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USS Republic update

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Salvagers Say a Shipwreck Trove Is Worth Millions

The New York Times ^ | November 30, 2003 | WILLIAM J. BROAD






It lay in darkness at the bottom of the Atlantic for more than a century, guarded only by the occasional shark. Now, the 150-year-old steamship has a visitor: a robot bristling with lights, cameras and mechanical arms that is picking its way through the wreckage, hauling up a fortune in gold and silver coins, eventually perhaps 30,000 of them.


The ship is the Republic, which sailed from New York in 1865, just after the Civil War, carrying 59 passengers and crew and a mixed cargo meant to help New Orleans recover from the war. About 100 miles off Georgia, battling a hurricane, it sank in waters a third of a mile deep.


Its cargo of lost coins, experts say, may now be worth up to $150 million; that would make it one of history's richest treasure wrecks, though far shy of the $400 million claimed to have been recovered in the 1980's from the Atocha, a Spanish galleon lost off Florida in 1622.


"It's a dream come true," said Dr. Donald H. Kagin, an expert on 19th-century coins who is advising the company that discovered the wreck. "There are piles of coins."


The company, Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Fla., announced the find in August and said it hoped to retrieve the coins. Today it is announcing that the treasure is real and is detailing its findings. So far, the company has retrieved more than 1,600 gold and silver coins. None are dated later than 1865, tending to confirm the wreck's identity, said Greg Stemm, the company's director of operations.


"For some reason, even the silver coins are in great condition," said Mr. Stemm, 46. "Part of it is surely the physical environment down there." The icy deep, explorers are finding, can often preserve objects, even precious metals like silver that normally corrode easily.


In the weeks ahead, the team expects to finish recovering coins and turn to salvaging other artifacts. Already, it has retrieved the ship's bell and hundreds of jars and bottles.


"It goes from pepper sauce to pickles to Champagne to mustard to patent medicine," Mr. Stemm said. "They're in beautiful condition and they tell a beautiful story of what the North thought the South needed after the war."


(He said he was puzzled about one thing. "It's the beginning of Reconstruction," he said. "In this valuable space, why were they sending down pickles?")


A public company, Odyssey sells stock and hopes to turn a profit mainly by setting up shipwreck museums and selling coins. It argues that coins have less archaeological value than cultural items like ship parts and navigational gear and that selling them is an ideal way to finance recoveries of purely historical interest.


Mr. Stemm says the company's mission is to haul up not just riches but enough artifacts to resurrect the spirit of forgotten ships and eras.


Not everyone agrees with this approach. While some academic experts praise it as a new window on the deep, others dismiss it as unprofessional and unscholarly.


Kevin J. Crisman, a marine archaeologist at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, said treasure hunters tended to inflate the estimated value of shipwrecks and to renege on promises to do archaeology. In the case of the Republic, he said, the prudent thing was to "wait until all the dust has settled."


Like many treasure hunts, the search for the Republic was a study in perseverance. For 16 years, Mr. Stemm and his colleagues probed the deep sea with sonar and robots, discovering scores of interesting wrecks and thousands of artifacts but never a mother lode.


Mr. Stemm and a partner, John C. Morris, bought their first marine robot in 1987, eager to hunt for deep wrecks rather than ones in shallow waters, where waves, storms and currents have thrown wreckage into disarray and where scuba divers often plunder what remains.


Their first big hit came in the Gulf of Mexico, near the Dry Tortugas, west of Key West. In the depths, they discovered a 17th-century Spanish merchant ship and hauled up not only pearls and jewelry but also wooden beams, olive jars and ballast stones, recording each item's position for archaeological analysis.


Although they excavated 17,000 artifacts, including gold chains and more than two dozen gold bars, the financial gains only just matched the millions spent on recovery.


Since then, Mr. Stemm and Mr. Morris, Odyssey's founders, have zeroed in exclusively on what appear to be rich wrecks, like the Republic.


Built in 1853, bearing tall masts as well as paddle wheels, it sailed from New York on Oct. 18, 1865. A storm hit off Georgia. For two days, the steamship fought wind and wave. Then the engine failed. The crew and passengers threw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. But the pumps failed and seawater poured in.


