Black Swan Project: Wikis


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The Black Swan Project is the project name given by Odyssey Marine Exploration for its discovery and recovery of an estimated $500 million (£253 million) worth of silver and gold coins, from a shipwreck, rumored to be the Merchant Royal, which sank about 40 miles (64 km) off the coast of Cornwall, UK in 1641.[1] The Odyssey team believes wreck might be the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank off Portugal in 1804, but remains uncertain as to the true identity.[2]

The publicly-traded stock company is based in Tampa, Florida, and has not officially revealed the name of the shipwreck. The company has not released its location, but stressed it is in international waters in the North Atlantic and that it has, subsequently, been questioned by the government of Spain.

The value of the recovered coins is unconfirmed, but based on a preliminary valuation of an average potential sales price of $1,000 per coin, the recovered treasure trove could be worth $500 million. That numismatic value is based on the excellent condition of the coins and their relative scarcity, not on their base value as silver or gold bullion. However, different experts have offered very different valuations and the introduction of so many coins into the market could depress their value with coin collectors.

Knowledge of the recovery became public on May 18, 2007 when the company flew 17 tons[3] of coins, mostly silver, from Gibraltar to a secure location of unknown address in Florida, USA. The company has not yet released the type, date or nationality of the coins. Odyssey says that it plans to return to the site to perform an excavation expected to uncover more coins as well as other artifacts.[4]


Ship identity

Odyssey Marine stated on 21 May 2007 that most of the recovered coins and treasure are believed to be from a particular shipwreck, but it is likely that artifacts from other wrecks have also been mixed in and recovered. Due to the location of the ship in an area known to contain a large number of colonial-era wrecks, the identity of the ship will not be disclosed pending further examination of the coins and artifacts.[1] It is also thought the ship may be the same as a ship that Odyssey had petitioned a federal court for permission to salvage, which was located off the southwest coast of the United Kingdom,[1] within a five-mile (8 km) radius of 49°25′N 6°0′W / 49.417°N 6°W / 49.417; -6.[5]

The team currently believes that the ship may be the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish ship sunk in 1804, but no definitive conclusion has been made.[2]

There was speculation that it may be the wreck of the English merchant ship Merchant Royal, which sank on 23 September 1641 whilst returning to London. The ship sank in heavy weather when its pumps failed to keep up with the water leaking through the hull planks. Over half the crew, including the captain, John Limbrey, were able to abandon ship and were rescued by a sister-ship, Dover Merchant, which was accompanying Merchant Royal from Cadiz to London. The survivors provided a detailed description of the lost cargo — described in 1641 as "300,000 Pounds in silver, 100,000 Pounds in gold, and as much again in jewel" — as well as a general location near the Isles of Scilly, about "21 leagues" (about 35 to 40 miles) from Lands End.[6]

In 2005, the co-founder of Odyssey Marine, Greg Stemm, admitted to British shipwreck expert, Richard Larn, that his firm was searching for the Merchant Royal. Odyssey Marine's sonar search ships trolled the area extensively in 2005 and 2006, frequently calling in Falmouth for crew rest.[4]

The Odyssey crew continued to search for the Merchant Royal on the Discovery Channel 2009 television show Treasure Quest (filmed in 2008). This leads to the notion that the team does not suspect the Black Swan is the Merchant Royal.

Pictures of the coins released by Odyssey have had their markings obscured to prevent identification. However, from examining the edges of the coins it appears that they come from the middle of the 18th century — too late to be from the Merchant Royal.[7]

Investigating the findings

Rare coin expert Nick Bruyer, who examined a sample of 6,000 coins from the wreck, said of the discovery, "For this colonial era, I think (the find) is unprecedented... I don't know of anything equal or comparable to it."[3] He also believes much or all of the coinage is uncirculated.[3] The finds have been shipped in a chartered jet to an undisclosed location in the United States, where they are being examined.[3][6] Odyssey has said they expect the wreck to become one of the "most publicised in history".[6] The entire operation is thought to have taken years and cost millions.[4] Odyssey Marine's co-founder admitted, in 2005, that his "for profit" company was interested in searching for the fabled wreck of the "Merchant Royal", and the company's sonar search ships were known to be trolling in the Isles of Scilly area in 2005 and 2006.

