The most lucrative undersea treasure hunt in history ended today when a team of British divers arrived in their space-age salvage ship at the Soviet port of Murmansk with nearly $80 million in gold bars recovered from a sunken World War II cruiser in the icy Barents Sea.
Working more than a month around the clock at record 800-foot depths with computer-aided technology recently developed for North Sea oil exploration, the divers painstakingly salvaged 431 gold bars -- each weighing 23 pounds and worth nearly $200,000 -- from a pitch-dark ship storage room full of unexploded bombs, antiaircraft shells and other munitions.
The Soviet gold bars stamped with dates ranging between 1936 and 1942, were on their way to the United States in the hold of the 10,000-ton British cruiser HMS Edinburgh nearly 40 years ago to pay for U.S. arms sold to the Soviets during World War II. On April 30, 1942, the cruiser, at the head of a convoy of 13 ships, was crippled 170 miles out to sea from Murmansk by attacking Nazi U-boats and destroyers and then was purposely scuttled by a British destroyer to keep the gold from the Germans, even though 60 of its 850-man crew were entombed in the wreck.
Today in Murmansk, British and Soviet officials began dividing the gold among their countries and a consortium of British salvage companies and investors who mounted what had been given up by others as a financially and technologically impossible dream.
The consortium, which spent an estimated $4 million during the past five weeks alone, will receive 45 percent of the haul, just under $40 million. By dictates of a postwar insurance settlement, the Soviet Union will get two-thirds of the rest and the British government one-third. The U.S. government receives nothing because it was reimbursed by insurance for the lost gold, worth $6 million at that time.
Even with the cut the British government will take from the consortium in taxes, the expedition's profits provide bounteous reward for expedition leader Keith Jessop, a 48-year-old deep-sea diver. Associates say he was obsessed with salvaging the gold lying at the bottom of the Barents Sea.
The expedition's feat also has provided a rare moment of chauvinistic triumph for Britain, where the divers' progress has been watched in television pictures transmitted from underwater cameras.
"That's one in the eye for all those people who've been calling me a blind fool for the past six years," Jessop said aboard the salvage ship Stephaniturm when the first gold bar was brought up to its deck weeks ago.
Previous British, Russian, Norwegian and German salvage attempts had failed even to locate the wreck of the Edinburgh lying on its side on the sea floor. Jessop used computers both to find it and to keep the Stephaniturm positioned precisely above it throughout the salvage operation.
The divers, working in two-man teams, prepared for 350-pound-per-square-inch pressures by spending days in surface pressure chambers. Then they descended in a diving bell, where one remained while the other worked inside the wreck. An umbilical cord from the ship supplied air, food, communications and electricity to the diving bell. A hose from it pumped warm water through the working diver's wet suit to keep him from freezing to death in the Arctic cold.
The divers had to cut an opening in the hull of the ship near where a Nazi torpedo had ripped through it. They also had to move gingerly aside or have winched up to the salvage ship many of the dangerous bombs that shared the hold with crates containing 465 gold bars. On the deck of the Stephaniturm, a British ordnance expert defused each bomb as it was brought up.
When they reached the gold, the divers loaded the bars into a wire basket for ascent to the Stephaniturm. Although easily fatigued by the work and always in danger of serious injury or death, 10 divers worked in shifts around the clock whenever weather permitted until a halt was called yesterday by the Wharton Williams diving firm in Aberdeen, Scotland, when the sea became too stormy and the rest of the gold bars too hard to find.
More than 90 percent of the gold was recovered, according to a company spokesman, in a world record salvage from ocean depths. What is left, he said, "is a handful of gold bars which are not economically recoverable at this time."
British and Soviet officials closely monitored the operation from the Stephaniturm, counting and recording the gold bars as they were brought aboard. Two Soviet trawlers patrolled nearby.
The exhausted divers, whose own share of the booty has not been disclosed, were congratulated in a message from Wharton Williams for "the most successful diving operation ever carried out." Serious consideration would be given, the message added, to allowing them a small beer.
No alcohol was allowed aboard the Stephaniturm, but Russian champagne was reportedly awaiting the expedition at Murmansk.