Chasing down illustrious old shipwrecks for fun and profit has become a glamorous, high-stakes game these days, a buccaneering mix of leading-edge technology and hard-nosed business. Odyssey Marine Exploration, a publicly listed treasure salvage company based in Tampa, Florida, saw its share price leap 81 percent last May when it announced that its divers had recovered 17 tons of rare coins (later valued at some $500 million) from an unnamed 400-year-old wreck allegedly found off the tip of Land’s End, in England. Another ship, the Notre Dame de Deliverance, which was lost off Key West, Florida, in 1755 and found in 2003, is now the subject of a bitter legal dispute. The 64-gun French vessel was carrying (among other treasures) nearly a thousand pounds of gold bullion, 15,000 gold coins, a million silver coins, and six chests of jewels, worth an estimated $3 billion today.
But big finds are getting rarer all the time. Sweeping advances in technology in recent years have meant that most of the world’s A-list shipwrecks, from the Titanic on down, have already been found and struck from the list. And as with unclimbed peaks and uncrossed deserts, each fresh conquest means there’s one less for the next dreamer who comes along. That’s what makes the Bonhomme Richard so special. For a wreck hunter who wants to bag one of the truly big ones—one swathed in the kind of household-name glory that money simply can’t buy—this may be the last bite of the cherry.
In their search for the BHR, the two American teams have each chalked out their own prime target areas, located, depending on who you’re talking to, between 12 and 30 miles out to sea. The precise grid coordinates are, of course, a jealously guarded secret. The rivalry between the two teams is a courteous one—underwater archaeology is a small world where everyone knows everyone else, and friendships exist between the camps—but it is a rivalry nevertheless. Cussler’s group is known to be working out of Captain Cook’s old home port of Whitby, about 30 miles up the coast from Filey, but where they go once they vanish over the horizon is eyes-only proprietary information. OTF is even harder to track, operating out of a southern port but keeping to sea day and night to maximize expensive ship time.
Adams, who is as cagey as anybody else, can afford to be a little more relaxed: He is the recognized licensee of the mystery wreck in Filey Bay, and the site is protected under English law. This past dive season, he invited me to come out on the bay with him. So I caught a northbound train out of London’s King’s Cross station as far as Leeds and from there changed twice more, onto smaller branch line trains that rattled through the pretty, rural Yorkshire countryside and finally deposited me at the quaint old Victorian railway station in Filey.