cover image Three Miles Down: A Hunt for Sunken Treasure

Three Miles Down: A Hunt for Sunken Treasure

James Hamilton-Paterson. Lyons Press, $22.95 (308pp) ISBN 978-1-55821-877-2

Writing Gerontius, his Whitbread-winning (1989) novel about composer Edward Elgar's trip down the Amazon, must have prepared Hamilton-Paterson for this outing. In 1994, the author was invited to join Project Orca, a British team determined to scavenge gold from the bottom of the Atlantic. The liner S.S. Aurelia and the I-52, a Japanese submarine, were sunk separately during WWII, each thought to have been carrying thousands of pounds of gold. To find them, Project Orca arranged a five-month rental of the Russian research ship R/V Akademik Mstislav Keldysh, and two MIR deep-sea submersibles. As the Keldysh heads toward the west coast of Africa in the winter of 1995, Hamilton-Paterson (The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds, etc.) resists being drawn into the tensions and personality conflicts engendered by poor preparation, short funds and the uncertainty of the mission--all of which he chronicles with cool wit. The book's standout section presents his minute-by-minute accounts of ocean-floor search dives: ""Silence. A tiny bead containing us, sinking into night."" Other chapters reconstruct the breakup of the I-52, and the intricacies of U.S.-Russian-British relations. Hamilton-Paterson quotes liberally and with erudition, offering the interjections, speculations and interpretations of a bemused bystander. And never mind that gold: the primordial oceanscape he describes--containing ""wandering granules,"" ""sparks and jellies"" and a host of scientifically significant deep-sea life--are enough to grasp readers' attention and imaginations. (Apr.)