This past winter, Spokane resident Guy Zajonc was in his car starting an eight-hour round-trip drive from Tampa to Jacksonville to meet the research vessel Odyssey Explorer when his cell phone rang. The co-founders of the company he was working for -- Odyssey Marine Exploration -- told him to return to Tampa as quickly as possible.
"The Explorer Crew had recovered gold and silver coins from the long lost SS Republic, somewhere off the coast of Georgia," says Zajonc, who is the firm's general counsel and the shore-based director of marine operations. "John Morris and Greg Stemm had a charted jet waiting for me when I got there. The three of us flew into Jacksonville where the ship came in. When we left to fly home, we each had $2 million dollars in gold coins stuffed in our briefcases."
Zajonc laughs at the memory. But as he tells his story -- and the story of the SS Republic that was lost in a violent hurricane in the fall of 1865 -- his tone changes as he remembers a personal discovery he made in the early '90s.
"I'd been practicing law for 15 years, but I wasn't really enjoying it," says Zajonc. "So much of a lawyer's work is negative. It was starting to contaminate me."
Realizing that he had to make a change, Zajonc began working as an attorney-at-large for startup businesses. "There was something about that creative process that gave me life," he says. "When I was helping people get from point A to point B, I realized that I could share in both their obstacles and their victories."
In 1995, Zajonc did some work for a Texas investor and a researcher in Washington, D.C., who were trying to locate the I-52 -- a Japanese sub sunk in the Atlantic Ocean some 1,000 miles east of Barbados. That's when his new career path took him 17,250 feet under the sea -- the greatest depth at which anyone had ever seen a shipwreck.
"When you go that deep and that dark, there are some things that occur to you, " says Zajonc. "When's there's three miles of water above you, you realize in a new way that while human beings are sacred, they are also insignificant."
Zajonc marvels at seeing enormous, strange creatures -- invertebrates and sightless fish -- with no fear of motors or lights. "For tens of thousands of generations, they'd never been in contact with human beings," he says. "When we left, we realized it might be thousands of years before any human came back."
Fascinated by the lack of exploration of the depths of the planet -- fewer people have been to the bottom of the ocean at 5,000 meters than have been in outer space -- Zajonc was hooked. Even though the I-52 project proved fruitless (they located the sub but were unable to recover the 64,000 ounces of gold bullion reported to be on board), Zajonc began creating a business model for marine exploration. By combining extensive archival research with 21st-century technology, Zajonc believed reliable information might emerge that would allow a company to locate and then to recover valuable shipwrecks.
As he was working on his plan, Zajonc completed five more expeditions, even taking his sons with him on these msissions. (His oldest son, Taylor, set a record three years ago, when he was 19, as the youngest person ever to make a deep submersible dive, going 16,000 feet deep into the heart of the Bermuda Triangle to explore a 200-year-old merchant ship.)
"To be able to share my newfound passion with them is unbelievable," says Zajonc. "Austen is just graduating from Freeman [High School], but Taylor who graduated from Western Washington [University] went to work for Odyssey Marine Exploration last January. He was aboard our ship when the sub found the bulk of gold and silver coins. We call them 'coin wranglers.'"
Stemm and Morris, who started Odyssey Marine Exploration in 1998 -- it trades on the AMEX as "OMR" -- had been interested in finding the SS Republic since 1992. As they got closer to locating their prize in February 2003, they contacted Zajonc.
"Research indicated the Republic had about $400,000 at face value of coins on board when it went down in 1865," says Zajonc, who joined the company last August.
Once Odyssey Marine bought out the claim of Atlantic Mutual, which had insured some of the cargo, Zajonc's lawyering skills came in handy as the firm sought a federal court order to claim the rights to the shipwreck. After the federal government determined it had no rights over the cargo, the order was granted and Odyssey Marine assumed full ownership of the Republic -- if it could find the ship and retrieve the treasure.
"By November, we found gold on the SS Republic -- 52,000 coins have been recovered, representing about 25 percent of the gold and silver on board," says Zajonc. "It alone is worth about $75 million dollars."
As the recovery efforts continue, Odyssey Marine Exploration is beginning to share the SS Republic's story -- National Geographic photographers were even on board the explorer and sub when gold was discovered, and a documentary film is in the works. That film, in part, will recount the ill-fated ship's history.
One of the passengers aboard the SS Republic on its final journey was Col. William T. Nichols, a Civil War veteran who'd fought in the battle of Gettysburg. In a letter to his wife Thyrza that has been preserved all these years, he described in detail the "perfect hell" on board the ship as it was overtaken by the hurricane.
"The wind was howling like the demons of the sea," wrote Nichols. "With the sea rolling 40 feet high, the boats would rise and fall like our hopes and fears."
For three days, 88 passengers and crew desperately bailed water from the 210-foot long industrial marvel. With a massive single-piston engine driving two 28-foot iron sidewheels, the stout ship finally was lost on October 25, 1865. Some of the 70 passengers and crew who survived were aboard Nichols' life boat when they were rescued. His letter was all that was left.
One of the prized discoveries made by Odyssey Marine's exploration was the ship's bell, which allowed explorers to positively identify the shipwreck as the SS Republic. It will be on display at the first traveling exhibit of the SS Rebuplic, which will tour across the country beginning in February.
"The cultural and religious artifacts are fascinating," says Zajonc. "There are candlesticks fashioned in the form of a cross, bottles that contain patent medicines like 'Chemical Hair Invigorator,' a cranberry-colored glass oil lamp and numerous others that provide us with a glimpse into what everyday life was like in 1865."
Zajonc smiles with satisfaction, knowing others will get to experience vicariously what he discovered in his search for lost treasure. "The secrets of history are preserved in the depth of darkness," he says. "Let's not kid ourselves: Money is a factor. Our interest is in our company and our shareholders, but we hope the masses will both enjoy and learn about humanity by seeing some of these long lost secrets of history brought to light."