Writer: Eoghan Macguire/CNN International
Deep-sea treasure hunting evokes storybook images of buccaneers on daring ocean adventures but for those in the rapidly expanding sector of marine archaeology, scouring the depths for sunken riches means business - big business.
“There are billions of dollars of potential in this industry,” says Sean Tucker, founder and managing member of Galleon Ventures, a US-based historical shipwreck company. “Treasure-bearing ships that have historical artefacts are lying at the bottom of the sea just waiting to be brought to the surface,” he adds.
UNESCO estimates there are as many as three million shipwrecks scattered across ocean depths. Although Tucker points out that only 3,000 of these are likely to bear any valuables, discoveries like the 3 billion USD of platinum on a WWII merchant vessel last month by American salvage company, Sub Sea Research, confirm the industry's potential. The possibility to reap such bountiful rewards has inevitably led to increased industry investment in recent years.
Hedge funds, private equity firms as well as cash-rich investors have all been eager to support increasingly specialised salvage ventures. Consequently, explains Tucker, the biggest companies now utilise the same advanced tools big oil firms use to locate deep sea drilling opportunities, adding that the most expensive exploration projects, almost always in a deep-sea environment, can cost in the region of 30 million USD dollars.
According to Tucker, the potential to make vast profits has led some companies to explore wrecks that modern day governments still claim ownership over without permission, leading to a significant number of “amateurs doing it under the radar.”
Concerns about the methods used by some operating in the industry are also noted by Lucy Blue from the Centre of Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton. She says that some projects plunder sunken wrecks with little concern for their archaeological and academic value, leading to the desecration of important underwater sites. “When you dig a hole in the ocean you are effectively destroying the archaeological evidence,” she says.
Not only is this frustrating from an academic perspective, Blue adds, but it also ensures that important monuments to maritime history are locked away in the hands of private collectors. “You have to question what’s happening with what’s found. Are the artefacts held in a collection that people can benefit and learn from or are they for the profit of a few?”
Blue acknowledges that not all operators are archaeologically inconsiderate but says more governments must sign the UNESCO Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention to properly regulate the trade.
Tucker agrees saying it’s better in the end to cooperate with international bodies and work ethically. Given the considerations of shareholders and private investors, he adds, “there's nothing worse than taking your investors’ money and then having a government tell you can't keep the treasure you've found.”
The agreement between Florida-based Odyssey Marine and the British government to locate the wreck of 17th century ship the HMS Sussex is one example of how private businesses and sovereign countries can cooperate to mutual benefit. Tucker’s own work with the government of Colombia - where along with partners Seaquest International, Galleon are negotiating a “host country contract” to explore various underwater wrecks, dividing the profits recovered and donating historical artefacts to national institutions - is another example of marine salvage that is responsible and profitable.
If governments, academics and private businesses can work together in a similar way, Tucker adds, the potential of this billion-dollar industry can be shared by all.