Copyright © 2002 David Ash

... is a record of a voyage to the depths of the Bermuda Triangle in search of treasure.  The prize is Spanish silver and Portuguese gold.  But the wreck lies five kilometres below the surface – at the outer limits of what today’s manned submersibles can achieve.

The expedition also triggers a political row.  The explorers who risk their lives at these hitherto inaccessible depths can be seen as either marine archaeologists or ruthless treasure seekers.  Should they be allowed uncontrolled access to this new world?  To whom do the deep ocean realms belong?

Our film begins at the colourful port of St George in Bermuda.  Here we board the tender which is ferrying the expedition leader, Mike McDowell, to a large research ship anchored in the bay.  Mike is Australian, but the ship, unexpectedly, is Russian.  Lashed to its deck are two bright-orange, strangely fish-like craft bristling with hi-tech cameras, lights and robotics.  Deep-water submersibleThey are deep-sea submersibles, a relic of the proud days of Soviet science, when money was poured into technologies which would allow the USSR to dominate both outer space and the “inner space” of the deep oceans.  But historic change swept aside the Soviet Union and left the scientists without funds.  To keep their ship afloat and pursue their science, they must now form alliances with wealthy Westerners.

We meet the small band of adventurers and investors who have come together on the Keldysh.  There’s Don Walsh, famous as the former US Navy submariner who reached the bottom of the world’s deepest ocean trench.  There’s a renegade marine archaeologist, Jim Sinclair, defying his academic peers’ condemnation of treasure hunts.  And, of all things, there’s a lawyer who will dive with them to the ocean floor and protect their interests there.

The man whose hunch they are all backing is also on board: a marine engineer called Curt Newport. His story prompts a flashback to the surprising origins of their great gamble.

FLASHBACK to 21 July 1961, the date when astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom became the second American in outer space.  Grissom achieved his sub-orbital flight in a Mercury capsule called Liberty Bell 7.  It lasted 15 minutes and 37 seconds.  He reached an altitude of 118 miles (190 km), experienced 5 seconds of weightlessness, and landed 302 miles (486 km) from Cape Canaveral in the waters of the Bermuda Triangle.

Here, during recovery, the Triangle's notorious curse appears to strike.  The explosive hatch on Liberty Bell 7 blows unexpectedly.  Grissom escapes as the capsule floods with sea water and begins to sink, threatening to drag the recovery helicopter down with it.  The pilot is obliged to uncouple, and the capsule plummets three miles to the ocean floor.

Photo acknowledgment: NASA

Grissom was rescued, but ill fortune was not finished with him:  he died in the Apollo 1 fire in January 1967.

(Dramatic NASA archive footage provides full coverage of these events.)

Thirty years later – enter Curt Newport, a man obsessed with the idea of locating and raising Liberty Bell 7.  Against all probability, he succeeded.  Trawling the sea bed with sonar equipment, he correctly estimated which of the dozens of “shadows” he encountered might represent the NASA capsule.  The story of this quest is well documented in a film by the Discovery Channel.

With the Liberty Bell successfully raised, Curt Newport was able to turn his attention to another of the sonar shadows that had remained in his mind: one dismissed at the time because it had the echo pattern of wooden wreck.  In the waters of the Bermuda triangle, there was every chance that “wooden wreck” could mean treasure.

FLASHBACK ENDS.  This is our starting point for the expedition – a handful of men and women with a co-ordinate obtained as a by-product of the hunt for Virgil Grissom’s space capsule.  Could Curt Newport have a second run of good luck?

Our film follows the expedition as it happens, sailing into the Sargasso Sea with no certainty of what awaits below, taking our chances with the adventurers and capturing their moods and reactions.  The Russian scientists are trying their best to ignore these distractions as they take their mud samples from the ocean floor, measure currents and hunt for new life forms more fascinating to them than gold.

The submersibles are deployed, and our cameras are on board as they make their long descent to the sea bed.  We share the moment of discovery, and the excitement which runs through the ship when two Russian words reach the surface via the eerie burble of the hydrophone – words meaning “coins” and “old”.  Immediately – because sounds from a hydrophone can travel through the water for hundreds of miles – the lawyer warns against any audible mention of what is on all their minds: Spanish galleon.  The Spanish government has laid claim to all sunken warships from Spain’s colonial era.

The wreck turns out to be neither Spanish nor a galleon.  Its cargo is still intact, and causes quite considerable astonishment – it's not what they expect.  But we do see Spanish silver and Portuguese gold being brought to the surface after centuries in the total darkness of the ocean floor.  As the adventurers prepare to carry it off, the Russian scientists gather round with tweezers to pluck off the deep-sea life forms.

This is a rich-textured story with many layers, some comic, some serious, combining adventure, science and history in a most unusual fashion.

To BFI Film + TV database To BBC Online David Ash, producer-director

Television documentaries by British programme maker David Ash

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