The R/V Arctic Discoverer began her career in 1958 as the A.T. Cameron, a Canadian Fishing Research Vessel and Icebreaker. Over the years, her name was changed to the Arctic Ranger. In the winter of 1987-1988, the Columbus America Discovery Group purchased the ship and changed her name once again to the Arctic Discoverer.

The A.T. Cameron, a Canadian Fishing Research Vessel and Icebreaker
Photo courtesy of Captain Jouke Haanstra

The A.T. Cameron, a Canadian Fishing Research Vessel and Icebreaker
Photo courtesy of Captain Jouke Haanstra

Bell from the A.T. Cameron, 1958

The Columbus America Discovery Group was a deep ocean research and recovery group founded in 1985 and headed by a man named Tommy Thompson. Thompson was a Marine Engineer who had a brilliant career working at the Battelle Institute. Along with his team of scientists, engineers, historians and ocean explorers, they planned to locate and recover the shipwreck of the SS Central America.

After locating what they believed to be the wreck site, they filed claim to the salvage rights and began plans for the recovery of the 21 tons of California Gold and numerous artifacts that the Central America sank with in 1857. Located 160 miles off the Carolina coast, the wreck sat at close to 8,000 feet deep.

Left: The Arctic Discoverer heading out to sea. Photo Credit: Americas Lost Treasure; Thompson, 1998

The group needed a ship that would handle their vast array of scientific equipment and their 12,000 pound robot, NEMO. They located the Arctic Ranger, a 30 year old ice breaker built in Canada. Over several months, they transformed the weary, weather worn Arctic Ranger into a high tech* cutting edge deep ocean research and recovery vessel, the 'Arctic Discoverer'. At the time, the Arctic Discoverer was one of a handful of ships in the world that was equipped with a GPS positioning system. (*high tech in 1988)

This GPS system operated two large thruster props placed on either side of the ship. GPS coordinates sent to a satellite would run through a computer on board the ship giving the thrusters commands, the thrusters would make slight adjustments to keep the ship within 18 feet of their desired position over the wreck site, even in bad weather and high seas.

Right: Thruster and Prop for the GPS positioning system. Photo Credit: Americas Lost Treasure; Thompson, 1998

NEMO, the 12,000 pound ROV.
Photo Credit: Americas Lost Treasure; Thompson, 1998

In the summer of 1988, Thompson and his team set out with the Arctic Discoverer, loaded with the ROV NEMO, and a barrage of high tech equipment to attempt their recovery of the Central America.

They were successful, and late in 1988, Thompson announced to the world that they had located the Central America. They eventually recovered around three tons of gold coins, gold bars and numerous artifacts from the wreck site. Of course, there is never a happy ending. There were lawsuits filed, everyone wanted a piece of the action. Over the next few years, into the 1990s, the Arctic Discoverer spent many months at sea working at the wreck site while court battles waged on back on the mainland. After almost ten years in court, the Columbus America Discovery Group was awarded 92% of the recovered items, gold and artifacts. Unfortunately this came at a cost of millions in legal fees, investors waiting to recover their investment, the crew waiting for their money, one problem after another finally took its toll, and recovery operations were eventually suspended at the wreck site. The investors would not give anymore money, and now new court battles were being waged, against Tommy Thompson.

Piles of gold coins and bars sitting on the ocean floor.

In May of 2013, the US Federal Marshals auctioned off the R/V Arctic Discoverer to a local salvage company. The ship had been sitting quietly at a dock in Green Cove Springs, Florida for several years. Her fate was sealed, the most famous treasure hunting ship in US history was now headed to the scrap yard!

For all the bad that happened, a lot of good came from this adventure. Because of the ideas and dreams of Tommy Thompson, history was made. Thompson had successfully done what no one had ever done before, he located and recovered the most famous ship wreck in American history. He had successfully conducted the first deep ocean recovery of a shipwreck using the high tech Arctic Discoverer and the ROV NEMO to do the work. His find and recovery of the Central America was considered "The Greatest Treasure Ever Found" according to Life Magazine. Christies Auction said that the gold from the Central America was considered to be "Americas Crown Jewels".

This was not just a treasure hunt. Thompson and his crew did not go down and scoop up all the gold and dump it on the deck to get rich. They preserved the history of the wreck site by meticulously removing each piece of gold and artifacts very carefully to preserve them. They also discovered several new species of deep ocean life forms never seen before, including a new species of large octopus. Some of these new species were later used in cancer research. They recorded the first ever sighting of a 21 foot Greenland shark at nearly 8,000 feet, before that, no one knew they lived at such depths. The promise of gold attracted the investors to finance the trip, but Thompson's vision was not getting rich as a treasure hunter, he wanted to prove that deep ocean recovery was possible, and he did that. The story of the SS Central America, the R/V Arctic Discoverer and Tommy Thompson and his team has been documented by the History Channel on their 'History's Mysteries' show 'Ship of Gold'. It is also documented in the books 'Americas Lost Treasure' by Tommy Thompson and 'Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea' by Gary Kindler. You can check out these books and others related to this expedition at my Book Store.

It is estimated that 15-18 tons of gold still sits on the wreck site, waiting for the next adventurous person to come along and find it.

The last word on Thompson's whereabouts from his lawyer to a judge were,
"My client is out to sea." I say, take Steve Millers advice and
"Take the Money and Run"

R/V Arctic Discoverer, during her glory days at sea.
Photo Credit: Ohio Journal of Science, March 1995