Treasure hunting as black op.

13 December 2009

One of the mainstay tropes of fiction is sunken treasure: pirate treasure, ancient payrolls, treasure of the ancients... to quote The Goonies, "rich stuff". Gold. Gems. Artifacts. Stuff that would make Indiana Jones push his professorly duties off onto his overworked and underpaid grad students, grab his khakis, fedora, and bullwhip, and make a beeline for the middle of nowhere. However, since diving and its associated technologies have advanced over the years sunken treasures are growing more and more rare. Maybe there is only so much treasure to go around and a lot of it's been salvaged already. Maybe the tide and the shifting sediment have covered up much of it through the centuries. Perhaps a lot of it was lost in depths that humans have yet to really explore.

It is for this reason that the salvage of what may well be the Merchant Royal is so noteworthy. The Merchant Royal is said to have been a merchant vessel which went down in a storm near Sicily in 1641 while en route to Antwerp.

It's taken two years of careful, steady work, but an outfit called Odyssey Marine Exploration has salvaged approximately 250 million British Pounds worth of treasure from the seafloor, amounting to seventeen tons of gold, silver, tableware, and assorted undisclosed artifacts. OME hasn't said how long it took them to find or bring up the treasure or even which wreck it was though speculation continues as to which wreck it may have been. Operation Black Swan, as they called it, was carried out in deepest secrecy; a number of ROVs were used to locate the wreck, ascertain what it carried, and shuttle its cargo to the surface. The wreck was located in international waters which actually made the salvage operation easier from a legal perspective but to avoid having to give the United Kingdom a cut of the action (because it was located off the coast of Cornwall) they transported each load of cargo to Gibraltar, which was used as a tax haven for the purposes of this project. The government of Spain is investigating whether or not the salvage was actually in international waters; the descendents of the now-deceased captain of the Merchant Royal are also looking into whether or not they have a claim to part of the treasure. Last Thursday the whole shebang was flown from Gibraltar to the United States by private jet where it was appraised by an expert in ancient coinage.

It is interesting to note that the level of secrecy was such that the crews of the salvage ships kept their mouths shut even when partying in port while the operation was in execution. It is also interesting to note that the location of the wreck and identity of the ship have not been announced. It should also be noted that they seem to have played things a little loose on the legal end of things because a federal judge granted them salvage rights only the day before they airlifted the treasure to the states (disclaimer: IANAL).