The wreck of the Birkenhead is…
…not only famous for the bravery of its young soldiers and for the fact that no women or children lost their lives. Her fame was also due to the legend that she was carrying £240,000 in gold (about 3 tonnes). Since the late 1800s many divers search her remains but only managed to recover some anchors and a variety of copper and brass fittings, but no gold had ever been reported.
Then, in January 1985, a diving company, the ‘Depth Recovery Unit’ announced in the press that they had identified the stern section in 30m of water and early 1986 they began excavating the wreck. Led by Dr. Allan Kayle they salvaged a few hundred gold coins in the mid and late eighties, but all concluded that these coins were obviously personal belongings and did not make out part of the legendary treasure. The motherload thus still eludes all. The photo left is of a diver in a hot water suit has a unique Overberg maritime history story of its own to tell – the first gold recovered from HMS Birkenhead.
It was early on the morning of the 1st March 1986.
This author was on the ship attending to the air hose of one of the two divers. The two divers down where Konrad Stutterheim and Pierre Joubert. Unexpectedly, a jerk was felt on one of the hoses. Three such jerks are used as an indication that something was wrong. The author first checked the air supply and after that the hot-water machine (it supplied the divers with hot water circulated into their suits) that kept the diver warm enough to work for extended periods in the cold water. All was found to be in working order which left us puzzled as to what the down-diver had been “complaining about”. The next plan of action was to use SCUBA gear and dive down equipped with a pencil and a slate to write on as a means of underwater communication. The plan was to dive down to enquire what the problem might be. Once on the bottom and with hand signals as the primary method of underwater communication, the author was ensured that all was OK. It later came to light that the hot water machine had gone on the blink for a few seconds but by the time it was checked the machine was functioning well.
This author decided to stay with them for the rest of their dive – lucky for all, for unknowingly I was about to witness and be able to photograph history in the making – the first coins removed from the Birkenhead! As was the habit of the author during project dives, a Nikonos underwater camera was always hanging snugly under the left armpit in readiness.
Within minutes on the ocean floor, it became apparent that Pierre was digging frantically like a maniac. As he was approached Pierre eagerly showed what he had found –
the FIRST TWO GOLD COINS FROM THE BIRKENHEAD.
With his ‘gold fingers’ and in the next few minutes another 13 coins were to follow into the safety of his glove and make it to the surface.
Pierre went on to be the most successful with the recovery of gold coins, and soon he was renamed “Gold fingers Joubert”. As a Transvaal diver, he sure showed us, the so-called “hot shot Capetonian divers” how to recover gold.