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Pinellas

Treasure hunters say they struck it big

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published May 19, 2007


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A Tampa company that searches for sunken treasure said Friday that it recovered perhaps the richest shipwreck haul in history: more than 17 tons of silver and gold coins worth an estimated $500-million.

Odyssey Marine Exploration said it removed more than 500, 000 silver and hundreds of gold coins from a wreck site in the Atlantic Ocean.

"For this colonial era, I think the find is unprecedented, " said Nick Bruyer, a rare coin expert who examined some of the coins. "I don't know anything equal or comparable to it."

The richest shipwreck treasure up to now came from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha, which sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622. Treasure hunter Mel Fisher found it in 1985, collecting a reported $400-milion in coins and other loot.

On Friday, Odyssey was stingy with details on its find. The company didn't disclose the shipwreck's location, say when the recovery took place or - for obvious reasons - where the loot is stashed.

Evidence points to a known shipwreck, said Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm. The company isn't sure of its nationality, size or age because the site is in a shipping lane where many colonial-era vessels sank. The shipwreck is outside territorial waters of any country, said Stemm.

Early indications suggest the shipwreck - code-named Black Swan - is the remains of a 17th century merchant ship that Odyssey on Tuesday was awarded title to by a federal judge in Tampa. The ship sunk near the English Channel, about 40 miles off the southwestern tip of England.

Odyssey found the wreck more than 300 feet deep in the summer of 2006 using sonar and magnetometer equipment, according to court documents.

The company later took video and photos of the wreck with a remote-controlled submarine. Cameras showed a wooden hulk, cannon and other metal objects. Research led officials to believe "more valuable cargo" might be at the site, Odyssey told the court.

Shareholders in Odyssey, the only publicly traded company of its kind, felt richer already Friday. The company's share price closed at $8.32, up 81 percent, on the American Stock Exchange.

That was a break for investors who suffered through years of setbacks until Odyssey's 2003 discovery of the SS Republic, a sidewheel steamer that sank 100 miles off the Georgia coast in 1865.

Gold and silver coins on board brought in tens of millions of dollars. But that was just one-quarter of the coins the company's research suggested would be found. Odyssey posted losses the last two years while searching the sea bottom for another payoff.

"The outside world now understands that what we do is a real business and is repeatable and not just a lucky, one-shot deal, " said Stemm. "I don't know anybody else who has hit more than one economically significant shipwreck."

In January, the Spanish government gave Odyssey permission to resume a search for the wreck of the HMS Sussex that had been suspended during complex international negotiations over a claim.

The 157-foot warship sank in a storm off Gibraltar in 1694 while leading a British fleet for a war against France. Historians believe the ship carried 9 tons of gold coins, which Odyssey thinks could be worth billions of dollars.

The company recently told a federal judge in Tampa of two other finds.

One wreck, believed to be an Italian-registered passenger vessel that sank during World War II, is in the Mediterranean Sea 65 miles east of Sardinia. The other, discovered about 100 miles west of Gibraltar, sank in the 19th century.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

[Last modified May 19, 2007, 01:56:32]


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