The (robotic) life aquatic

The (robotic) life aquatic

It was a sunken treasure that started my fascination with “real” treasure hunting.  I discovered Peter Haining’s book The Fortune Hunter’s Guide in Darlington public library.  The book was mesmerising.  Not only was it packed with information about lots of different types of treasures, it actually had an X marks the spot for many of them!  Of course, I looked for the nearest Xs to my home.  The most exciting story was that of Dr Watkinson’s sunken treasure:

For some reason, Glasgow university were not prepared to loan their state-of-the-art submersible (what we would today call an Remotely-Operated Vehicle (ROV)) to a kid who wanted to search the seabed “two miles north of Hartlepool”… so that was one challenge!  Another was that despite a couple of decades of research, scouring records at Somerset and St Catherine’s House in London, and contacting the medical councils, I could find no trace of Dr Watkinson or his will.  The final straw that stopped me searching was finding an obituary to Peter Haining.  My earlier attempts to contact Peter himself had only led to a handwritten response to the effect of “everything I know is in the book”.  So I contacted the author of the obituary, one of Peter’s best friends, and asked if it was possible that Peter had just invented the story.  His friend responded that was exactly the sort of thing that Peter might have done…

However, I wasn’t downhearted.  The story had kick-started a life of adventure and treasure hunting, which was treasure enough in itself.  And the desire to search the aquatic realm never left me.

In early January 2021, in that period where there’s always a bit of time after Christmas to relax and catch up on random things such as the odd TV show, something caught my attention.  It was a documentary about a famous case from the 1980s, where a lady had disappeared.  A person who resembled the chief suspect was supposedly seen shortly after the disappearance, dumping a large suitcase into the Grand Union Canal.  It appeared that the police never followed up that lead.  I’m driven to discover lost things, and there is nothing more valuable than a human being.  I always wonder what we might achieve if we are only prepared to put a bit of effort into something, and here was the perfect example.  We began assembling a team and equipment to see if we could solve the mystery.

The complete story is a long one, and best left for another time.  But the conclusion is that we put together a remote-controlled sonar survey boat.  We were in a hurry to test it, so we had to accept the challenges of the weather, even if that meant breaking the ice off the surface of a canal in bitterly cold North Yorkshire.  In contrast, we also tried it in the lovely warmth of an eerily empty hotel spa during lockdown.  We also obtained ROVs with grippers and I practiced relentlessly whenever I had the opportunity.  The best practice ground was a local reservoir in Middleton St George, which was full of all sorts of rubbish, so I could just spend hours finding and picking up tiny and unusually shaped objects.  Finally, the operation of the ROV became natural to me, and I got used to identifying objects in murky water through the monitor screen on my phone.

We didn’t find what we were looking for related to the missing person, but we came to a conclusion that means the case is still worth investigating, and we’ve done our bit to keep attention on it.  And now we have the remote-controlled sonar survey boat and ROV that we can use for further exploration, and to help anyone who needs this facility.  We’ve pushed ourselves to operate the ROV in the most extreme conditions, from shallow turbulent rivers to constrained wells to the sea (one ROV can operate down to 150m deep).  The more challenges we can find for using this equipment, the better!

The sonar boat:

Typical details from a sonar scan – a tyre is clearly visible at lower left:

Practicing with the ROV is a very relaxing zen-like experience, and cleans up the environment too:

An example of the sorts of things that the little yellow ROV pulls out of the water:

And one of the many uses for the ROV – boat inspection: