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How does Odyssey find all that sunken treasure?

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Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2013 at 10:04 AM
TAMPA -

Finding $500 million worth of sunken treasure might be just the beginning for Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Tampa's own little for-profit, publicly traded treasure-hunting company may have a lead on far more wrecks and far richer finds on the ocean floor, thanks to some deft legal work and new science-fiction grade technology.

One spot in the Atlantic off the European coast has four commercial shipwrecks that Odyssey recently said may have carried "significant cargoes of gold coins." Code name: "Symphony." If underwater robots can recover the treasure, Odyssey will get 78 percent of the take.

"There are billions of dollars worth of valuable and interesting things laying on the ocean floor waiting for us to find," said Odyssey President Mark Gordon. "That's our business plan in a nutshell."

Odyssey, which is mostly mum about its work, revealed how it finds, protects and, most importantly, keeps hold of difficult to reach and invaluable shipwrecks around the world.

The company may have heaps of swashbuckling bravado and a high-profile TV show on the Discovery Channel. But it rarely talks about its methods of finding sunken treasure. This summer, Odyssey chiefs opened up a little.

The work starts in libraries full of dusty records.

Long before bank wire transfers, 401(k)s or paper checks, the only way to move money was to haul gold or silver coins from point A to point B, often across treacherous stretches of ocean filled with storms, pirates and enemy ships.

Need to pay a billion-dollar contract? Put the cash on a ship. Unfortunately, until the early 1900s, the crews of those ships lacked radar, radios or even basic weather forecasts. The captain of an 1800s treasure-hauling wooden ship might not know about a hurricane until he sailed into it.

The United Nations estimates there are more than 3 million shipwrecks worldwide.

The hard part: finding them.

There are no treasure maps with "X" marking the spot. Odyssey doesn't start by looking into the ocean - it goes to the library.

Odyssey employs a half-dozen researchers in Tampa and 25 to 30 contractors stationed in dusty libraries in every world capital with major shipping operations from the year zero to the 1900s - Paris, London, Madrid and Buenos Aires among them. Archivists look for reports of sinking ships, from famous to forgotten.

Sometimes they start with a newspaper article about a ship battle or a sinking. From there, researchers collect evidence around the shipwreck - weather reports, personal letters, battle records, insurance claims, eyewitness reports from ships nearby - anything.

With a rough location of a wreck, Odyssey considers two key factors: Was the ship carrying highly valuable items, and can the company make a solid legal claim to them. A centuries-old body of international law governs salvage rights, and fights over treasure can last years.

Generally, maritime law dating to ancient Greece gives salvagers rights to anything they find, with one major exception - warships carrying noncommercial property at the time they sank. For instance, if a battleship accidentally loses a nuclear missile overboard, the missile remains the property of the government owner. Everything else is fair game.

If Odyssey is fairly certain it has a legal claim on a valuable wreck, the company sends out ships such as its 234-foot Ocean Alert to tow sonar and high-end metal detectors back and forth for miles across the ocean floor, a process called "mowing the lawn."

Crews record metal "pings," or fuzzy sonar images, in a database of wrecks dating back more than 2,000 years - Punic vessels, World War II German U-boats, Colonial warships.

Managing the project are several crew members that helped find the Titanic.

The sonar images from the ocean floor sometimes look like rocks. If the crew is lucky, sonar reveals clearly defined hulls, paddle wheels or canons.

Odyssey quietly deploys a larger ship, the Odyssey Explorer, to send down Zeus, an 8-ton, remote-control submarine the size of a Hummer. Originally designed to lay fiber-optic cables across the ocean floor, Odyssey modified Zeus with cameras, propellers, robotic arms and salvage tools.

Zeus swims over the wreck, taking high-resolution photos that image specialists stitch into a mosaic that can stretch for acres.

If there's something promising, such as a coin, gun or even a brick, crews bring up samples, put them on a private jet and race to the federal courthouse on Florida Avenue in downtown Tampa to make a salvage claim.

So far, the method works.

In 2001, Odyssey found a wreck believed to be the British HMS Sussex, lost in 1694 off Gibraltar, carrying treasure some value at $4 billion.

With that find locked in a legal battle with Spain, Odyssey looked elsewhere. In 2003, it found a Civil War-era freighter, the SS Republic, off Georgia carrying thousands of gold and silver coins.

In a much bigger find, in May 2007, Odyssey discovered a scattered debris field in the Atlantic from a ship the company code named "Black Swan" with 500,000 gold and silver coins, the largest treasure find to date. Again, that find is locked in a court fight with Spain, which claims it as government property.

Last year, Odyssey discovered what it calls "one of the most significant shipwrecks in history," the HMS Victory, Admiral Sir John Balchin's flagship that perished in a storm in 1744 carrying 4 tons of gold coins. Odyssey found a cannon from the ship and is negotiating a salvage deal with the British government before proceeding.

Odyssey would like to prevail in court against the Spanish and own the "Black Swan" treasure, said Gordon, the company president. Hundreds of white plastic buckets of coins sit in a vault in an undisclosed location.

But the company has one silver lining amid the legal fight. Odyssey has spent about $3 million to recover and legally defend the treasure, and proceeds from the Discovery Channel documentary "Treasure Quest" have generated nearly that much. Publicity, recognition and even controversy helped generate global attention on the little-known company, which could use a revenue injection.

The company generated $426,665 from artifact sales, exhibits and other sources in the quarter ended June 30, and posted a net loss of $5 million.

Of the 3,000 wrecks in Odyssey's growing list, 700 look especially promising. Sixty-eight percent of the 700 are private vessels on private missions, the FedEx and UPS shipments of their day. That means Odyssey has far more low-profile targets that shouldn't bring a court fight.

A good example is the SS Republic. A sizeable freighter, the Republic was steaming from New York to New Orleans in 1865 when it went down, stuffed with supplies to help rebuild the South after the Civil War: ink bottles, fine china, shoes, cases of harmonicas and thousands of bottles of food, beer, liquor, hair tonic, medicine and perfume.

Odyssey also recovered 51,000 gold and silver coins that it sells to collectors.

This could be just the beginning, Odyssey officials say.

The company has a landmark deal with the British government that helps avoid years of litigation. If Odyssey finds a wreck that was British property, it gets a percentage of the take, from 40 percent to 80 percent, depending on the total revenue.

New technology also is changing the game.

Until this year, Odyssey robots could "see" only a few feet below the ocean floor with relatively crude metal detectors. Library researchers might have pinpointed a potential treasure haul on a map, but the site would look barren for miles because the wreck was buried.

Recently, Odyssey adapted a sensor system designed for military use in locating buried unexploded ordnance. Modifying the system for shipwrecks, crews began using the system in February to peer at least 10 feet into the sand.

Odyssey appears to be ramping up operations: The company is leasing several new ships for exploration and sifting through hundreds of potential sites on its list of 3,000 for its next treasure hunt.


Reporter Richard Mullins can be reached at (813) 259-7919.

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