In June 2007, the Spanish government took legal action against the salvage company based on suspicion that the silver and gold coin recovered by Odyssey Marine come from a Spanish vessel, the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a 36-gun Spanish frigate that went down off the Portuguese coast en route from Montevideo to Cádiz. The Mercedes, which was sunk by British Navy ships in October 1804, was known to be carrying more than a million silver dollars.

In January 2008, a US Federal Court in Tampa ordered Odyssey Marine to disclose details of the wreck site to the Spanish government and for both to return to court in March. During those proceedings, Odyssey Marine stated that its Black Swan treasure was recovered in the Atlantic approximately 180 miles (290 km) west of Portugal. That location would rule out the Merchant Royal (which sank much further north in the Atlantic), and the Mercedes (which sank approximately 30 nautical miles (56 km) off the Portuguese coast), and HMS Sussex (which sank inside the Strait of Gibraltar.) The recovered bullion, being predominately silver coins, with some gold coins and copper ingots, strongly suggests it came from a colonial-era Spanish ship that sank while transporting newly minted silver from South America to Spain.


If the sunken ship is identified to be the Merchant Royal, then the British and Spanish governments both have potential claims to the treasure. However, salvage law in international waters, as recognized by some English speaking countries, could award 90% of recovered treasure to the salvage firm.[8]

If the wreck is the "Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes", Spain could claim the entire ownership of the wreck. The government of Peru is also monitoring in case it's proven that the treasure came from Peru. Jose Jimenez, a senior official with the Spanish Ministry of Culture stated that Spain would be willing to share the treasure 'out of a sense of a common cultural heritage'.[9]

Spain has said it will exercise all of its jurisdictional rights in the hypothetical event that the find is part of Spain's heritage.[10] The Spanish Government is believed to be investigating whether a crime has been committed by, or as part of the project and is concerned that the coins might not come from the Merchant Royal at all, but from HMS Sussex, which lies off Gibraltar in international waters, within 12 miles (19 km) of Gibraltar, and contrary to international norms claimed by Spain.[11][12] Both of these claims are denied by Odyssey Marine Exploration in its latest press release.[13] The coins recovered in the Atlantic as of 18 May positively can not come from HMS Sussex, which is known to have sunk in what were Spanish waters at the time, inside the Strait of Gibraltar. The exploration agreement reached in January 2007 between Odyssey Marine and the regional government requires that official observers, approved by Andalucia, be present when the Odyssey Explorer resumes exploration of the wreck site thought to be the English warship Sussex.

On July 12, 2007, the vessel Ocean Alert belonging to Odyssey Marine was seized off Europa Point (Gibraltar) by the Spanish Civil Guard and sent to Algeciras to be searched. The seizure occurred at around 07:00 GMT soon after the ship left Gibraltar. Both Odyssey Marine and Gibraltar officials state the ship was in International Waters thereby rendering the seizure illegal.[14][15] After leaving Gibraltar, the Ocean Alert was picked up at 07:00 GMT off Europa Point and sent to the Spanish port of Algeciras to be searched. The guard was investigating a possible "offence against Spanish historic heritage", it said in a statement.[16] Odyssey said the boarding was illegal and said the Civil Guard threatened to use force if Ocean Alert's captain did not follow orders. It said Spain had earlier promised the ship would be searched at sea.[16]

Seven hours after the detention of the Ocean Alert, the Spanish authorities decided to return passports and official documents to some members of the crew, and allowing some to leave.[17] The survey vessel was cleared for departure by the Spanish Civil Guard on July 14, 2007.

On July 26, 2007 Odyssey Marine Exploration was granted two of the three motions for an Extension of Time to file its responses to the Spain's Motions for More Definite Statements in the three admiralty arrests which Odyssey currently has pending at the U.S. District Court that has assumed jurisdiction over the sites.[18]

On October 16, 2007, Spain again seized another vessel, "Odyssey Explorer" owned by Odyssey Marine Exploration as it sailed out of port from the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. Odyssey Explorer's captain, Sterling Vorus, claimed to have been in International Waters, but was forced to dock at Algeciras under what Vorus declared was "threat of deadly force." Once in port, Vorus was eventually arrested for disobedience after refusing inspection of the vessel without first receiving approval of Odyssey Explorer's flag state, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. Vorus was released the following day. Aboard the Odyssey Explorer at the time of seizure, were about a dozen journalists and photographers, all of which had their video tapes, tape recorders, and computer memory storage devices seized by Spanish officials.[19]

On June 4, 2009, after a judge in Florida declared that he "lacked jurisdiction", he ruled in favor of Spain's claim of sovereign immunity despite what many considered a distinct lack of evidence as to the identity of the wreck. Odyssey Marine stated it plans to appeal the ruling.

