The stern of the wreck.
The stern of the wreck. Shinil Group

More than century ago, in 1905, a Russian cruiser sank off the coast of a small island east of the Korean peninsula. This was in the midst of the Russo-Japanese War, and the Dmitri Donskoi had been struck by a Japanese attack. The crew, with 60 dead and 120 wounded, made it to Ulleungdo Island, where they were taken prisoner. But before they left the ship, they scuttled it, leaving it at the bottom of the ocean.

Now, after years of searching, a team of divers and shipwreck experts has discovered the wreck. It’s not the first time a group has gone after the Donskoi’s remains, because the ship is said to have boxes of gold on board.

It’s not clear exactly where this information came from. Back in 2000, The Independent reported that “South Korean newspapers have dug up unidentified historical records which, they say, show the Dmitri Donskoi had been carrying a huge cargo of gold bars.”

At that time, another company claimed to have identified the shipwreck. But that group was never able to raise it from the ocean floor and soon went bankrupt.

This new team of divers is convinced that it has identified the Donskoi. During initial explorations, they found a ship that showed damage in the body, but with its decks decently preserved. Most telling, though, was the name printed on the stern in Cyrillic letters.

The Dmitriy Donskoi in better times.
The Dmitriy Donskoi in better times. Public domain

“You’re not going to believe it. I have a name. It’s in Russian,” says a diver in a video released by the Shinil Group, the company coordinating this expedition. It was the Donskoi.

The team is also working to confirm the boat’s identity by comparing the features they found with the documented features of the cruiser.

Russian experts have been skeptical that the boat is full of gold. The most optimistic version of the story has it that the Donskoi was carrying 5,500 boxes of gold bars and coins, worth $133 billion and intended to pay for the Russian fleet’s expenses. But the experts say it’s unlikely one ship would carry such an incredibly valuable load, especially when it was possible to transport gold by (presumably safer) train routes. In at least one other case, a Russian ship sunk in the area was imagined to hold sunken treasure, but the divers who explored it found no such thing.

The Shinil Group said in a statement it has found iron boxes on board and will be opening them in short time. There are some questions about the finances of the group, too, the BBC reports. But if the wreck does prove to be valuable, there are big plans for next steps. The Russian government will claim 50 percent of the treasure; a portion will go to developing Ulleungdo, already a tourist destination; and the ship will be raised from the bottom floor and preserved in a museum on the island.