About 50 miles off Cape Cod and 700 feet below the ocean’s surface lies the carcass of the SS Port Nicholson.

Gorham treasure hunter Greg Brooks believes the World War II-era shipwreck contains a secret bounty worth an estimated $3 billion, and he’s had his sights on it for nearly five years.

“I’m going to get it, one way or the other, even if I have to lift the ship out of the water,” Brooks told a reporter in April.

A month later, Brooks emailed investors to suggest he was abandoning his search because funding for the project had dried up.

“The sinking of the Port Nicholson will begin at the end of the week,” he wrote. “Only God can save her now.”

One month after that, some of those same investors who had bankrolled Brooks’ salvage efforts to the tune of $8 million filed a complaint in U.S. District Court seeking to gain control of the salvage.

Now, Brooks’ ship is for sale and most of his crew has been laid off.

This is not the first time Brooks has failed to produce results on big claims. He has been searching waters from Casco Bay to the Caribbean for three decades, coming up empty each time. He has been unable to produce a bar of platinum among the hundreds he claims are on the Nicholson, leaving some in the industry questioning his claims, many of which are based on research by his frequent partner, Edward Michaud, a historian and diver from Framingham, Mass., who has his own list of failed attempts.

“If you look at the body of evidence, at what they have claimed and what they have delivered on, there is just nothing there,” said Chris Hugo, a maritime historian and master diver from Massachusetts.

Still, the treasure hunting industry, where exaggeration is currency and financial risk is assumed, exists largely because of such men, master storytellers who believe – and persuade others to believe – that one big payday will erase years of futile searching.

AMBITIOUS DREAMS

Brooks was a swimming pool salesman when he cashed in his savings in 1984 and formed Sub Sea Research, a salvage and treasure hunting company.

Although public records do not exist for all of Brooks’ treasure hunts, information available in court documents, newspaper stories, his own news releases, and from others who know his operations indicate that he has had little success.

Even Brooks has admitted he’s never gotten rich off anything he’s recovered from the ocean.

The SS Port Nicholson, he promised, would change things, and not just for him.

“We’ll be the biggest stimulus package Maine has ever seen,” he said in 2009. “I’m going to make sure no kid in Maine goes hungry again.”

The Nicholson was a 481-foot British cargo vessel sunk by a German U-boat during World War II, one of thousands of wrecks that clutter the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. It has attracted little attention for two reasons: The ship has scant historical value and its only known cargo was car and machine parts.

But Brooks and his supporters believe there is more. He first filed a salvage claim on the wreck in August 2008. A judge granted him temporary custody the next year. He began courting investors to fund the task of salvaging a shipwreck.

Sometime after Brooks filed the claim, he sent out news releases about another wreck, the Blue Baron, off the coast of Guyana in South America. His description of the wreck, along with a photo, prompted some to speculate that the Blue Baron looked an awful lot like the Nicholson. Brooks also said the Blue Baron had 70 tons of platinum, the same amount he would later claim was hidden on the Nicholson.

In an April 2009 story in the Maine Sunday Telegram, Brooks admitted he lied to the Daily Telegraph of London about the Blue Baron.

“I gave him some disinformation about Guyana, which seemed to work for us,” he said, insisting that he did so to protect the treasure. If other hunters thought the Nicholson was in Guyana, he could go ahead with the salvage off Cape Cod.

Sea Hunters LP, the company formed by Brooks and investors to salvage the Nicholson, filed its first status report to the court in July 2009. Brooks warned that the recovery would be “complex and dangerous.”

In the November 2009 status report, he lamented problems with the crew’s remote operated vehicle and “extreme weather.” Subsequent status reports through 2011 continued to blame poor weather and equipment failures.

ROMANTIC TALES

In February 2012, Brooks announced a breakthrough. His crew had recovered artifacts that proved the wreck was indeed the Nicholson. He also said he and his researchers – led by Michaud – had uncovered documents that indicated it contained a secret bounty that was meant to be a war payment. The story was picked up by news outlets all over the world.

The timing was fortuitous. Sea Hunters had run out of money and Brooks’ media blitz helped generate buzz and lure more investors.

By this time, the British government had filed an intervening claim related to the Nicholson. Attorneys Michael Kaplan of Maine and Timothy Shusta of Florida are representing the British government. Neither believes the ship has anything of value, but said it’s typical for a ship’s country of origin to file complaints as a matter of course.

“If something is there, there is no reason why they shouldn’t have recovered it by now,” Shusta said.

Some of Brooks’ documents are now in question, according to court filings from his own attorney, but Brooks and his supporters have stood by their research.

Brian Ryder, chief engineer for Brooks at Sub Sea Research for the last 12 years, said the Nicholson has not been abandoned, despite what Brooks wrote in his May email to investors. He said new investors have stepped forward to fund another salvage attempt and said the crew is expected to return to the Nicholson this spring.

“I believe wholeheartedly in this project,” Ryder said.

Others do not.

Harry Cooper, president of the Florida firm Sharkhunters International and an expert in U-boats, has followed Brooks and Michaud since the early 1990s, when both men were searching for U-boats, Brooks off Casco Bay and Michaud off Cape Cod. Cooper said he thinks they were loose with the facts then.

