- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

TAMPA, Fla.

Deep-sea explorers who discovered what could be the richest ever shipwreck treasure tried to control an international storm of rumors Monday about where it came from and who might be entitled to a piece of the historic haul.

Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration created an international sensation Friday by announcing the recovery of more than 500,000 colonial-era silver and gold coins — possibly worth $500 million — from an unspecified Atlantic Ocean shipwreck.

Odyssey added to the intrigue by withholding details about the shipwreck — where it was found or even what kind of coins they had hauled back to the United States.

“We are overwhelmed by the worldwide interest in this project, and it reinforces our belief that shipwreck exploration hits a nerve with the public. I wasn’t prepared for the response,” Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm said from Los Angeles, where he was meeting with Disney representatives about TV and movie projects.

In England, the discovery generated press reports that Odyssey had salvaged the wreck of the long-sought British vessel Merchant Royal, which sank in bad weather off England in 1641.

In Spain, the government said it was “suspicious” of Odyssey’s find, given that it recently granted permission to the company to hunt for the wreck of the HMS Sussex in the Mediterranean Sea. Culture Minister Carmen Calvo said his nation will claim the loot if it turns out to be Spanish or was removed from Spanish waters.

Odyssey stated definitively Monday that its so-called Black Swan project that yielded the riches was not the Sussex, which historians believed was laden with gold coins when it sank off Gibraltar in 1694.

Regarding the Merchant Royal, Odyssey wasn’t confirming or denying anything.

“The ‘Black Swan’ bears characteristics of one shipwreck in particular, but some of the evidence gathered to date is inconsistent with our research, so we want to be sure of the identity before we announce it,” the company said in a statement.

A federal judge in Tampa granted Odyssey exclusive salvage rights last week to an unspecified shipwreck site near the English Channel, about 40 miles off the southwestern tip of England. That is the area where historians say the Merchant Royal went down laden with riches in 1641.

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