- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2007

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Florida deep-sea explorers have gone on the offensive in a legal dispute with the Spanish government over a treasure-laden shipwreck, asking a federal judge to protect the secret locations of possible wreck sites and demanding damages for the nation’s “appalling” interference with its operations.

Odyssey Marine Exploration wants protective orders to maintain the confidentiality of three shipwreck sites it has located and compensation for Spain’s “illegal” seizure and interference with its ships working out of the British port of Gibraltar, according to documents filed late Monday in federal court in Tampa.

The continued secrecy surrounding the recovery of roughly $500 million in silver coins from an undisclosed shipwreck code-named “Black Swan” has contributed to increasing tension between the Tampa company and Spain, which thinks it has a claim on the treasure.

James A. Goold, an attorney who filed a claim in U.S. federal court on behalf of Spain, said yesterday that he was still reviewing the latest court filings, but that it appears Odyssey “wants to talk about anything but” the nation’s demand for more details about the treasure find.

Odyssey’s 240-foot Ocean Alert was seized by Spanish authorities after it left Gibraltar on July 12. The vessel was eventually released, but Odyssey claims in its complaint that Spanish authorities illegally copied privileged information from a lawyer’s laptop computer and forced Ocean Alert’s crew to “sit in the scalding sun for approximately seven hours without food or water or use of the restroom.” The company said another ship, Ocean Explorer, “remains blockaded in Gibraltar” because of Spain’s threat to seize it, court records show.

Spanish government officials did not immediately respond to phone calls.

Odyssey said in a statement yesterday that it is prepared to release details about the three shipwreck sites to a federal judge to decide who, if anyone, should see the information.

“We continue to hope that Spain will recognize that we are acting in good faith and that we remain ready to cooperate with the Spanish government on any sites that we discover that may involve Spanish heritage,” Odyssey co-founder Gregg Stemm said in a statement.

At the heart of the dispute is Spain’s claim that it has a right to share in the Black Swan treasure if it was recovered in territorial waters or is connected to the nation’s heritage in any way.

Citing security and other concerns, Odyssey will not disclose the location of the shipwreck. The company says it is not yet sure of the identity of the sunken ship, which yielded 17 tons of coins that were flown to the United States in May.

Spain has filed a claim in federal court in Tampa and has tried to force the company to disclose more details.

Even if another country or party is able to prove a claim to the shipwreck and its cargo, Odyssey said it would apply for a salvage award in U.S. federal court, which has jurisdiction over admiralty cases. In similar cases, salvage companies are usually awarded a large percentage of the recovery.

Some experts think Odyssey found the wreck of the Merchant Royal, a British ship loaded with tons of Spanish coins that sank off the southwestern tip of England in 1641. The company received exclusive salvage rights to a wreck site in the area where the Merchant Royal is thought to have gone down.

But Spanish officials say circumstantial evidence indicates otherwise. In March, before the Black Swan story broke, Spanish officials gave Odyssey permission to resume its search for the wreck of a British vessel, the HMS Sussex, in the western Mediterranean Sea.

Despite Odyssey’s emphatic statements to the contrary, some in Spain think the Black Swan treasure came from the Sussex, which was leading a British fleet into the Mediterranean for a war against France in 1694 when it sank in a storm off Gibraltar.