Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

TOP STORY >> Treasure hunter tells trade secrets

By JEFFREY SMITH
Leader staff writer

Wilf Blum, an underwater treasure hunter and founder of Deep Blue Marine, loves his job because it’s as rewarding and exciting as an adventure movie.

He recovers long-lost ships deep underwater, using modern technology and a sixth sense. He says there’s money to be made going after sunken treasures.

Blum spoke last week at the Jacksonville Museum of Military History about his explorations in the Caribbean. He brought one of his large finds from the French ship Scipion, a 241-year-old cannon used by the French against the British during the American Revolutionary War.

Before starting his treasure-hunting business four years ago, Blum was in public relations. Blum took a risk when he started his business. Plans with another treasure diver did not materialize but Blum had researched salvaging shipwrecks and Deep Blue Marine was formed.

Deep Blue Marine has one more year of work with the Scipion before moving on to another shipwreck. Blum says that while shipwreck work can be lucrative, it’s hard to put an exact figure on historical items.

Blum and his company, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, started work in 2007 recovering artifacts from the Scipion, a sunken 18th century 74-gun ship from France. The Scipion was one of 20 ships France sent to the U.S. to assist in the Revolutionary War. The ship was involved in the Chesapeake Bay blockade between the French and the British from Aug. 28, 1781, until Sept. 9, 1781.

Some historians claim the blockade was the turning point for the U.S. in the fight for independence from England.

According to Blum, the Scipion had a crew of 750. The copper-bottom ship was 171 feet long and 44 feet wide. The deck was five-stories tall. The ship with full masts and sails looked like a 22-story building going by on the sea.

On Oct. 18, 1782, the Scipion dropped anchor off the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic and then crashed on the neighboring coral head and sank.

The ship rests in Samana Bay under 25 feet of sea water at the mouth of a river. The force of the wreck on to the coral bent the brass nails used in the construction of the ship.

“There’s no history of anyone dying in the wreck,” Blum said.

He said if the salvage crew were to find human remains, they would be gathered and returned to the country of origin for burial.

Blum estimated there were 15 other ships to find in the bottom of the Samana Bay.
Deep Blue Marine has an agreement with the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Navy protects the site.

“Fifty percent of the artifacts we find stay in the museums in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican government allows us to bring up eight cannons,” Blum said.

The company’s 93-foot long recovery boat is equipped with outriggers that can lift 80,000 pounds. The boat goes out to the recovery site for 10 days and comes back to port for six.

A team of nine divers are in the water from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. They break for lunch and take a 20-minute rest. They average five to nine dives a day pulling up artifacts. With the shallow water, the divers have no problems with the “bends.”

Visibility ranges from several feet to an inch. They work without dive computers. The worksite is murky with artifacts encrusted with sulfides, algae and mussels. Many relics are buried deep in the protective sands.

Blum said, “Two of the cannons we found still have the fuses. The best finds are found in the sands under the hull.”

The cannon he put on display in Jacksonville was made in 1768. It weighs 4,493 pounds and is nine feet long. It was the 39th gun located on the portside of the Scipion. The gun fired 18-pound shot balls. Inscribed on the cannon are the craftsman’s initials and the foundry’s name.

It took 18 months to restore the cannon, filling in the pits and cleaning the gun with electrolysis.

The gun carriage was constructed from blueprints in reference books.

The Deep Blue Marine crew maps the location and photographs the recovered artifacts. All items are transported in water back to the company’s headquarters. It takes about two years to conserve the artifacts.

Preservation is a necessity, Blum said. If it wasn’t for preservation, the wooden objects would shrink and be destroyed within two weeks.

It takes several steps. For six to eight months, timber is put in fresh-water tanks for the sea salt to seep out. Then the wood is submerged in acetone to replace the water. The wood then goes to a freeze-dryer to remove the acetone as the final step.

When rope is found from the Scipion, it is sun-dried. The brittle rope is then preserved in fiberglass resin.

Deep Blue Marine has recovered barrel hoops, 47 blocks and dead-eyes from the ship. They found bar shots fired by cannons, a pure silver sacrament cup, a brass chandelier base, kitchen utensils, a telescope and the captain’s copper wash basin.

Among other items the divers have recovered are full bottles of wine, coins, buttons, old rope, lines, lots of sulfur and a bilge pump that many museums are interested in owning.

The weather has not always been calm at the recovery site. The crew fought seven hurricanes in 2007.

“We go into port when there are hurricanes,” Blum said.

Blum, a U.S citizen born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada, lives in Utah. He is married and has three grown children who have assisted with the salvage dives.