A RECORD-breaking 48-ton haul of silver bullion has been recovered from a shipwreck three miles beneath the Atlantic off the coast of Ireland.
Deep ocean exploration firm Odyssey Marine Exploration found the 1,203 bars of the precious metal on board the SS Gairsoppa which sank in February 1941 300 miles south west of Galway.
The recovery of the treasure - equivalent to 1.4 million troy ounces of silver - is the heaviest and deepest ever recovery of precious metals from a shipwreck, according to the Florida-based company.
Greg Stemm, Odyssey chief executive, said it was a complex operation in international waters.
"Our capacity to conduct precision cuts and successfully complete the surgical removal of bullion from secure areas on the ship demonstrates our capabilities to undertake complicated tasks in the very deep ocean," he said.
"This technology will be applicable to other modern shipwreck projects currently being scheduled as well as our deep ocean mineral exploration activities."
The haul has been transported to a secure location in the UK.
The Gairsoppa was a merchant ship torpedoed by a German U-boat during the Second World War while it was being used by the British government under their War Risk Insurance programme.
An insurance payment of £325,000 - the value in 1941 - was made by the government to the owners of the silver cargo which allowed the state to claim ownership.
Odyssey said some sources, including Lloyd's War Losses, indicate a total silver cargo worth £600,000 in that year may have been lost, indicating a second load of government-owned silver.
The company expects to now move to try and recover an estimated 600,000 ounces of insured silver believed to be on the wreck of another ship, the SS Mantola, 100 miles from the first wreck.
Eighty-three crew and two gunners were aboard the Gairsoppa when it was hit by a torpedo. The British and Indian sailors abandoned ship under U-boat machine gun fire, but only one person, Second Officer R.H. Ayres, survived the long journey to shore after 13 days in a lifeboat.
The Mantola was a 450-foot British-flagged steamer which set sail from London on February 4, 1917 to Calcutta, India. The 165 crew and 18 passengers abandoned the ship after it was hit by a torpedo. All but seven crew members, who drowned when their lifeboat overturned, were rescued by HMS Laburnum.
The two sites were identified last summer.
The company said the Gairsoppa haul recovered to date is about 43% of the insured silver bars, or a fifth of the total silver cargo which its research indicated may have been on board.
Odyssey is conducting the project under contract with the UK Department for Transport and the rest of the search is expected to be completed in the autumn. The company retains 80% of the net salved value of the cargo after recovering its expenses.
The deep sea operation will feature on television specials on the Discovery Channel in the US and Channel 5 in the UK