“I wouldn’t invest a dime with these guys,” said Cooper. “What I research is not a well-known section of history, but it’s romanticized. So it’s easy to sell to investors if you’re a good storyteller. And people want to believe.”

E. Lee Spence, an underwater archaeologist from South Carolina and an expert on shipwrecks, said he has always wondered about some of Brooks’ stories.

“I have serious questions and wish I knew the whole truth,” Spence said. “But there are perfectly good reasons why shipwreck salvers don’t disclose all their research. So asking Brooks to publicly reveal his professional secrets isn’t reasonable.

“But if he just made it up, it hurts the entire industry and he needs to be put out of business. I like him, so I’m hoping he’s telling the truth, finds the platinum and makes everyone involved a fortune.”

Lengthy treasure hunts are not uncommon. Legendary Florida hunter Mel Fisher spent 16 years searching for a Spanish ship, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, before he found it in 1985 off the Florida Keys. The salvage was tied up in litigation for years but Fisher, who is now deceased, kept 80 percent of the treasure – about $400 million.

LOSING FAITH

While Brooks appeared to have all his resources committed to salvaging the Nicholson, he continued to seek investors – not just for the Nicholson, but for other searches as well.

“If you have any interest in gold, we have a couple wrecks that were carrying almost $8 billion worth. We are presently trying to upgrade our equipment to go after these gold wrecks,” he wrote in a 2009 news release. “Stay tuned for further updates.”

There have been no further updates.

Brooks, who has granted interviews to media outlets all over the world, declined to be interviewed for this story on advice from his attorney.

Denny Denham of Gray committed six figures in 2003 to help finance one of Brooks’ earlier treasure hunts off the Florida Keys, a Spanish ship called the Notre Dame de la Deliverance. He said the wreck contained an estimated $3 billion – the richest ever found.

Brooks received permission from a federal court in Florida to salvage the Deliverance, searching for several years but never producing anything. He quietly abandoned the effort and moved on.

Critics were always skeptical of the wreck, even in a place like Florida, where shipwreck lore is abundant.

In a 2012 story in the Cape Cod Times, Florida state archaeologist Jim Miller said Brooks’ only claim to the Deliverance was a piece of lead sheathing he said he pulled from the wreckage.

“That’s like finding a piece of a tire on the side of the road and claiming you know what kind of truck it came from,” Miller said.

Denham said he realized that, at the very least, he made a bad investment. At worst, he says he was misled.

“I know plenty of other investors who feel they were duped, too,” Denham said. “But I think they are staying quiet because they still have a small sliver of hope.”

Investors who had stood by Brooks on the Nicholson salvage finally broke not long after he and Michaud announced the discovery of new documents in 2012.

Daniel Stochel, head of the New York firm Equitron Capital Management, invested approximately $8 million in Brooks’ operation on behalf of himself and others, but grew disillusioned. They decided to form their own company, Mission Recovery, and petitioned the court to strip Brooks of salvage rights.

“Sea Hunters has no experience in deep water salvage operations … and in dealing with a complex recovery effort,” the complaint alleges, “and yet has insisted on conducting its own salvage operations with substandard equipment or has otherwise mismanaged or frustrated the efforts of third-party firms hired to assist in salvaging the Port Nicholson.”

More investors left Sea Hunters for Mission Recovery – 18 in all, according to Stochel.

“The actions of Sea Hunters and its affiliates have been more akin to building a long-term operating company with perpetual capital raises rather that accomplishing a single project as required by this court,” he wrote.

In June, a Texas company called Deep Down Inc. filed a separate lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland alleging that Sub Sea Research failed to pay $133,925 for a remote operated vehicle built for the Nicholson salvage. That lawsuit is still pending, but several Sub Sea employees have been questioned about the operation and the documents Brooks and Michaud uncovered.

Meanwhile, Brooks’ main salvage vessel, the M/V Sea Hunter, has been listed for sale in Yachting World magazine, with an asking price of $2.95 million.

When asked how Sea Hunters could salvage the Nicholson without a boat or crew, Ryder, the Sub Sea Research engineer, said, “Boats are always for sale.” If someone buys the vessel, the proceeds will be used to buy a new one. If the next salvage begins, the laid-off crew will be brought back.

“It’s a brutal field and there are skeptics everywhere,” he said. “You have to believe … and I do.”

However, the most recent status report, filed on Dec. 6, details another failed salvage attempt in August, blaming weather and equipment again.

Brooks’ history indicates he will move on to another salvage mission as long as investors are willing.

“Treasure hunting is extraordinarily hard work and usually weeds out the liars and cheaters fast,” said Spence, the South Carolina archaeologist. “For someone to stick with it for as long as Brooks has, it usually shows strength of character, so, although I have reservations about the existence of the SS Port Nicholson’s platinum, without reviewing all of his research I am not ready to say that it doesn’t exist.”

Robert Marx, an underwater archaeologist from Florida who has written more than 60 books on shipwrecks and treasure hunting, said there are always less-than-reputable hunters.

But, he said, Brooks stands out.

“We have a saying in this business if someone is trying to pull the wool over an investor,” Marx said. “We say, ‘Are you doing a Greg Brooks?’”

This story was updated at 10 a.m., Dec. 30, to correct the first name of Timothy Shusta.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell