tampabay.com

Ship's treasure a trove of fascination

The world is enthralled by the Odyssey find.

By SCOTT BARANCIK
Published May 22, 2007


Monday almost seemed like another ho-hum day at Tampa's Odyssey Marine Exploration, three days after the treasure-hunting company became a global phenomenon when it reported finding more than 500, 000 silver coins aboard a centuries-old shipwreck.

On Monday, co-founder Greg Stemm appeared on CBS' Morning Show and NBC's Today Show. Later in Los Angeles, he discussed joint opportunities with representatives of Disney, whose latest Pirates of the Caribbean sequel coincidentally hits the theaters this week. Additional inquiries from news outlets and documentary makers around the world continued to arrive by the dozens.

Of course, Day 2 of the media onslaught over "Black Swan, " code name for the as-yet unidentified ship, wasn't without challenges.

Odyssey battled speculation, mostly from the British and Spanish press, that it sneaked its treasure into the U.S. via Gibraltar out of concern that British and Spanish authorities might seize it and stake a claim. In a news release Monday, the company said the coins and other cargo were transported via legal means and that the ship's identity and parentage remain unconfirmed.

Recognizing that overpromising can be a legal liability for a publicly traded company, Odyssey distanced itself from outside claims that its find was worth upwards of half a billion dollars. It also denied charges that it was not exercising archaeologically and historically sound salvage practices.

But short of revealing its find was all a practical joke, there was little the company could do to curb the globe's fascination with shipwrecks and sunken treasure. Or Wall Street's, for that matter. Though Odyssey's stock did not shoot up again Monday - it fell 22 cents per share, or 3 percent, to close at $8.10, compared with Friday's phenomenal 80 percent jump - the trading was again furious. Ginned up in part by Odyssey's national TV coverage and profit-taking by existing shareholders Monday, the trade volume more than doubled to nearly 20-million shares and the price at one point rose as high as $9.45.

Odyssey hopes it can capitalize on curiosity about the shipwreck's identity by revealing it at a separate media event, possibly in connection with a televised return to the vessel.

By Monday, however, experts expressed near certainty that the wreck, thought to be about 40 miles off the British coast of Cornwall, was that of the Royal Merchant. A privately owned British ship, the Royal sank in 1641 with a massive cargo of coins meant as pay for Spanish soldiers. Odyssey did confirm Monday that its coins were not taken from the HMS Sussex, a 17th-century British warship submerged in the Mediterranean that has been the subject of successful but sometimes contentious negotiations with British and Spanish authorities.

Either way, Odyssey promised more revelations soon. Its news release Monday said at least three other salvage projects "could come to fruition during 2007."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com">href="mailto:barancik@sptimes.com" mce_href="mailto:barancik@sptimes.com">barancik@sptimes.com or 727 893-8751.