In February, Florida-based salvage firm Odyssey Marine Exploration [www.shipwreck.net] announced it had located the wreck of HMS Victory, a 100-gun Royal Navy ship of the line that sank in 1744 during a violent storm in the English Channel. The discovery sparked interest among historians and archaeologists—the vessel was the most advanced warship of her time and took to the bottom Admiral Sir John Balchen and 1,100 crewmen. Yet the possibility the wreck may also hold up to $1 billion in gold and silver has renewed a long-simmering controversy over whether for-profit salvors should be allowed to exploit historically important commercial and military shipwrecks. Odyssey cofounder, chief executive officer and chairman Greg Stemm doesn’t believe research and reward are necessarily mutually exclusive.
How many warships has Odyssey pinpointed?
We’ve had the privilege of discovering hundreds of shipwrecks from many countries and eras, and we’ve investigated dozens that were likely military vessels. Although we focus on high-value civilian targets, we encounter wrecks during our sonar and magnetometer surveys that we did not have in our database. Such wrecks occasionally include sites classified as either military vessels or victims of warfare.
We have found a World War I German U-boat, a number of World War II U-boats, a World War I British armed merchantman, one probable Spanish Civil War warship, possibly four military auxiliaries and as many as eight “cannon wrecks” from the age of sail, some of which might be either armed merchant ships or naval vessels.
And, of course, HMS Victory, the mightiest and most technologically advanced vessel of the era. Her loss was a terrible blow to the English. Soon after she sank, theories surrounding her disappearance seemed to point to the fact she hit the rocks known as the Casquets due to faulty navigation. The navigational skills of Admiral Sir John Balchen were called into question, and a lighthouse keeper was court martialed. Yet Odyssey located Victory nearly 60 miles from where everyone believed she went down, thus helping to exonerate those blamed for her loss.
Where have you found the most wrecks?
The greatest concentration of military finds has been in the “Atlas” search area, generally around the British Isles and English Channel, where all but one of the U-boat wrecks were discovered. However, every area surveyed by the company has produced far more commercial or private wrecks than military ones.
Do you approach warship wrecks differently?
Preliminary archaeological investigation of military wreck sites is limited to visual survey and, at times, measurement of site features to aid in identification. Typically no excavation, artifact retrieval or site interference occurs with confirmed military wrecks. However, if we can be reasonably certain of a site’s identity, we will immediately notify the flag government. Every wreck site we explore, military or commercial, is treated with the utmost respect, as lives have been lost on most of these sites.
Do certain laws and treaties govern warship wrecks?
Generally, the Law of the Sea Convention indicates that military vessels remain the property of their respective governments. However, it is important to differentiate between military vessels, which under certain conditions enjoy sovereign immunity, and vessels or cargoes that do not.
The basic concept of sovereign immunity is that a government may refuse salvage on military vessels that were strictly on noncommercial missions. In theory, this protection only applies to the ship itself, not to the cargo, unless the cargo was government-owned. When a ship or its cargo is not sovereign immune, salvage law typically dictates the award.
Of the warships you’ve found, which is the most historically significant?
While every shipwreck we come across tells a story, some have changed the course of history.
One example is HMS Sussex, which sank in a 1694 storm off Gibraltar. This was not only a disaster for England and her allies in the War of the League of Augsburg, but possibly also a turning point of world history. Research suggests Sussex was laden with a considerable sum of coins and bullion intended to strengthen the commitment of the Duke of Savoy. Had the Anglo-Dutch fleet escaped the storm of February 1694, perhaps William III would have launched a battle in France at a time when Louis XIV’s forces were disorganized. Some think a victory of the Grand Alliance in 1694 would eventually have led to greater British successes in the French and Indian War, allowing North America to remain a British colony well into modern times.
Warships throughout history have typically represented the most advanced use of marine architecture and technology. Aside from the information we learn about construction, all wrecks contain artifacts that give us insight into the lives of those who sailed aboard them, providing valuable information to historians, sociologists, economists and many other disciplines.
Critics claim your salvage efforts harm historic wrecks. Do they?
We are pioneers in deep-ocean shipwreck exploration. Before beginning recovery efforts, we fully document a site by creating a pre-disturbance photomosaic, which consists of thousands of individual images stitched together. We operate according to archaeological procedures that are as minimally intrusive as possible, while recording as much of the site during excavations as we can. All of our expeditions and every step of our work are supervised by one or more of our marine archaeologists, who ensure proper archaeological procedures are followed. Every step of the process is photo and video documented.
How do you handle artifacts?
Each artifact is recorded, then transferred into a basket for safe storage and transport to the ship, where it is turned over to the onboard conservator and archaeological team for stabilization and conservation. We have recovered tens of thousands of valuable coins, unbroken bottles and other fragile artifacts.
What kinds of research do you do?
We have a team of marine researchers, historians and archivists who comb the world’s libraries and archives researching potential shipwrecks. We use all available primary sources—private correspondence of participants; original documents preserved in archives or published transcripts of those documents; newspaper reports; government investigations; business records; and all the other fundamental sources typically employed in maritime history. We search for, and review, as many secondary sources as possible, including the works of other historians, and often recheck those historians’ citations from primary or secondary sources. [Our] research programs are very widespread and reach into the filing cabinets of private companies as well as museums, libraries and government collections.
How did Odyssey originate?
I have always been fascinated with the mysteries lying on the bottom of the sea. About 25 years ago, I met John Morris, who also had a passion for deep-ocean technology and marine archaeology. We bought our first research vessel in 1986 and began to explore some new deep-ocean technologies. We also formulated the concept for what Odyssey is today—a shipwreck-exploration company focused on conducting the best-practice archaeology with sound business practices.
What poses the greatest threat to historic shipwrecks?
Many wrecks are in danger when left in situ, especially those in heavily trafficked and fished areas.
For example, there is evidence of extreme natural deterioration on HMS Victory, due in part to the constant movement of sediments and currents, scouring, extensive fishing trawl net damage, and the intrusion of modern trash and debris. Currently, there is no legal protection for deep-water wrecks, and if left in situ, important sites will eventually be mostly destroyed. We hope to raise awareness on the danger these sites are facing, and we believe much important history will be lost forever if sites aren’t excavated in a proper archaeological manner.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.