Odyssey Marine Exploration
The country's largest publicly traded shipwreck exploration company has three promising finds but faces hurdles in opening the treasure chests.
In October 1804, four Spanish frigates approached the port of Cadiz in southwestern Spain, laden with South American treasure. The loot was meant to bankroll Spain, nominally neutral but tacitly allied with Napoleon against Britain. Four British frigates met the treasure fleet.
In the ensuing Battle of Cape St. Mary, the British captured three of the Spanish ships. The fourth, the Mercedes, exploded. Historical novelist Patrick O’Brian integrated the conflict into one of his novels, with fictional hero Capt. John “Lucky Jack” Aubrey awed as the Mercedes’ powder magazine destroyed the ship in “a blast so huge it wiped out thought and almost consciousness: the Mercedes blew up in a fountain of brilliant orange light that pierced the sky.”
Odyssey Marine's treasure recovery operation is temporarily interrupted by a visitor. [Photos: Odyssey Marine]
The outcome of the battle created a potential windfall for the British seamen. Under a law designed to encourage naval zeal, the officers and men could share the spoils of the three captured ships. The event also marked a historical turning point: Spain entered the long war against England.
Journey far below the Atlantic to visit the SS Republic, shipwrecked in 1865 during a hurricane, and see how Odyssey salvaged its treasures.
|Odyssey Marine derives its revenues from selling treasure like these gold coins it recovered from the SS Republic in 2003. Odyssey recovered 4,000 gold coins and 47,000 silver coins along with thousands of artifacts, including a crucifix candlestick.|
But the company has reason aplenty to heed Lucky Jack’s recurring admonition to his crew that there’s not a moment to be lost. The company has turned a profit only twice, totaling $5.8 million, since it went public in 1997. The last black ink came four years ago. It has racked up $57.8 million in losses since then, with another $12 million lost through the first half of this year.
Odyssey founders John Morris and Greg Stemm had wanted to navigate a smoother course than the previous flotilla of money-losing, Florida-based treasure hunters — a fleet that has produced only one steady performer, the family of Key West’s late and legendary Mel Fisher. Morris and Stemm promised to marry archaeology and profits as they focused on high-value wrecks at depths that only expensive remotely operated vehicles like Odyssey’s seven-ton “Zeus” can reach. It’s a barrier to entry that eliminates the Sunday divers who scour Florida’s coastal waters.
Their first real payoff came in 2003, when Odyssey found the SS Republic, a steamer that went down in a hurricane in 1865 off the Florida-Georgia line. Odyssey recovered 4,000 gold coins and 47,000 silver coins along with thousands of artifacts. But they’ve sold off all but a handful of the gold coins, and there’s less demand for the remaining 33,000 silver coins.