Divers off the South Korean island of Ulleungdo have discovered the fabled wreck of the Dmitrii Donskoi, a Russian warship that was sunk in 1905 and is rumoured to still contain 5,500 boxes of gold bars and coins said to be worth US$133 billion.
The badly damaged Russian Imperial Navy cruiser was located by manned submersibles at a depth of 434 metres about 1.3km off Ulleungdo on Sunday morning.
The Seoul-based maritime salvage company Shinil Group has been searching for the precise site of the wreck for several years and put together a team of experts from South Korea, China, Britain and Canada for this year’s effort.
Video footage released by the company shows images of extensive damage to the 5,800-tonne warship, which was scuttled after an encounter with Japanese warships in May 1905.
The footage also shows cannons and deck guns encrusted with marine growth, as well as the anchor and ship’s wheel.
The divers were finally able to positively identify the ship when floodlights on one of the submersibles picked out the name in Cyrillic characters on its stern.
“The body of the ship was severely damaged by shelling, with its stern almost broken, and yet the ship’s deck and sides are well preserved”, the company said in a statement on its website.
Built in St Petersburg and launched in August 1883, the Dmitrii Donskoi was designed to serve as a commerce raider and was fitted with both a full set of sails and a coal-fired engine.
The ship spent most of its operational career in the Mediterranean Sea and the Far East and was ordered to sail from the Baltic to join Imperial Russia’s Second Pacific Squadron after the Japanese fleet destroyed the majority of Russia’s naval power in the Far East in the opening encounters of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.
The squadron was met by the Japanese fleet in May 1905 and decimated at the Battle of Tsushima. Assigned to protect the transport ships sailing at the rear of the formation, the Dmitrii Donskoi managed to evade the attacking force, but was later intercepted as Captain Ivan Lebedev steamed for the Russian port of Vladivostok.
Around 60 of the 591 crew were killed and further 120 injured before Captain Lebedev anchored off the island of Ulleungdo and ordered his men ashore.
The following morning, May 29, 1905, the ship was scuttled offshore and the crew were taken prisoner by Japanese landing parties. Captain Lebedev subsequently died of his wounds.
There are reports that the Dmitrii Donskoi was carrying the funds that the Russian fleet required to pay for fuel, port fees and the crews of its ships and that it was scuttled with 5,500 boxes containing gold coins and bars still in its holds so that the Japanese would not seize the prize.
Some South Korean media have speculated the value of the gold to be worth about US$133 billion (HK$1.044 trillion).
The Shinil Group says it aims to raise the ship in October or November. It added that it has reached an agreement with the Russian government to hand over half of the gold that is found aboard the vessel.
Around 10 per cent of the remaining bullion would be spent on tourism projects on Ulleungdo Island, including a museum dedicated to the ship and its crew.
A percentage of the rest of the gold will be donated to joint projects designed to promote development in northeast Asia, the company added, such as a railway line linking Russia and South Korea through North Korea.