On December 22, 2009, a U.S. district judge ruled that Odyssey Marine Exploration should return to Spain the treasure, until the company's appeal is cleared. "The ineffable truth of this case is that the Mercedes is a naval vessel of Spain and that the wreck of this naval vessel, the vessel's cargo, and any human remains are the natural and legal patrimony of Spain," said the judge in his order.

Gibraltar's territorial waters

Whilst respecting Gibraltar's territorial waters during the incident, the Spanish Government stated that it considers it acted within its own territorial waters. The UK argued that the incident took place in international waters and was therefore illegal. However, Spain verbally stated its claim over the waters that it does not recognise Gibraltar waters except within the port of Gibraltar and that all waters up to 12 miles (19 km) from its coastline it claims, are considered Spanish waters.[20]


The past activities of Odyssey Marine Exploration have been controversial and heavily criticised by organizations and charities such as UNESCO, the Council for British Archaeology, Institute of Field Archaeologists and Rescue as "ransacking" of shipwrecks by private firms pretending to do archaeological research.[21][22][23][24] An early day motion was signed by over 60 British MPs condemning the salvage of HMS Sussex as treasure hunting.[21]

Spain has ratified the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage[25] and has expressed its strong will to protect ancient shipwrecks as cultural heritage, which should not be bartered or sold, but find their way in museums.

While the UNESCO Convention does not regulate the ownership of ancient shipwrecks, its States Parties pledge to protect them as cultural heritage of humanity, which should be shared and valued.


  1. ^ a b c "Shipwreck yields estimated $500 million in gold and silver coins". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 2007-07-28.  
  2. ^ a b "Black Swan Project".  
  3. ^ a b c d Shipwreck yields historic riches — US$500M worth - CNN — Obtained May 19, 2007
  4. ^ a b c How to find a treasure trove - BBC News — Obtained May 19, 2007
  5. ^ 500 Million Bucks Under The Sea, from The Smoking Gun
  6. ^ a b c Record wreck 'found off Cornwall' - BBC News - Obtained May 19, 2007
  7. ^ Stop, that our treasure, Spain tells Britain - The Times - Obtained June 23, 2007
  8. ^ "Battle for the Black Swan," Discovery Channel, Apr. 4, 2009
  9. ^ Spain's lost treasure battle in U.S. court
  10. ^ Sunken treasure stirs suspicion in Spain: Hundreds of millions of dollars in loot found at bottom of ocean could be part of country's heritage, Madrid government saysBy Alan Freeman, The Globe and Mail, May 23, 2007
  11. ^ Spain Probes Treasure Hunters - The Guardian, May 21, 2007
  12. ^ Spain suspicious over £250 m treasure haul - The Independent, May 21, 2007
  13. ^ Odyssey Provides "Black Swan" Shipwreck Information Update - News release from Odyssey's official website — Obtained May 23, 2007
  14. ^ "World | Europe | Spain seizes ship in treasure row". BBC News. 2007-07-13. Retrieved 2009-10-18.  
  15. ^ "Odyssey Marine Exploration Provides Comment On Reports Of Survey Vessel Inspection".  
  16. ^ a b "Spain seizes ship in treasure row". BBC. July 13, 2007. Retrieved 2007-07-28.  
  17. ^ "Detained until evening against their will — Odyssey crew are made to wait". Gibfocus. Retrieved 2007-07-28.  
  18. ^ "Odyssey Marine Exploration Motions Granted in Two Admiralty Cases". Odyssey Marine Exploration. Retrieved 2007-07-28.  
  19. ^ "U.S. ship held in $500M booty row".  
  20. ^ "Spain takes firm stance over sovereignty of waters after Odyssey incident". Gibfocus. Retrieved 2007-07-28.  
  21. ^ a b "Giffords to dig 'Billion Dollar' site". The Digger - the voice of the field archeologist. May 20, 2007.  
  22. ^ HMS Sussex - Rescue, May 20, 2007
  23. ^ HMS Sussex - CBA, May 20, 2007
  24. ^ HMS Sussex - CBA press release, May 20, 2007
  25. ^ "".  

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