The Republic went down a week after it set sail. Most people made it into lifeboats and a raft: 42 men, women and children survived. But the cargo of money — $400,000 in coins, as described in newspapers of the day — went down with the ship.


Mr. Stemm and Mr. Morris began looking for the Republic in the early 1990's. But nothing came of the intermittent hunt until July when, some 100 miles southeast of Savannah, Ga., one of their sonars produced a ghostly tantalizing image. The company sent down a small robot. Its camera revealed a disintegrating hulk with identifiable parts like a paddle wheel and a giant steam engine.


At that point the team loaded the company's 250-foot recovery ship, the Odyssey Explorer, with advanced gear. Last month, the Explorer sailed into position over the decomposing wreck. Engineers lowered a tethered seven-ton robot.


In icy darkness at the bottom of the Atlantic, the robot took thousands of photographs, which the team made into a detailed photo mosaic to guide recovery work.


Near the wreck's bow, the team spotted a bronze bell. It was recovered and, though partly eroded, turned out to bear the letters "SSEE." The Republic was originally named the Tennessee, and the company in a statement said the bell positively identified the wreck.


Early this month, the team had the robot vacuum away sand from where the cache was believed to lie. A few coins appeared, then more. "They followed it like a trail of bread crumbs," Mr. Stemm said, "and came upon a cascade of gold coins."


To date, the company has recovered more silver than gold. "That caught us by surprise," Mr. Stemm said. He said Odyssey expected to find gold coins because silver was scarce in the Republic's day. Mr. Stemm noted that most of the coins they are finding now are gold.


Once numismatic experts have inspected the recovered coins, the company plans to release reports on their number, condition and value.


Mr. Stemm said Odyssey was talking to the company that insured the Republic's money shipment, adding that he expected the ship's finders would share some reasonable fraction of the proceeds with the insurer.


Dr. Kagin, who is an Odyssey investor as well as an adviser, said the company was different from its predecessors because it was public and would fully disclose its finds, work and revenues.


Mr. Stemm said Odyssey, after raising all the Republic's coins in the next few weeks, would then focus on archaeological recovery of other artifacts for a month or two.


After that, early next year, Odyssey plans to move its recovery ship to the Mediterranean over a wreck thought to be the Sussex, a British warship that sank in 1694. In partnership with the British government, the company plans to recover a cargo of coins that experts estimate might fetch as much as $4 billion, which would be a record haul.


"If real estate is location, location, location," Mr. Stemm said, "shipwrecks are research, research, research."







Victor D. Easley


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Odyssey Media Alert: Greg Stemm, Odyssey Marine Exploration's

Co-founder and Director of Operations, will appear on NBC's Today

Show on Monday, December 1st, at approximately 9 am (Eastern

Standard Time).





Odyssey Marine Exploration issued the following press release








TAMPA, Fla. (December 1, 2003) -- Odyssey Marine Exploration,

Inc.(Amex: OMR) a leader in the field of deep ocean shipwreck

exploration, has commenced archaeological excavation and recovery

of specie from the shipwreck of the SS Republic. National Geographic

Television and Film (NGT&F) is documenting the entire expedition

for broadcast on Dateline NBC and "National Geographic Ultimate

Explorer" on MSNBC in January 2004 and for a National Geographic

Special on PBS later in 2004.


"We have finished an extensive archaeological pre-disturbance

survey and photomosaic of the site. Archaeologist Neil Cunningham

Dobson is overseeing a precision archaeological excavation, carefully

retrieving and recording the location of thousands of artifacts,

including the ship's bell, bottles and specie. The beautifully

preserved artifacts are providing an amazing glimpse of the historical

time capsule represented by this site," said Greg Stemm, Odyssey

co-founder and director of operations. "The condition and diversity

of the coins we have recovered so far have significantly exceeded

our expectations. We are literally picking up one coin at a time

with a specially designed soft silicone limpet so that we do

not mar the surface of these beautiful pieces. Initial tests

have shown that we can recover as many as 750 coins per day using

this method. We cannot predict how many coins will be found,

but we have only recovered a small fraction of the specie that

is visible on the site."


