Silver Lining: For an Undersea Exploration Company, a Reinvention Leads to Redemption

Article excerpt

From the deck of a hulking 4,000-ton ship, a giant clawlike device plunges into the waves of the North Atlantic. The "grab," as it's called, is slowly lowered nearly three miles--a half-mile deeper than the Titanic--to the wreck of the SS Gairsoppa, a British steamship built almost a century ago. A crew member aboard the surface ship peers into a monitor to watch ghostly real-time images while he carefully maneuvers the device in clutching and clearing debris from around the cargo hold.

Once the hold is clear of wreckage, a remotely operated vehicle takes over the work. As in a real-life video game with much higher stakes, the ROV pilot maneuvers its mechanical arm to retrieve what looks like a shoe box-sized brick, then another and another, dropping each into a nearby basket. Eventually, the basket's contents will be deposited into a Dumpster-sized container that will be painstakingly hauled to the surface.

For cargo that has rested on the ocean floor since a German torpedo tore into the steamship's hull more than 70 years ago, the 3 1/2.-hour ascent to the surface is relatively quick. But for Odyssey Marine Exploration officials, the sight of that mountain of tarnished bars emerging from the North Atlantic must have seemed a long time in coming.

In July, after completing two phases of recovery from the shipwreck, Odyssey officials announced a record haul: 110 tons of silver, representing the deepest and largest precious metal recovery from a shipwreck.

Beyond the financial boon, the Gairsoppa success represented the Tampa-based company's redemption after a stunning legal loss that called into question its very business model. For five years, the government of Spain had waged the court battle against Odyssey over the rights to $500 million in Colonial-era treasure at another site.

The Gairsoppa recovery, by contrast, was more civil, conducted in partnership with the British government, which agreed to give Odyssey 80 percent of the net revenue. At last summer's silver prices, the haul was expected to reap a total of $75 million for Odyssey, based on silver prices at the time of recovery.

"This Gairsoppa model clearly illustrates to governments around the world that by taking no risk, by spending no taxpayer money, they can in fact recover significant cultural heritage and generate revenues for their treasury," Odyssey President Mark Gordon says.

Odyssey CEO and co-founder Greg Stemm pointed out that the complexity of the recovery, because of the extreme depth, resulted in technological advances that will be important in the future. "This technology will be applicable to other modern shipwreck projects currently being scheduled as well as our deep-ocean mineral exploration activities. Our success on the Gairsoppa marks the beginning of a new paradigm for Odyssey in which we expect modern shipwreck projects will complement our archaeological shipwreck excavations."

During its almost 20-year history, Odyssey had recorded several important finds, including the HMS Sussex, an English warship lost in 1694; the 2003 discovery of the coin-laden Civil War-era steamship SS Republic; and the "Tortugas" wreck off the Florida Keys, which was the first deep-water remotely operated excavation.

But the literal "X" on the treasure map was a project Odyssey dubbed "The Black Swan." When Odyssey crew members discovered the site in 2007, they found a debris field with no intact hull or definitive markings that would identify the ship. But what they did find were mounds of silver and gold coins strewn across the seafloor.

With export license in hand, Odyssey crew members brought 17 tons of silver coins, hundreds of gold coins and other artifacts to the United States. The Spanish were livid and claimed the treasure as theirs. The Spanish Guardia Civil forced two of Odyssey's ships into a Spanish port where they were detained and searched--illegally, a Spanish judge would later rule. …