When Divers In The Baltic Explored A Shipwreck, They Uncovered A Lost Trove Of Bizarre Treasures

Somewhere in the Baltic Sea, the crew of a salvage ship known as the Deepsea Worker scramble to retrieve things from a long-lost wreck. Foisted onto the deck by a powerful crane, the haul is thick with gunk and debris from the seabed. Slowly and carefully, the crew hose away the sludge and expose their prize. Finally, all their hard work has paid off.

This operation took place in November 2019, and it represented the culmination of years of persistent effort. It brought together expert teams and demanded painstaking searches of the seabed, not to mention careful logistical preparation. Salvaging sunken wrecks is no simple feat, after all, and both the costs and risks can be phenomenal. But when the gamble pays off, it’s nothing short of exhilarating.

Exactly how much the salvagers stand to make from their haul remains to be seen, but similar finds have fetched a fortune at auction. For now, the team can enjoy the satisfaction of having achieved their goal. What began as a tentative survey of a sunken ship has, after much work, concluded with the safe retrieval of buried treasure.

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And regardless of the financial rewards, the haul will surely go down in the annals of salvaging history. Not only does it represent a remarkable feat of patience, it provides new historical information about the Russian Empire. Money may make the world go around, but at the end of the day, knowledge is priceless.

The effort was led by Ocean X Team, a group of salvagers from Sweden, and an Icelandic outfit called iXplorer. Ocean X Team is headed by two wreck enthusiasts and adventurers called Peter Lindberg and Dennis Aasberg. They have been exploring the treasure-laden waters of Scandinavia for almost three decades, starting with a sunken U.S. B-17 bomber in the early 1990s.

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The treasure salvaged by Ocean X Team once belonged to the SS Kyros, a ship which now lies some 250 feet underwater. This wreck was first discovered by the group back in 1999, but its coordinates were subsequently lost. Ultimately, it wasn’t until 2014 that it was relocated – but its treasure was thankfully still unclaimed.

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Nonetheless, it took years to make the wreck safe enough for human exploration. Speaking to Agence-France Presse in 2019, Lindberg explained that the risks of exploring the wreck only dawned on them gradually. He said, “After we had been there several times with divers and a smaller [remotely operated vehicle], we realized that the situation was becoming too dangerous.”

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Indeed, the Kyros was swathed in nets which had presumably been dumped over a rather long period by fishing vessels. There were so many, in fact, that it took the team several years to clear them. When the wreck was finally safe, they dispatched underwater robots to recover their prize.

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Built in Sweden in 1859, the SS Kyros was a steam-powered cargo ship fated for a violent end. In December 1916 it embarked on an ill-starred crossing from France to the Russian city of Saint Petersburg. But in the Gulf of Bothnia – which largely separates Finland and Sweden – ice floes prevented it from going any further. So, it was forced to spend the winter in a Swedish port.

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The Kyros set sail again in May 1917, but thanks to World War I it didn’t get very far. In the Sea of Aland – a choppy expanse in the southernly stretch of the Gulf of Bothnia – she was set upon and captured by a German submarine. Sweden was technically neutral in the conflict, but the Germans suspected that the Kyros might be carrying war materials to their Russian enemy.

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Indeed, upon searching the Kryos, the Germans discovered machine components and metal, which they considered to be prohibited. So, the crew was subsequently rounded up and moved to another vessel for transportation back to Sweden. And the ship itself, meanwhile, was rigged with explosives and sent sinking to the depths.

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For more than a century, the broken steamer lay undisturbed on the seabed. And according to Lindberg, it represented a challenge to salvagers. In an email to the website Unfiltered, he wrote, “Kyros is probably one of the most, if not the most, extreme wrecks in the world to salvage… It has been a very complicated and dangerous operation due to the bad visibility and the depth.”

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However, the Kyros is just one of thousands of ships to have sunk in the Baltic Sea. The region represents rich pickings for salvagers and archeologists due to its environmental chemistry. In fact, the relatively low salinity of the Baltic Sea discourages the kinds of organisms that typically feast on wood-built wrecks. As such, it’s not unheard of for researchers to discover old vessels in fair condition.

