Shipwreck Mystery Must be Aired

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Neil Dobson / AFP / Getty

Marine Odyssey's Remotely Operated Vehicle being recovered from the seabed after recovering coins from a Colonial period shipwreck, Black Swan

It has all the makings of a suspenseful swashbuckler: a mysterious ship, sunken treasure, the threat of midnight raids and the pillaging of priceless cultural artifacts. But the ongoing struggle between American shipwreck salvage company Odyssey Marine and the Spanish government has instead become a classic courtroom drama. On Thursday, a U.S. District court in Tampa, Floridam ruled that Odyssey Marine must reveal to Spain all the information it possesses that could help identify three historic shipwrecks, including the one Odyssey has code-named, with appropriate flourish, the Black Swan. The sunken ship, which Madrid suspects was Spanish, has been sharply disputed since April, when Odyssey filed claim to the wreckage and then hauled up — and moved to an undisclosed storage facility near its Tampa headquarters — 17 tons of silver coins and other treasure, which some experts have valued at $500 million.

In the months since, the salvage firm has offered few clues about the Black Swan's identity or exact location, admitting only that preliminary investigations suggest the ship dates from the 19th century, and that the wreck lies 100 miles west of the Straits of Gibraltar, some 1100 meters down in international waters. "We have already made it clear that there are valuable artifacts at these different sites," says Odyssey CEO Greg Stemm, "so it is absurd to expect us to release any information that could give clues that might lead to an illegal midnight raid to steal the remaining artifacts. It's only common sense to do everything possible to protect the sites."

Odyssey's secrecy has fueled the suspicions of Spain's government, however, which fears that a valuable piece of its cultural patrimony has been exploited by a for-profit company. In July and again in October 2007, the Spanish civil guard and navy, following local court orders, detained and searched Odyssey ships as they attempted to leave their docks in Gibraltar. The detentions sparked intense media scrutiny, with much of the Spanish press expressing outrage over Odyssey's "pillaging" and some international publications decrying what they consider Spain's strong-arm tactics. Since then, Spain's Ministry of Culture has taken steps to better protect the dozens of shipwreck sites that lie off its coast as relics of Spain's golden age in the 16th and 17th centuries, when its galleons ruled the seas.

The Tampa court decided that Odyssey has 14 days to turn over all data regarding the Black Swan's identity and location and must permit Spain to inspect the artifacts it has recovered. That ruling levels the playing field before a civil trial in Tampa again next October, which will decide who owns the Black Swan site, and what percentage of the recovered treasure belongs to the salvagers. Although Odyssey's earlier court petition sought to restrict what information it released and to whom, the company says it got what it wanted from Thursday's ruling. "We are pleased that a confidentiality agreement will now be in place so that we can share information with Spain about the sites — it's all we have been asking for," says Stemm. "Hopefully, Spanish authorities will no longer believe the false and misleading information that has made its way into the press, and they will see the archaeological care we have taken on these sites as well as the difficulty in confirming their identities."

Spain, however, considers the ruling an unequivocal victory. "We're very pleased the court ruled in our favor," says James Goold, the attorney representing the Spanish government. "It shows that the court recognizes the need to move quickly to establish the identity of the ship." Perhaps more important, in his view, it also bodes well for the trial to come. "With this decision, we see that the court respects the cultural patrimony of a country like Spain."