Having sailed the world in search of adventure and treasure, Alex Storm struck gold off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1965 when he famously discovered the lost wreck of the French ship the Chameau.
After years of meticulous research, planning and scuba diving off Cape Breton Island, the discovery was not only a personal victory, but a watershed moment in the province. It was the first time a significant treasure wreck was discovered by a recreational scuba diver.
“Alex Storm is the grandfather of it all,” said Terry Dwyer, a shipwreck expert and explorer in Nova Scotia. “He was the real deal,” he added. “He was very genuine and very passionate.”
Stories of the Chameau and its lost treasure had grown into local legend in the three centuries after the 40-metre armed ship, carrying 44 cannons, passengers, goods and funds from France to the French colony in North America, was caught in a storm and foundered on a reef near the fort town of Louisbourg. The tales piqued Mr. Storm’s interest.
Mr. Storm, who had cancer and died on Aug. 12 at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital at the age of 80, first learned of the ship and its tragic fate in 1960 when he moved to Louisbourg and started reading the history of his new home, by then a fishing community.
“Alex was like the Canadian version of Jacques Cousteau,” said coin collector Doug Shand, referring to the famous French ocean explorer. “A truly brilliant and talented man with a sense of adventure and a thirst for knowledge.”
Mr. Storm learned that on her final voyage, the Chameau was carrying more than 80,000 livres in gold and silver coins and, according to some estimates, as many as 316 passengers, including several high-ranking officials. As the ship approached the rugged coastline on Cape Breton’s southeastern shore one night in August, 1725, a storm thrashed the ship. It hit a reef, broke apart and sank. There were no survivors.
During the summer of 1961, Mr. Storm asked the skipper of the fishing vessel the Marion Kent to take him to Chameau Rock, believed to be the site of the wreck. He dove and discovered a cluster of rusty cannons.
“It was a solemn moment, because I knew that no one had seen it since the night when the ship wrecked,” he recalled in a 2011 story in The Walrus magazine.
The more promising discovery he made was a silver four-livre piece, embossed with the year 1724 and a portrait of King Louis XV. Mr. Storm was more determined than ever to find the rest of the Chameau’s lost treasures. While working as a draftsman on the restoration of the Fortress of Louisbourg, now a national historic site, he spent his free time researching 18th century ships, gathering data from the night the Chameau sank, and scouring documents from Paris’s national marine museum and the national archives in Ottawa.
“He would jump into things with two feet and learn as he went,” his son Jason Storm said.
Mr. Storm also obtained a Treasure Trove license from the Nova Scotia government, which gave him the exclusive right to search for the Chameau’s treasure and retain the found valuables. He assembled a team of two others and bought a 10-metre Cape Island boat, once used as a fishing vessel.
Mr. Storm and his colleagues kept their plans secret, so others wouldn’t beat them to the wreck site. Diving near Chameau Rock in the early 1960s required a certain toughness. The searchers’ wet suits didn’t keep the cold water out like modern suits, they didn’t have GPS and they often faced strong tides and heavy fog. They also had to be inventive. To cover more ground, they engineered a sled from an old bed frame which they rode on under the water while being pulled behind the boat. To map out and mark the wreck area, they made a grid and used milk bottles filled with cement as markers on the ocean floor, said Ken Jardine, a professional diver in Cape Breton.
Years of hard work paid off. Finally, in 1965, Mr. Storm found his treasure: thousands of Louis d’or gold coins and other lost gems.
“I came across a crevice in the rock, the sight of which gave me the thrill of a lifetime! It was filled to the brim with slate grey coins,” Mr. Storm wrote in his book Seaweed and Gold. “The scene gave me a strange mixed feeling of both joy and disbelief. I picked up a few coins as if to reassure myself that this was not a mirage.”
When Mr. Storm and his partners, Harvey MacLeod and Dave MacEachern, resurfaced with buckets of gold and other coins, they had to hide their find from local fishermen working on the wharf who would ask: “Did you get any treasure today?” After they found what they believed to be everything lost on the Chameau, they went public, garnering intense media attention.
