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'ODYSSEY MARINE', Shipwreck Finders - UPDATES

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Bianca
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« Reply #15 on: May 22, 2009, 10:04:29 am »









In 1994 Stemm and Morris, since retired, founded Odyssey Marine Exploration. From Phoenician trading ships to men of war, Stemm built up a database of 3,000 shipwrecks around the world and divided them into those that were worth exploring financially and those that were not. Then he went hunting for the big ones.

Not every government gets along with Stemm. In July 2007, the Spanish Civil Guard intercepted his one of his other ships, Ocean Alert, just after she left Gibraltar and escorted her into Algeciras, where she and her crew were searched and computer hard drives confiscated.

The Spanish believed that the 17-tonne, £253 million haul of coins, gold ornaments and tableware that OME had found on a colonial-era shipwreck it codenamed “Black Swan” located “somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean” was either a Spanish warship, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, or another vessel that had gone down in Spanish waters. But the coins had flown, literally — loaded into white plastic buckets, transferred to a jet at Gibraltar and then on to the US, where a leading expert in antique coinage, Nick Bruyer, pronounced the find: “unprecedented. I don’t know of anything equal or comparable to it.” Three months later, Odyssey Explorer was seized off the coast of Gibraltar, at which point the Spanish Culture Minister uttered his pointed remarks about piracy.

Spain has since filed a claim for ownership of the treasure ship in the US federal court, where Stemm is applying for a salvage award. US courts have a jurisdiction over who has rights to wrecks found in international waters.

So why did he move the treasure so fast? “It’s complicated, legally,” Stemm says. “One hypothesis so far is that the cargo on the site could be from the Mercedes,” he admits, “but we did not know to whom the coins belonged at the time, and it is still not clear. In fact, a ship believed to be the Mercedes was found lying in Portuguese waters far from our find, so that seems to contradict the theory. Her legal fate is now in the hands of a judge; it’s the only way to safeguard the integrity of the site.”

And the coins? “They are in a secret conservation lab in Florida,” he says “where they are being slowly and meticulously conserved.” None of them can appear for sale on his online Shipwreck Store until the lawyers have finished haggling, but, not missing a trick, he is marketing “authentic replica” Black Swan coins, “cast from the original coins”.

“I have to hire a lot of lawyers,” Stemm shrugs. “Marine archaeology is a legally untested area.” Work on HMS Sussex has also been postponed to allow Gibraltar-related diplomatic issues to be resolved between Spain and the UK. From Victory, also found in international waters, Stemm has lodged a fire-brick from the ship’s kitchen in the US court “symbolising that the judge has control of the entire site.” He will decide who can claim salvage to her spoils, once the British Government has decided how much of the site it wants Stemm to excavate (the fabric of the ship is too damaged to bring to the surface).

More than once OME has been accused of being stealthy and secretive. “We do not disclose information about specific shipwrecks during the search process,” Stemm says, “but we share our discoveries with the world.”

The artefacts and treasure, photos, video, and archaeological information are made accessible to the public through Odyssey’s website. There have been numerous TV programmes, presentations, academic papers and travelling exhibitions in the United States.

“One of the great disservices our critics have done to us is to say that this is all about the money,” says Stemm, who was part of the UNESCO experts’ meeting that negotiated the Draft Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. “We love the artefacts,” he says, “we love the history. Wrecks are time capsules and we can do what governments and museums cannot afford to do alone. We also have to earn a living at it.” 
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