Treasure Hunter: This Man's $3 Billion Deep-Sea Quest
BY Eric Markowitz
Greg Brooks, founder of Sub Sea Research, a small business in Maine, is setting off on a journey to salvage a $3 billion underwater wreck.
Greg Brooks, owner of Sub Sea Research, on the M/V Sea Hunter.
The Port Nicholson, a British steam merchant ship sunk in 1942 off the coast of Cape Cod.
One Maine entrepreneur is hoping to turn a $5 million investment into a $3 billion payday.
Greg Brooks, founder and owner of Sub Sea Research, a Portland, Maine-based business that hunts for treasure, recently came across the biggest find of his career: 1.7 million ounces—62,500 pounds—of platinum aboard a scuttled cargo ship that sank in 1942.
A "marine salvager" (better known as a treasure hunter) is not exactly a position one can train for. Before launching Sub Sea Research in 1991, Greg Brooks built swimming pools for a living. But on a diving trip in Haiti in the late 1980s, Brooks encountered his first bit of booty: a 70-pound ingot of silver.
"I never even thought this could be a career," he says. "I was like everyone else. You'd always dream of walking down the beach and finding a treasure chest or something. But that's about it."
Brooks spent the next seven years in Haiti looking for treasure, but the Haitian government restricted him from excavating any significant finds. Brooks returned to the United States and founded Sub Sea Research with his business partner John Hardy in 1991. He never dug another pool.
Luck has very little to do with modern-day treasure hunting. It's mostly about solid research that goes into the discovery process.
Luck has very little to do with modern-day treasure hunting. It's mostly about solid research that goes into the discovery process, Brooks says. Brooks and his team of 15 employees pore over military archives, banking records, and archival newspaper articles to find potential wrecks that have long-since been forgotten.
"It's a lot of intensive research," says Brooks.
Then come the investments. Sub Sea Researchers has about 35 investors financing the recovery of its newest find, the Port Nicholson, a British steam merchant lying 700 feet underwater 50 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.
But it's been a long road to recovery. It started in 2006, when Brooks came across recently-declassified Bank of England records that show the Port Nicholson, in addition to carrying military supplies and automobile parts (according to its official register), was also carrying platinum, which was to be used as lend-lease payments between the Soviet Union and the United States. The ship was set to port in New York, but never made it.
The story, which is somewhat vague, goes something like this: On the morning of June 16, 1942, the Port Nicholson, a hulking cargo ship weighing 8,400 tons, was navigating its way along the coast of Massachusetts when it was attacked by a U-87, a German U-boat. The U-boat's captain, Joachim Berger, kept notes on the assault in the ship's ledger.
At 4:17 a.m., the first torpedo ripped through the ship's hull, blasting into the engine room, instantly killing two crew members on watch below deck. A second torpedo, fired about a minute later, exploded on the ship's hull, blasting a second hole in the ship's cargo (Brooks believes that the platinum ingot fell to the ocean floor from this hole in the side of the ship). Eventually, rough seas weakened the bulkhead and the ship sank. The 1.7 million ounces of platinum is valued today at nearly $3 billion.
After securing salvage rights to the ship through a federal judge in 2008, Brooks began the process of securing funding to retrieve the loot. Deep ocean searches are extremely expensive—a search and excavation in 700 feet of water can easily cost millions of dollars. At that point, Sub Sea Research owned a 96-foot research vessel called the M/V Son Worshipper, an asset that helped the company in searches of depths around 100 feet (such as its previous discovery of silver coins off the coast of Puerto Rico) but one that would be useless in hauling out tons of wreckage more than a quarter mile underwater.
So Brooks tapped friends, neighbors, and investors, and scrapped together a $5 million investment fund to purchase a 220-foot ship, which they christened the M/V Sea Hunter, to be used as the company's new salvager ship.
Certainly, there have been skeptics to the potential haul. Attorneys representing the British government have publicly doubted Brooks's claims. But Brooks is betting it all on this discovery.
"I took every bit of savings I've had for this," he says. "There's always naysayers out there."
Fielding calls from reporters (he estimates about 400 outlets have reached out to him in the last week), investors, and people who just want to be sent a piece of platinum, has proved overwhelming for Brooks, who is not accustomed to the attention.
"Everyone wants a piece of it. Small investors that would like to get involved. Wall Street guys and Hollywood producers—they all want to get involved." —Greg Brooks
"Everyone wants a piece of it," he says. "Small investors that would like to get involved. Wall Street guys and Hollywood producers—they all want to get involved. Every time you answer the phone you never know who it's going to be."
Brooks and his team plan to begin the discovery process later this month or in early March, but technical problems with some of their salvage equipment have kept them on solid land.
"We're all so excited," he says. "I'd go out today if I could."