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Contained by a vast geographic basin forged over several ice ages, the Baltic Sea is the world’s largest brackish inland sea. Its roughly 5,000 miles of coastline skirts several European countries including Denmark, Poland and Russia, amongst others. It has been used for trade, transport and fishing since ancient times.

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One of the earliest historical records of the sea was made by Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman politician and one of the most important scholars of his time. Writing in the first century A.D., he described the sea as a lightly salted expanse punctuated by floating ice during the spring. He called it Mare Suebicum after the Germanic Suebi peoples.

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However, it wasn’t until the early Middle Ages that the Baltic Sea began to be utilized extensively for commerce. The so-called Viking Age saw Norse and Wendish peoples battling for the domination of lucrative trade passages. Piracy was rife and persisted for centuries, even after the decline of Viking influence.

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A Germanic federation known as the Hanseatic League controlled Baltic trading between the 13th and 16th centuries. At the zenith of its power, the league incorporated some 200 cities connected by a network of inland waterways. Its business was international. The league traded textiles, spices, minerals and other commodities with cities in England, Belgium, Norway and Russia.

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But as the influence of the Hanseatic League declined, a protracted struggle set in for control of the Baltic. In the early 18th century, the Great Northern War saw Sweden – then the region’s dominant power – pitted against Russia, Poland and Denmark-Norway. Sweden was defeated in 1721, with Russia assuming a commanding role in the Baltic.

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Indeed, after prevailing against Sweden, Peter the Great proclaimed himself the “Emperor of All Russia.” He established Saint Petersburg on the eastern flank of the Gulf of Finland and designated it as his new capital. In subsequent years, the Russian Empire expanded to encompass territories in Asia, Europe and North America. At its height, it was the third most extensive empire in the history of the world.

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Agriculture was the staple of the imperial economy. In fact, until their emancipation in 1861, most Russians were doomed to toil as serfs on the estates of aristocrats. Meanwhile, a secret police force maintained a vigilant watch over the empire’s territories, arresting and exiling dissidents to the wilderness of Siberia.

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For three centuries, the Romanov family held sway over Russia, a dynasty as flamboyant as it was tyrannical. In fact, the Romanovs made a great show of their decadence, parading in extravagant robes and jewels. However, by the time of Tsar Nicholas II, no amount of finery could conceal the empire’s terminal decline.

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In a 2008 article for the Daily Mail, British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote about the empire’s final days. In his words, “The punctilious, rigid hierarchy of uniforms, titles and ranks was the clearest indication of a sclerotic, isolated and inept regime on its last legs, incapable of reforming or saving itself. The more outrageous, the more gilded and bemedalled the costumes, the more fragile the empire beneath them.”

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Indeed, in February 1917, while the Kyros waited out the winter in Sweden, political events reached fever-pitch in Russia. Inspired by the revolutionary doctrine of Karl Marx, the Bolsheviks staged a socialist revolution and overcame the Tsarist regime. On March 2, 1917, Nicholas stood down. And the following year, he and his family were executed.

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With all this in mind, it’s likely that the Kyros and its contents would have ended up in the hands of Communist revolutionaries, even if it had made it to its original destination. This extravagant cargo included some 15 cases of Benedictine liqueur and 50 cases of De Haartman & Co. cognac. As such, it would have been quite the victory party for the revolutionaries.

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Speaking to CNN in 2019, Lindberg explained that the shipment was probably intended for Russian aristocrats. There’s even a possibility some of the bottles may have been bound for the liquor cabinets of Tsar Nicholas himself. He said, “We can’t tell for sure that these bottles were for the Tsar, but for the nobility around him for sure.”

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The good news is that the Baltic Sea’s icy temperatures are perfect for preserving hard liquor. Naturally, some of the bottles have been breached, but many others are still intact. But whether they’re suitable for humans to drink remains to be determined. In fact, Lindberg has dispatched samples for lab testing.

