Treasure Hunting- The Black Swan Treasure

The words "treasure hunting" often conjure up visions of chests of gold coins and jewels buried in the sand of some desolate island. There is a map on old parchment paper that leads to a location depicted by an "X." After digging a few feet down the shovel collides with the chest with a thunk and thousands of dollars of treasure are found. While this may happen in books and treasure hunting movies, it isn't really how treasure is found. Take for example the Black Swan treasure found by Odyssey Marine in 2007. Potentially worth over 500 million dollars, the Black Swan wreck may be one of the most significant and controversial finds in marine exploration. Let's take a look at the Black Swan treasure.

Finding A Treasure

Odyssey Marine Exploration is a for-profit salvage company that searches the oceans for ship wrecks that might contain hidden treasure. The company uses cutting edge technology to search large sections of the ocean floor that would otherwise be unreachable. The process can take months and multiple crews search through the data of hundreds of miles of ocean floor.

They use advanced sonar and magnetometers to search those vast stretches of ocean looking for clues about where ships might have come to rest. Experts study these results, looking for locations that deserve further research. Maybe the hull of a ship rises above the smooth ocean floor. Or perhaps a metal hit from the magnetometers could indicate the presence of a modern metal vessel, or better yet, the presence of ancient iron cannons.

Once a site is located for further study, their advanced underwater robot, Zeus is sent to investigate closer. Zeus provides video of shipwreck sites too deep to explore with divers. It can also stay down longer than a diver would be able to, allowing in depth examination of wreck sites. The submersible takes detailed photographs that are used to make a photo mosaic of the wreck site. Using those photos and detailed location tracking, certain areas are marked for further investigation.

The Black Swan

In 2007, while searching near Gibraltar, Odyssey Marine made a surprising discovery. As they were searching one of their possible wreck sites they discovered what turned out to be thousands of silver and gold coins. Odyssey Marine immediately started documenting and recovering the coins.

In all, 70 tons of coins, mostly silver, were collected from the sea floor. Not yet able to identify the wreck, the Odyssey team code named the wreck the "Black Swan." All of the crew was sworn to secrecy. The estimated value of the coins was over 500 million dollars.

Although it some believe that the wreck is that of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, it has never been proved that it is. With any shipwreck, the crew looks for identifiers that might indicate which ship they have found. At the Black Swan location, the crew of the Odyssey Explorer were not able to find anything that could positively indicate the name of the ship.

When a shipwreck is located, the nature of the wreck is an important consideration when it comes to what will be done with anything that is found on the ocean floor. If the ship was a military vessel at the time of it's sinking, then it is a military grave site and is indefinitely the property of the country who original owned the ship. If the vessel was used in a commercial mission, it is free game for anyone that finds the wreckage.

After collecting all of the coins the crew made their way to Gibraltar. From there, all of the coins were put on a chartered airplane for the United States. There they were hidden in a secret location, pending a legal determination about who the coins belong to.

Legal Battles

Under maritime law, commercial wrecks that are found in international waters become property of whoever finds the wreck. Military vessels remain property of the country that the ship sailed for, no matter how long they have been underwater.

Odyssey Marine maintains that the wreck is a commerical vessel and is therefore their property. Spain has alleged that the wreck is in fact the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, claiming that it was a warship and as a result, is still Spanish property.

The issue has been challenged in U.S. courts. Despite an initial finding in 2009 that the wreck is mostly likely the Mercedes and property of Spain, Odyssey Marine is appealing the decision and a final verdict has still not been reached. 500 million dollars worth of coins are still sitting in a hidden location awaiting the decision by the courts.

One day, after the legal battles have settled maybe you will be able to see coins salvaged from the "Black Swan" wreck at your local museum. In the mean time, Odyssey Marine continues to search for more wrecks.

Update: September 21, 2011

Odyssey Marine announced that it would be appealing the District Court's decision to dismiss their case. The District Court determined that it did not have jurisdiction in the case because the ship was in fact the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes and therefore belonged to Spain. This ruling came in spite of the fact that there was never any positive identification of the shipwreck site.

Odyssey Marine announced that it would be appealing the decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Odyssey states that the ruling is in direct contradiction to a precious court of appeals decision. Odyssey will continue to work on showing that the wreck was a commercial vessel and therefore not property of Spain.

Odyssey also announced that they are surprised and disappointed by the ruling, but it will not affect the financial stability of the company. They state that they are currently working several new wreck sites and will continue to work hard while waiting for a final decision.

Update: February 2, 2012.

Today I noticed an article on CNN that mentions that Odyssey Marine has lost another motion in the Court Of Appeals. With the latest court decision, Spain's Culture Ministry is confident that they will see the coins returned to them in the near future. Spain plans to display the coins and stated that they are open to the idea of sharing some of the treasure with Peru, where the coins originated.

Odyssey Marine still has the option to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court does not take all cases that are presented to it. You can read the CNN article here.

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