Florida treasure-hunting vessel held

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Spanish patrol boats forced another U.S. treasure-hunting ship into port in an escalating face-off in court and on the high seas between Spain and Tampa, Fla.-based Odyssey Marine Explorations.

Spanish patrol boats forced another U.S. treasure-hunting ship into port in an escalating face-off in court and on the high seas between Spain and Tampa, Fla.-based Odyssey Marine Explorations.

Stopping the Odyssey Explorer Oct. 16 in international waters, the Spanish Navy and Guardia Civil threatened to use armed force against the treasure-hunting ship if it did not proceed with them to Algeciras, Spain, for the court-ordered boarding and inspection, according to Odyssey. The vessel’s master, Stirling Vorgus, a U.S. citizen, was taken into custody overnight allegedly for trying to evade the court order, Odyssey says. Vorgus was released the next morning, the ship a day later after a thorough going-over by Spanish authorities.

This is the second time Spanish officials have taken an Odyssey vessel into custody. On July 12, the Guardia Civil stopped the survey vessel Ocean Alert 3.5 miles off Gibraltar — also in international waters — and took it to a dock in Algeciras for boarding and inspection. Ocean Alert couldn’t leave port for six days. Odyssey claims in that boarding that the Guardia Civil seized privileged attorney-client documents and a laptop computer belonging to one of Odyssey’s attorneys.

The Spanish government has filed notices in U.S. District Court in Tampa that it has not given up any claims to Spanish property in three cases that Odyssey has filed in that court to decide ownership of three shipwrecks. Among those wrecks is one code-named Black Swan, which Odyssey secretly found and quietly salvaged, recovering 17 tons — $500 million worth — of silver coins. Odyssey maintains it found Black Swan in the Atlantic outside any nation’s territorial waters. According to the Spanish press, a Cadiz judge ordered Odyssey’s vessels seized in the belief that the treasure-hunters had found Black Swan in Spanish territorial waters and illegally salvaged the silver.

“We are sure that the Spanish government is now well aware that the Black Swan was not in Spanish waters and that the disposition of the coins is now subject to U.S. federal court jurisdiction, so we’re not sure what the inspection of the Explorer was meant to accomplish,” says Greg Stemm, Odyssey co-chairman.

Odyssey says it has provided a 109-page legal affidavit to the governments of Spain, Andalusia, the United Kingdom, Gibraltar and the United States. The affidavit details Odyssey’s activities leading up to and following the May announcement of the Black Swan discovery, to assure the parties that it undertook the salvage legally, according to salvage law and the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Odyssey has amended its court filings in the three shipwreck cases, asking for damages from Spain for lost operational time resulting from the vessel seizures and illegal interference with its salvage operations. Odyssey says it also has asked the court to keep its preliminary shipwreck site assessments sealed because of a “history of repeated leaks of confidential information from some Spanish government agencies.” Odyssey alleges that Spain’s attorney, James Goold, is chairman of RPM Nautical Foundation, which it says is a “potential competitor to Odyssey in the provision of underwater archaeological services to government agencies.” Odyssey says even if it turns out Spain has some claim to the finds — and it doesn’t believe Spain has a claim — courts typically award 90 percent of a recovery to the salvor, who risked money, material and lives to find it and salvage it.

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