Barry Schatz admits that he may have trouble adapting to life after the treasure hunt.

Since summer 1986, he's been one of three men directing the salvage efforts of a 19th-century American vessel sunk a mile and one-half down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina.

When it sank, in a hurricane on Sept. 12, 1857, the S.S. Central America carried 578 passengers (153 were saved) and three tons of gold from California. The gold and any artifacts that haven't disintegrated or been damaged by sea creatures are still there, until now inaccessible and undiscovered.

With a bounty worth some $400 million in gold bullion alone, the treasure trove is the richest in American history and the deep-water salvage effort the most ambitious ever undertaken anywhere.

It's been an adventure that Schatz says far overshadows his previous career as a reporter and book editor in Florida.

Discovery Channel tells the story in a two-hour telecast Sunday at 9, 133 years almost to the day that the ship sank. Hosts will be Doug McConnell on board the Arctic Discoverer recovery ship and Morris Jones, WTTG news anchor, in Discovery Channel's Washington studio.

Schatz, in town to explain the Columbus America Discovery Group's project and findings, said this was the first summer since the Arctic Discoverer went to sea in 1986 that he hasn't lived aboard the ship, some 200 miles east of Charleston, S.C.

"It's a lot more difficult than people think it is," Schatz said of the salvage efforts. "People have interesting preconceptions about what they expect, what's going on. One of the first big ones is that people think the ship's intact and it's just sitting around the bottom. Well, it's not. It's not even there. Most of it has disintegrated, but there are timbers all akimbo. It's like looking at a demolished building and trying to figure out what the architecture was.

"The most difficult thing is to understand the site, to understand what you're looking at. We have to literally develop archaeological techniques from scratch because nothing has ever been done at these depths before of that degree. There's been archaeological investigation that has taken place on the USS Monitor, but that's only in 230 feet of water."

The Central America sank to Blake Ridge, in an area of the Atlantic called the Abyssal Plain, which Schatz described as "a desert. There's nothing within hundreds of miles, no geological features. But because this wreck is there and there's wood and materials that can be consumed by creatures, creatures use it both for food and for shelter. We may have discovered three new species."

Because the ship is in an extremely cold area too deep for humans to dive -- more than 8,000 feet down -- engineers aboard the Arctic Discoverer developed Nemo, a 12,000-pound, remote-controlled "telebot." Its robotic arms and tactile manipulators are so precise it can pick up artifacts ranging from delicate wine glasses and small coins to the heavy ship's bell, cast at Morgan Ironworks in New York City in 1853.

That sets the imagination reeling.

"If you took a map of the world and traced over the major sea lanes of history, there are historical footprints left beneath those sea lanes in the form of sunken ships," Schatz said. "They're there, in the deep ocean. But throughout history we've always said, 'You lose something in the ocean, it's gone forever.' We forgot about the deep ocean and we went to outer space instead."

Not everyone forgot, however. Thomas Thompson didn't. Thompson and Schatz went to high school together in Defiance, Ohio. They were known as boys who liked adventure.

Schatz studied English literature and languages at the University of Florida, but Thompson studied ocean engineering at Ohio State University because he wanted to work at Battelle Memorial Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, contract research organization that has an ocean engineering system.

Before Thompson began at Battelle, he spent a year in Key West, where Schatz was reporting for the Miami Herald. Thompson worked as a diver for underwater treasure hunters such as Mel Fisher, helping develop equipment to aid searches conducted in shallow water where vessels have sunk.

"Typical treasure hunt is a lot of luck and a little bit of information," said Schatz. But he and Thompson concluded that there might be a better way to go about an oceanic search. They also realized that hunting in deep water is less risky than in shallow water because the wrecks are fewer and easier to locate. In addition, wrecks in deep water have not been strewn on the ocean floor by water whipped up during hurricanes. By comparison, the S.S. Atocha, which sank in between 54 and 55 feet of water off the coast of Florida, was scattered over 16 miles, Schatz said.

