Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

The marine treasure-seekers

Odyssey Marine's archeological discoveries from the ocean floor
© Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc.

“When I first set my eyes on a wreck it is truly amazing, sometimes the hairs on the back of neck stand up” – Neil Cunningham Dobson, Odyssey Principle Marine Archaeologist

In the last hundred years man’s quest for discovery has known no bounds. We have visited tranquility base, conquered the highest peaks on Earth and re-created the beginning of the universe. Yet we are a long way from discovering the thousands of mysteries that lie a lot closer to home. Water is vital to life and covers 60 per cent of the area of Earth. But travel less than 1,000ft below the ocean’s surface and the effect can be fatal, the pressure causing your body to crush itself. That’s not enough to keep a good archaeologist down though. Up until recently, other than Jacques Cousteau it was rare that underwater exploration gained many column inches. But with their fantastic discoveries, run-ins with foreign governments and utilising the most technologically advanced equipment to survey the oceans, the employees of Odyssey have changed this. In less than 20 years, the Florida-based marine exploration company has surveyed over 10,000 square miles of seabed and spent more than 9,000 hours diving shipwreck sites. Its hundreds of discoveries have spanned over two millennia – from U boats and colonial warships to a 3rd century BC Punic site.

To boldly go where no man has gone before

Marine archaeology is staggeringly complex. While on the land, it can take dozens of people months to uncover a few metres of earth around a site – which has to be protected from the elements at all times – underwater the hazards increase exponentially. The ocean floor is not a pristine environment protecting a treasure. It is inhospitable, constantly on the move and has torn apart many shipwrecks. In 1990, Odyssey co-founders Greg Stemm and John Morris directed the world’s first robotic deep sea excavation on a Spanish colonial shipwreck, lost in 1622, 1,500 feet underwater and 70 miles away from the coast of Key West in Florida. How could they even entertain such an idea?

Greg Stemm
Greg Stemm: Odyssey CEO and Co-founder Greg Stemm (Photo courtesy of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. © 2008)

Their pioneering use of science to conduct deep ocean archaeology has established Odyssey as a world leader in its field. It uses the most advanced deep ocean excavation equipment on the planet.

The crowning glory in its archaeological platform is the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), which the team has nicknamed Zeus. It has the capability to go where no man has before, diving deeper and for longer. It is the archaeologist’s avatar – acting as their hands and eyes as it painstakingly explores the floor of the ocean.

“Because they utilise the best technology, Odyssey has been responsible for a number of underwater finds that would have undoubtedly gone undiscovered for a long time” – Emily Stammitti – Archaeology Doctoral Candidate, University of Edinburgh

CSI Underwater

For Neil Cunningham Dobson, Odyssey’s Principle Marine Archaeologist, undersea exploration is a dream job. With his love of maritime history and sports diving, a career in marine archaeology seemed like a no brainer. But it’s not all fun.

The painstaking reality of modern shipwreck exploration can involve months or even years of work. Rather than Indiana Jones of the oceans, he sees himself leading the CSI Underwater team (surely the next franchise for Jerry Bruckheimer if he can work out the logistics)

Shipwrecks are unexplained events and they don’t have black box recorders. The team has to solve why, how and where they happened. “It can take years to fully excavate, conserve, study and publish the results of a shipwreck investigation and excavation,” Dobson says. “The research itself could take months as extensive research is carried out in historical archives around the world.”

To know everything is to know nothing

The moment a wreck is discovered is an amazing experience for the Odyssey team. It is the accumulation of months of work, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The astounding thing about discovering a shipwreck is that despite months of research and meticulous planning, the team never really knows what it will discover. Each wreck is unique and can hold hundreds of stories. The everyday possessions of a 16th century sailor may not be intrinsically valuable but they can reveal a huge amount about the era. They have a kind of elegiac beauty to them, and, having served in the Merchant Navy, Dobson feels a kind of kinship with them.

Dobson sees a shipwreck as an extraordinary event. They are certainly tragic as many hundreds of people may have been killed but perhaps it is a fitting memoriam that people’s stories are brought back to life and not lost in the eternal depths of the ocean. Dobson sees bringing this history back to life as the real treasure.

Show me the money

Although the Odyssey team may have never had any Indiana Jones adventures with a swarm of Nazis after their discoveries, there has been the occasional scuffle with governments.

There are no clear lines to show you where one country’s waters end and international waters begin. When the Black Swan, a 17th century ship was discovered in 2007, the Guardia Civil searched the team’s research vessels after the Spanish government was given mistaken reports that the treasure was recovered from its territorial waters. There was a huge amount at stake: the value of the Black Swan’s treasure had increased with four centuries of compound interest. The coins found on board were valued in the region of a staggering $500 million (approx £300 million). It would be a rather ironic spin on modern piracy if the company had spent months unearthing the hoard, only to have it snatched away at the last moment.

The next Jacques Cousteau?

One of the myths Odyssey would like to rebuff is that all archaeologists think that data and treasures from excavations should only be available to certain people. It has unveiled multimedia exhibits across America that enables the public to share in the fascinating treasures recovered from the shipwrecks; interactive activities let children take footsteps into the past.

One of Dobson’s greatest feelings is when he gets a letter from someone saying an exhibit has inspired them to find out more about maritime history or has made them decide to pursue a career in archaeology. That is its own treasure, he says, and if there is no one to pick up the torch after Odyssey, then the discoveries may as well fade away back into the depths of the ocean.

There is a belief in some circles (based on the works of the late maritime archaeology pioneer, Keith Muckelroy) that shipwreck sites maintain their equilibrium underwater and so should be left alone. But as Emily Stammitti from the University of Edinburgh notes, Odyssey enables public access to its research and discoveries easy.

By understanding the past, we can learn more about the future. Man’s imagination will always exceed his reach, but that never stopped anyone from trying.