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Naturally, the explorer couldn’t resist having a tiny taste himself. During the salvage operation, a bottle of Benedictine liqueur became accidentally uncorked, allowing him to sample a small amount. Speaking to the website Wine Spectator, he said, “It tastes sweet and not bad in any way. But it’s too little to get a real taste of it.”

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De Haartman, the original distillers of the antique cognac, are no longer operating. However, the liqueur – which has been produced by French Benedictine monks for some five centuries – is today associated with Bacardi. One of the world’s biggest liquor producers today, Barcardi is a family-run business based on the Caribbean island of Bermuda.

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Petra Caspolin, Bacardi’s Nordic Marketing Manager, said the company was thrilled by the find. And she implied that its workers were intrigued to know if the liqueur was still drinkable. She said, “Bacardi, being the owner of the Bénédictine brand… are excited to hear about the find and are eager to learn if the product has been preserved for the duration of the stay underwater.”

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At present, the worth of these discoveries are unknown. Valuing the cognac is proving particularly tricky. Speaking to CNN in 2019, Lindberg said, “The cognac is a very unknown brand and we don’t know now how that will affect the value. We certainly don’t want to open a bottle if the value is tens of thousands of dollars. We are trying to find info but it’s not easy.”

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But if the haul is anything as valuable as the champagne Lindberg recovered in 1997, he should expect to net a sizable fortune. In fact, the bottles of antique bubbly he retrieved from the Baltic seabed fetched from $5,000 to $10,000 each. And since he rescued a total of 2,000 bottles, his total may have added up to some $10 million to $20 million.

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The champagne was retrieved from a sunken Swedish schooner known as the Jönköping. In 1916 the ship was – as in the case of the Kyros – sunk by a German submarine near Finland. The Jönköping had been transporting war materials to the Russian Empire, along with a cargo of extravagant beverages.

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Today, however, there probably aren’t any more massive hauls of booze waiting to be recovered from the Baltic seabed. According to Lindberg, the Kyros stash may represent the final call for sunken Russian imports. Speaking to the science website Livescience in 2019, he said, “This was the last shipment to find.”

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As such, Ocean X Team is now pursuing other types of projects in the Baltic region. One of them concerns an unusual structure that the team observed with sonar in the Gulf of Bothnia in 2011. Known as the “Baltic anomaly,” the object appears to be circular, suggesting it may be human – or even extraterrestrial – in origin.

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Indeed, several tabloids have speculated that the anomaly was the wreckage of a crashed UFO. Of course, the image of the anomaly – which the team described as “blurry but interesting” – is somewhat open to interpretation. Some say it shows a circular object with a diameter of approximately 200 feet. And structures like ramps or stairways appear to be connected to it.

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For his part, Lindberg believes the structure may be manmade. Speaking to Live Science in 2019, he said, “This summer, we found new strange things out there, which make us believe that it might have been a very early settlement.” An intriguing proposition, but the consensus among experts is nonetheless that the Baltic Anomaly is probably a natural feature.

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Another Ocean X Team project concerns very special treasures of the Russian Empire – Fabergé eggs, of which there are only 50 in existence. Originally created as Easter gifts for family members of Tsar Nicholas II, the eggs were the work of Carl Fabergé. Every egg is a unique piece of decorative art worth approximately $28 million each. Together, however, they are worth some $1.4 billion.

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Naturally, the Fabergé family fled Russia after the Bolsheviks nationalized their Saint Petersburg workshop. Meanwhile, the eggs themselves ended up in the hands of different collectors across the globe. Today, we know the location of all but three. These are the so-called Hen Egg with Sapphire Pendant, the Alexander III Commemorative Egg and the Royal Danish Egg.

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According to Ocean X Team, those eggs may well have been shipped out of Russia by a “young Fabergé apprentice.” Then, they could subsequently have been lost at sea. They wrote on their website, “Ocean X has put some ten years of research into this project and [the] next step is to carry through research in the eggs’ motherland [of] Russia.”

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So, the Baltic Sea may well now be running low on vintage booze. But there’s ultimately plenty of treasure yet to be found down in the depths. And even if Lindberg and his team fail to find a Fabergé egg, their adventures have already made for a gripping and intriguing story.

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