AN underwater search for a hoard of plundered treasure which could be worth up to £2.5 billion began off the east coast of Scotland yesterday.
For the past 351 years, the treasure - gold and silver bullion, jewels and other priceless artefacts - has lain on the bed of the Firth of Tay .
It was lost when 60 ships from Oliver Cromwell’s navy foundered in a sudden storm which struck in September, 1651.
On board the stricken Lord Protector’s fleet was much of Scotland’s wealth, plundered during the sacking of Dundee by General George Monk’s New Model Army.
No trace has ever been found of the missing fleet, believed to have sunk somewhere between Tayport and Broughty Ferry Castle, despite repeated searches by amateur divers.
But now, the most sophisticated search ever mounted for the lost treasure, potentially the most valuable still to be found off the Scottish coast, is under way.
A Coventry-based diving company, whose submersibles featured in the film Titanic, has joined forces with experts from St Andrews University and Scottish Natural Heritage to locate the missing fleet and recover the lost riches in what could become one of the biggest search and salvage operations ever mounted in British waters.
One of the team taking part will be Phillippe Cousteau, 22, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau, the underwater explorer.
Mr Cousteau is a history student at St Andrews University and is expected to provide the commentary for the on-line coverage of the search.
Submersibles from Seaway Explorer will help carry out an acoustic sonar survey of the seabed of the Tay Estuary to try to pinpoint the ships, believed to be lying beneath up to five metres of silt only 40 ft below the surface.
Gary Allsopp, the chief executive of Seaway Explorer, said: "We are very close, certainly within a mile radius. For a diver to go down there would be like looking for a needle in a haystack because there are 1,500 wrecks out there on the Tay.
"But if you have a technological magnet, which we have, then you have got a very good chance of finding it."
He added: "There are 60 ships out there, each carrying a minimum of between 50 and 100 tons of plunder and we aim to find them."