The Cut-throat World of Treasure Hunting Some explorers intent on salvaging treasures lost at sea will stop at nothing, says New Yorker writer John Colapinto.
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The Cut-throat World of Treasure Hunting

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The Cut-throat World of Treasure Hunting

The Cut-throat World of Treasure Hunting

The Cut-throat World of Treasure Hunting

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Some explorers intent on salvaging treasures lost at sea will stop at nothing, says New Yorker writer John Colapinto.


Treasure hunting used to be different back in the day. You used to need an eye patch and a map with a big X on it. You said all your Rs like a pirate, like arrrrgyle(ph) socks, and "Goonies" never said die. Things were simple.


Then, yes. Nowadays, you use underwater robots to search shipwrecks. Then you remain extremely secretive about what you find, telling the media that it's worth millions of dollars, but not telling anyone where it is or what country you think the treasure is from. Then you end up in a dispute with the country that says it's their ship you found and their treasure.

STEWART: In January, a court ordered Odyssey to reveal the wreck's location and share info about the artifacts it found. Share it with, too, Spain. Ownership of coins already pulled from the wreck? Still in dispute.

MARTIN: The Black Swan is the latest, but by no means the first, controversy for Odyssey. It's headed up by John Morris and Greg Stemm. John Colapinto wrote about Odyssey for the New Yorker this week, and he joined us yesterday in our studio to tell us the odyssey of Odyssey.


MARTIN: Who are the modern-day treasure hunters? Who are these people?

JOHN COLAPINTO: Well, you know, the modern-day ones are guys like Greg and John, Greg Stemm and John Morris, that are kind of corporate. Like, they're super-corporatized guys, you know, with logos on their shirts that say "Odyssey Marine Exploration" and kind of bland offices that could be an insurance company. And they're very - the talk the lingo of Wall Street and they're in, you know, with hedge fund managers. And it's all very - and they have these huge deep-sea robots, so it's all very corporatized.

MARTIN: It's business.

COLAPINTO: It's a business now.

MARTIN: What are - if you don't mind explaining some of the cloak-and-dagger details of this Sussex story? This was something you were very heavily involved in, the research and investigating. Describe to us how you pursued this story.

COLAPINTO: It goes out there and Odyssey really benefits from those figures being named. You know, obviously, there's some doubt as to whether it even is the Sussex. It might not be the right anchor, according to this History Hunter fellow. So it's all gotten rather complicated, and I spent a lot of time trying to unravel this.

MARTIN: When you say Odyssey is benefiting from this, explain to us what that means. They are perhaps deriving a little more financial benefit than people might think.

COLAPINTO: Well, that's the other wrinkle to this increasingly wrinkled story, is that the Odyssey is if not the only, then one of the only, and I think they certainly were the first treasure hunters ever to be publicly traded, listed on the stock exchange. And what makes it so interesting about them being publicly traded is that when they announce a find like the Sussex with its four billion dollars, allegedly, or the Black Swan, an alleged 500 million dollar treasure, the stock does something that's rather predictable - it goes up.

MARTIN: Interesting.

COLAPINTO: Yes, it will double, you know what I mean? Isn't that a surprise?

MARTIN: Isn't that funny?


COLAPINTO: And when the Black Swan was found, Odyssey said, you know, we can't tell you where it was found. We can't show the treasure to anyone. We can't tell you whose king is on the coins. We can't tell you the date of the coins, but just trust us. We're going to post on our website an independent expert's theory that this could sell for as much as 500 million dollars.

MARTIN: But I mean, you can't - on Wall Street you can't just say to Wall Street, oh, by the way, this is how much our stock is worth because we found this treasure that we say is this much money. I mean, the SEC, I imagine, got involved and started looking into this?

COLAPINTO: That's the - another fascinating part of the story is that in an earlier incarnation as a company called "Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology," Greg Stemm and John Morris found another treasure in the Dry Tortugas near Florida - Florida Keys - that was also trumpeted as - again, in newspapers like the New York Times and others, as being 800 million dollars. This was back in 1989. And the stock again did that predictable thing. It shot up. And in that instance, Greg Stemm and John Morris and the company was investigated by the SEC.

MARTIN: Because did they sell their shares? Were there indications that...

COLAPINTO: Yes, indeed.

MARTIN: Were their indications that major shareholders were selling after that announcement? Major red flag.

COLAPINTO: Seahawk said it was five million, but anyway, it was not 800 million. And so it - the SEC put on its case, Seahawk put on a strong defense, and, in fact, was acquitted. They were found innocent of any wrongdoing. And that's why there were then able to move on and do Odyssey, which they had then started sometime before.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about the laws that govern these kinds of discoveries?

COLAPINTO: You know, there are laws that have existed at least since the '70s that gave countries sovereign immunity, which is ownership, over their warships.

MARTIN: But Odyssey says finders' keepers, essentially.

COLAPINTO: And they're feeling the same way about sunken ships of theirs. But I should mention, you asked me about the legal aspects. There's this UNESCO convention from around 2001 that's really been created to thwart treasure hunters. And what it essentially says is that anything older than 100 years old cannot be sold. So that really kind of puts the kibosh on treasure hunters.

MARTIN: You're supposed to just surrender it to a historical society?

COLAPINTO: Or not pick it up at all.

MARTIN: Just not pick it up? You're supposed to leave it there?

COLAPINTO: Just leave it there. That's really the trend now. Countries like Spain are saying, we're content to just leave our wrecks there. And in Odyssey's defense, Odyssey says that's crazy. I mean, we have the money and the technology to send robots down to meticulously photograph this stuff, to videotape it. You know that you may object to the fact that we want to sell the treasure in order to fund more of this, but, you know, we're doing legitimate recording of the site and so on.

MARTIN: There are some other folks out there who have a different beef with these folks. People who work in museums, people who are really into archeology, they worry that treasure hunters like the folks at Odyssey - they're not really doing what they should to preserve what they think are very treasures sites, right?

COLAPINTO: I spoke with the sort of father of nautical archeology, George Bass at Texas A&M, and he really talked about how ships he's discovered he has studied over 30 years. I mean, reconstructing the hull from tiny fragments, glassware being meticulously pieced together, a million fragments at a time. This is the kind of meticulous care. Another nautical archeologist told me that view them as crime scenes, and they go into them with that kind of meticulous care. Odyssey...

MARTIN: Doesn't do that.

COLAPINTO: Another archeologist I spoke to that wanted to remain anonymous said that he saw a project plan to sink a shaft through the decks of a ship to get where the gold lay. This would have been after Odyssey took the meticulous photography and so on. But at the end of the day, when Odyssey needs to do is get at whatever is valuable, so they can get at whatever is valuable so that they can sell it and thus fund - keep funding the operation.

MARTIN: John Colapinto, thank you so much for coming. We appreciate it.

COLAPINTO: My pleasure, Rachel. Thank you so much.

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MARTIN: I'm Rachel Martin.

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