There are four separate concentrations of coins visible on the

site. To date, more than 750 gold coins have been recovered from

one of these areas. Approximately 60% are Coronet Head 20 Dollar

Double Eagles, and the rest are Coronet Head 10 Dollar Eagles.

In a different area from the gold specie, more than 900 silver

Seated Liberty Half Dollars have been recovered. Both gold and

silver coins were minted in a wide variety of cities and years.



"While the majority of the coins visible on the site are gold,

finding the silver pieces was a pleasant surprise. We were amazed

to find silver coins in such fine condition that you can actually

still see the mint luster," stated Stemm. "Many of the gold coins

have a slight dark film that rinses away easily, revealing uncirculated

surfaces beneath."


The SS Republic was a side wheel steamer that sank in 1865 while

en route from New York to New Orleans after battling a hurricane

for two days. All the crew and passengers made it safely off

the vessel, although a number of people died on one of the rafts

before they could be rescued. Historical records indicate the

ship was carrying "$400,000 in specie" when she sank. Odyssey

discovered the shipwreck 1,700 feet below the surface of the

Atlantic Ocean approximately 100 miles off the Georgia coast.

More information on the discovery of the SS Republic and pictures

of the site can be found at www.shipwreck.net .


While excavation has already uncovered what appear to be thousands

of coins, there is insufficient information at this point to

predict the total value of the shipwreck and its cargo. The silver

coins and smaller denomination gold coins may bring a higher

return per face dollar value than 20 dollar gold pieces. Once

all of the coins have been recovered and numismatic experts have

had the opportunity to inspect the entire collection, the company

will release a detailed report.


The expedition has been documented in great detail since September

by National Geographic. The two films are being produced by NGT&F

in association with JWM Productions, LLC.


"National Geographic has been here every step of the way covering

the Odyssey Republic expedition," stated Stemm. "We're excited

about sharing the amazing story of the Republic and the in-depth

coverage of our expedition with the public."


"National Geographic has a long history covering this kind of

expedition," stated David Royle, executive producer of National

Geographic Ultimate Explorer and senior vice president for production

at NGT&F. "We have covered some of the classic Geographic expeditions

like Titanic and Bismarck and we're uniquely qualified to tell

the remarkable story of the Republic."


Building on its global reputation for remarkable visuals and

compelling stories, National Geographic Television & Film augments

its award-winning documentary productions (122 Emmy Awards and

more than 800 other industry awards) with feature films, large-format

films and long-form television drama programming. Worldwide,

National Geographic's television programming can be seen on the

National Geographic Channel, MSNBC and PBS, home video and DVD,

and through international broadcast syndication. The National

Geographic Channel is received by more than 200 million households

in 26 languages in 146 countries, including the United States.

For more information about National Geographic Television & Film,

log on to nationalgeographic.com, AOL Keyword: NatGeo.


Odyssey Marine Exploration is an American Stock Exchange Company

(Stock symbol: OMR) with several shipwreck projects in various

stages of development throughout the world, including the SS

Republic and HMS Sussex projects. Additional information about

Odyssey, its projects and equipment is available at www.shipwreck.net.



- END -


The Company believes the information set forth in this Press

Release may include "forward-looking statements." Certain factors

that could cause results to differ materially from those projected

in the forward-looking statements are set forth in "Risk Factors,"

and "Business" in the Company's annual report on Form 10KSB for

the year ended February 28, 2003, which has been filed with the

Securities and Exchange Commission.



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Great info Victor - thanks. This is making papers all over the place lately. I hope that Nat. Geo. will do a nice write-up on the project. It's amazing to me what is being discovered with the recent innovations of deep water exploration.



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I watched the short bit on NBC Today. They are carefully recovering the coins one at a time in order to prevent damage. The gold looked nice. Some were tan-toned and some had "algae" on their surfaces. Some of the surface coins had minimal crescent-shaped encrustations on them. The report said that thousands of seated liberty halves were recovered, some with full mint luster. Silver coinage finds cames as a surprise to the Odyssey crew. They are filming in detail and will eventually produce a video.

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