“Skindivers Find Treasure in Wreckage of Pay Ship – Estimate value at $700,000” read the April 5, 1966, headline of the Cape Breton Post.
According to a 1726 letter from the French Minister of Marine, which Mr. Storm had found in his research, the funds lost on the Chameau amounted to “83,308 livres 11 sols 1 denier, including 27,258 livres 8 sols 9 deniers expended for clothing of the troops at Quebec.”
Mr. Jardine said that the discovery made Mr. Storm a living legend. "He blazed a trail for everyone.”
Most of the coins and artifacts they found were eventually auctioned off. Other pieces, such as navigational instruments, food ware and a rare bronze swivel cannon were placed in museums.
“For many, the chance of finding an actual treasure holds the same attraction as winning a lottery,” Mr. Storm wrote in Seaweed and Gold. “But for me the thrill begins when realizing that research into these legends supports a real possibility. It allows for the exciting thrill and prospect of outdoors fieldwork, rugged scenery, flights of imagination and yes, even the physical exertion that could spell success, or disappointment. All of the above add up to the pursuit of real adventure, something I have always treasured!”
Alex Storm was born on Oct. 2, 1937, on the Indonesian island of Java, after his parents had moved from the Netherlands to what was then the Dutch East Indies in search of adventure. On the island, his father worked as a police constable and later an inspector. The peaceful life that Alex had there with his parents and five siblings was interrupted by the Second World War. Imprisoned in internment camps by the Japanese occupiers, they endured near starvation. One of his sisters died in the camps.
Alex and his surviving family members were repatriated to the Netherlands in 1946. After sailing the world’s oceans and living off the sea, Mr. Storm was drafted into the Dutch military service in 1956 and assigned to the Medical Corps. He trained as a draftsman and in 1959 immigrated to Canada. After a few months in Toronto, his longing for the ocean took him to Cape Breton, where he discovered Louisbourg in the summer of 1960. Speaking little English, he supported himself by diving off the shore, collecting and selling salvage metals.
In 1961, he was hired to work on the reconstruction of the Fortress of Louisbourg. He later became a materials specialist, retiring from the fortress in 1997. It was there that he met Emily Lawrence, the daughter of a Newfoundland fisherman, who was working as a secretary. They married in 1964 and while raising five children, Emily became accomplished in the techniques of 18th-century lace making.
Having travelled the world, Mr. Storm said happiness for him was in Louisbourg. His large three-storey home on the community’s main street was filled with treasures. In 1977, he opened the Atlantic Statiquarium Marine Museum on the bottom floor of his house. During the tourist season, his family welcomed thousands of visitors into the museum. It was bursting with live fish and artifacts he had collected on trips across rural Nova Scotia and Newfoundland to help preserve the area’s history, including the inshore fishery. Inside the museum, visitors could also admire the cast he made from a giant leatherback sea turtle, brought to shore by a fisherman who had accidentally caught it in a net.
“He read a lot, he listened a lot, he collected a lot of information,” Jason Storm said. “He was always questing.”
On Mr. Storm’s tribute later explorations off Cape Breton’s coast, he found more wreck sites and treasures, including the Feversham in 1968.
Modest about his accomplishments, he didn’t seek attention, but loved to tell stories and share his knowledge with anyone who asked, whether it was a student doing a school project, a professor, a coin collector or a fellow diver. Mr. Dwyer remembers bringing Mr. Storm an object he had found on a dive near Glace Bay, N.S., in the late 1970s. Mr. Storm took the brown rod, which resembled a tire iron, in his hands and said it was a bronze spike from a 17th-century sailing vessel.
“He was like a walking encyclopedia,” Mr. Dwyer said.
Mr. Storm leaves his five children, Phyllis, Edward, Jason, Morgan and Julian; granddaughters, Chloé, Mylène, Madison; step-grandson, Nicholas; brother, Hans; and sister, Louise. His wife died in 2011.