Schatz had moved to Gainesville, Fla., to work as a book editor for his alma mater when Thompson called and said he thought he had enough investors to start a sea-search project, searching for the steam packet, Central America. Of the 50 investors, almost all were from Columbus or central Ohio. Each chipped in from $5,000 to $10,000 (for a "unit") at the organizing stage, when the project was considered high-risk. By the time the Columbus America Discovery Group went to sea to search, investors paid $28,000 for a unit. Buying a unit during the recovery phase, when the explorers knew what they had located, cost $78,000.

"As the risk gradually reduced, the cost went up for the same amount of interest," said Schatz. "There was one partner in a law firm who only invested in the initial phase and hasn't put any money in since. But the overwhelming majority have invested in every phase. One put in a million dollars last year, but he'd invested in every phase, so his cumulative total is more."

The Columbus America Discovery Group has spent more than $13 million, he said, and along the way, became involved in some lawsuits. One was a landmark admiralty suit filed in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va., during summer of 1987 to determine the group's right to salvage the site in international waters, a right contested by at least two other expeditions.

"It became the first time in history that private individuals have been accorded rights on the deep ocean floor outside of national, sovereign territory," said Schatz.

And then there's been the predictable struggle over the treasure itself, which has involved 38 insurance companies, including Lloyd's of London; the State of New York, Columbia University and an heir to the Miller Brewing Co. fortune.

Oddly enough, Schatz said descendents of the Central America passengers have not come forward to join in a suit.

"We've seen places where we see evidence of passenger artifacts, but we haven't visited those areas," said Schatz. So far, Nemo has only explored about 5 percent of the 300-foot wreck site.

Although the group has no legal obligation to find descendants of those who perished on the Central America, Schatz said, they have tried.

"There could be as many as a half a million Americans today who have direct lineage to people on board," he said. "In 1986 we went to the genealogical center in Salt Lake City to find out if they could help us trace the people and they said it's quite a bit more difficult to trace forward than to trace backward and they said it would be extremely expensive to do so."

But monetary riches are just one facet of what Schatz called "treasures."

"There's so many treasures involved -- that's why it's in the plural, 'Treasures of the Lost Voyage.' The gold is just the beginning. There are historical treasures and scientific treasures, because we know so little about the deep ocean. {Ocean explorer} Bob Ballard said we know less about the deep ocean than we do the back side of the moon."

To maintain its presence on the site, a place that is obviously too deep to use an anchor, the Arctic Discoverer uses what Schatz called "dynamic positioning. We have outboard thrusters, like propeller shafts, that can swing down below the boat and be locked into place; and then the shafts can turn around 360 degrees and the propellers can vary the speed at which they rotate.

"We capture geodetic information from a satellite that can tell us where we are on the surface of the globe within two meters of accuracy and that's run through an IBM PC which corrects the thrusters and can keep us on station to within five meters of accuracy. It's just amazing that we can stay within five meters of accuracy even in bad weather."

Schatz said some 27 or 28 people live on the Discoverer at any time, including Thompson, Schatz and the third director, geologist Bob Evans. Evans, of Columbus, Ohio, works as the dive coordinator, directing the technicians who operate the robot. As a hobby, he also specializes in the history of 19th-century science.

The ship spends the three summer months on site, coming in only once during the season to refuel, and is supplied through a smaller boat. In the winter, because of bad weather, the ship is docked, although there's a shore and logistics office.

"In the process of building the technology, we're discovering all kinds of things that have economic value to develop," said Schatz. "We're doing a lot of collecting, for pharmacological research. A certain type of sponge that is very rarely found on the deep ocean floor seems to be there in some kind of abundance, and the Scripps Oeanographic Institute project is doing screening for arthritic drugs, using this kind of sponge.

"We're always gathering engineering information and always adapting or retooling over the wintertime. We videotape every minute that we're on."

Some of that tape will be included in the Discovery Channel documentary, as well as studio interviews about the project's legal matters, history about the S.S. Central America and the era of the California gold rush, plus a satellite feed from the Discoverer through the eyes of the Nemo cameras.

After television there may be a theatrical movie, Schatz said. An agent from Columbia pictures became interested, he said, when she read an account of the project in, of all places, the April issue of the American Bar Association magazine.