK War Insurance program. The UK Ministry for War Transport became the owner of that silver cargo when it paid the claim associated with her loss.
Private parties typically bid for the salvage rights of various cargoes owned by the UK Department for Transport. Through a competitive tender process, the UK Department for Transport awarded Odyssey the contract for the SS Gairsoppa in 2010. The contract follows standard commercial practices and, as part of the agreement, Odyssey assumed the risk, expense and responsibility for the search, cargo, recovery, documentation and marketing of the cargo. Odyssey will retain 80% of the net salved value of the silver cargo after recovery of expenses.
How much silver is aboard?
Research citations, including Lloyd’s Record of War Losses, indicate the Gairsoppa carried a cargo of silver worth £600,000 at the time, which would equate to approximately 7 million ounces of silver. One record clearly indicates that 2,817 silver bars were loaded at one port and another report lists an unconfirmed amount of silver specie. The UK Department for Transport has records that show they paid out an insurance claim for approximately £325,000 for silver bars after the loss of the ship.
War Risk insurance was offered by the UK Government for privately owned cargoes being transported during war times. Government owned cargoes were self-insured. The Government did not typically record its own high-value specie or precious metal cargoes on manifests for security reasons, often referring to them as “general cargo” or even “nails” or other heavy boxed cargo. The difference between the amount paid out under the War Risk policy (£325,000) and the £600,000 sterling referenced in contemporary documents is possibly explained by additional uninsured government-owned silver aboard. The official UK Government record of war loss mentions that the cargo consisted of “silver specie” (which refers to coinage), clearly differentiated from bullion or bars. The recoveries made to date (1,218 bars weighing approximately 48 tons) are bullion bars that correspond directly to the government records of the claim that was paid out by War Risk insurance.
Where is the Gairsoppa located?
The Gairsoppa was discovered approximately 4,700 meters below the surface of the north Atlantic, in international waters approximately 300 miles off the coast of Ireland.
When did Odyssey locate the Gairsoppa?
Odyssey conducted search operations for SS Gairsoppa in the summer of 2011. The Gairsoppa discovery was confirmed and announced in September 2011
When did recovery operations begin?
The 291’ Seabed Worker departed port in Norway to begin operations on the project on May 31, 2012. After some equipment tuning, experimentation and preliminary work on the Mantola site during early June, and a port call in mid-June, recovery operations commenced on the Gairsoppa in late June. Due to weather conditions in the North Atlantic, operations on the SS Gairsoppa have been deferred until weather in the area is appropriate for operations which is expected to be some time in the second quarter of 2013.
How much silver has been recovered?
We believe this is already the deepest, largest precious metal recovery in history. As of September 25, 2012, 1218 silver bars totaling approximately 1.4 million troy ounces of silver (approximately 48 tons) have been recovered and transported to a secure facility in the United Kingdom. This amount recovered to date represents approximately 43% of the insured silver bars or approximately 20% of the total potential silver cargo. Upcoming operational plans include continued recovery of silver on the Gairsoppa from the cargo area that currently being cleared and then inspection of other cargo holds if the current area does not hold the rest of the expected bullion. Serial numbers and other markings from the silver bars recovered to date all match the contemporary insured silver cargo documentation so it is anticipated that the entire insured amount is aboard but is it unknown at this point whether there is additional uninsured silver on the site. It is also unknown whether any additional uninsured silver, if present, will be in bullion or coin form.
Have you done any recovery work on the SS Mantola project yet?
We briefly worked at the Mantola site at the start-up of the charter during early June with the goal of testing new equipment on this shallower shipwreck site (just over 2,500 meters as compared to 4,700 meters for the Gairsoppa). This permitted faster transit time of the equipment to and from the ocean floor as testing and adjustments were made. We did explore one area of the Mantola during this testing phase and silver was not located there. Armed with this knowledge and subsequent research, we plan to return to the Mantola during the course of this expedition to search for the documented silver cargo reported to be aboard.
Have you found any human remains?
No human remains have been found on the site. Human remains were not expected on the shipwreck of the Gairsoppa due to the depth, age of the shipwreck, circumstances surrounding the sinking, and the area where work is to be carried out. Nevertheless, as fellow mariners, our team is careful to give the site the respect it deserves in recognition of the brave merchant mariners who sacrificed so much on behalf of the war effort.
In the highly unlikely event that any human remains are encountered they will be treated with the utmost respect and the UK Department for Transport will be immediately notified.