An undersea treasure hunt, playing out in court

After an American company excavated millions in dollars in bullion from an old shipwreck, Spanish officials are looking at strategies for protecting the sunken treasure that surrounds its coasts.

It's the stuff of pirate legend.

Countless Spanish ships – some loaded with gold and silver, all with dramatic histories to tell – sit at the bottom of the sea. In the ensuing centuries, these relics from an era when Spain ruled the oceans were largely ignored by their own country and left to decay in watery graves.

Ignored, that is, until May 2007, when Odyssey Marine Exploration, a privately owned American company, recovered some 500,000 silver coins from a shipwreck that may be Spanish.

Now Spain's culture ministry is fighting back. On Wednesday, it gathers archaeologists, regional government representatives, and members of the country's security forces to develop an effective plan to better protect Spain's sunken history.

Archaeologists say that as many as 8,000 ships from the Spanish empire, which stretched from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 19th, may still lie beneath the deep. For Javier Noriega, director of Nerea, a research-oriented underwater archaeological team affiliated with the University of Malaga, those ships have incalculable historic value.

"They are the cultural patrimony of Spain's citizens," he says. "They also have scientific value, which is deteriorating in the face of archaeological pillaging."

Spain's change of tune on treasure

But critics of Spain's claim say that it took a team of foreign salvagers to convince the Spanish government to see the underwater bullion as worthy of their protection.

Earlier this year, Odyssey Marine Explorations retrieved 17 tons of silver coins, plus gold coins and other artifacts, from a shipwreck in the Atlantic, possibly located near the Spanish coast.

Odyssey flew the treasure, which the Spanish government considers "archaeological remains," to its base in Tampa, Fla. Although the company declared that the shipwreck lay in international waters, and that the recovery fully complied with the United Nations' Law of the Seas, its refusal to disclose the site's location, or name the ship – which it has given the code name "Black Swan" – sparked Spanish suspicions.

Odyssey says that it has offered to share the information with the Spanish government provided Spain will maintain secrecy about the site's location.

"The problem is that we want to make sure that the site is protected, which is why we want to make sure that information about the site is not released publicly," says Greg Stemm, cofounder of Odyssey. "If Spanish officials are truly concerned about the safety of the site, I cannot imagine why they will not agree to protect the site by limiting release of the information."

Spain doesn't see it that way, however, and the case ended up in a federal courthouse in Tampa. While Odyssey hopes to prove ownership of the Black Swan's recovered treasure – valued at perhaps $500 million – the Spanish government has filed a countersuit demanding that the company reveal its findings so that, if appropriate, Spain can claim ownership of the ship and its contents.

Tensions between the two parties increased first in June and again in October when Odyssey ships attempting to leave Gibraltar were forced into Spanish ports and searched by the Civil Guard.

César Antonio Molina, Spain's culture minister, has vowed to fight against the "pillaging" of his country's heritage. He's not alone; in October, Nerea filed its own suit against Odyssey, accusing the American company of committing crimes against Spain's national patrimony.

"What has happened is as serious as if someone had carried off the Giralda," said Mr. Noriega at the time, referring to the famous tower of Seville's cathedral.

Mr. Stemm, whose company intends to sell the recovered coins, rejects those charges. "We don't even know what shipwreck site the Black Swan is, we don't know if its Spanish," he says. "So it doesn't make sense for them to accuse us of stealing Spanish patrimony at this point."

Spain's history of legal misfires

Past Spanish attempts to stop the extraction of treasure from Spanish ships have foundered on the country's own lack of energy in protecting underwater sites.

In 1983, a Florida court ruled that treasure-hunter Mel Fischer was entitled to keep the booty he found at the site of the sunken ship Santa Margarita because "the ship was abandoned … and the Spanish government hasn't expressed interest in declaring itself a successive owner."

The Ministry of Culture is determined not to let that happen again. Its new Plan for Subaquatic Archaeology calls for a comprehensive mapping of known shipwreck sites, and requires that important ones be granted protected status just like historic churches and monuments.

It also clears the way for those sites to be monitored by police, perhaps using the same global positioning satellites used to intercept undocumented immigrants at sea. Wednesday's meeting is intended to hammer out the details of how best the plan's protective measures can be enforced.

No one denies that recent events have forced the government's hand.

"Certainly, the Odyssey case has influenced our thinking," says a culture ministry official. "The need for a plan was reinforced by those events."

But Stemm says that the new tactics will not affect Odyssey's operations because they apply only to territorial waters where, he says, Odyssey does not work "without the knowledge or permission of the Spanish authorities."

Both parties await the next hearing in the Tampa court, which is scheduled for January. In the meantime, Odyssey is making plans for a return expedition to the Black Swan, where, according to the company website, significant artifacts remain.

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