Don’t call him a treasure hunter.
Greg Stemm heads Odyssey Marine Exploration, one of the most successful shipwreck-exploration companies in the world. In 2007, it discovered a shipwreck site that yielded a haul of coins that some estimates value at $500 million. The site's location is a closely guarded secret, and what the name and nationality of the ship might have been is being debated in court: Odyssey calls the site the Black Swan.
GOOD: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve seen in your explorations?
Greg Stemm: In 2007, when we discovered the Black Swan site, it was unlike any other deep-ocean site we had ever seen—there was no shipwreck structure at all, just piles and piles of coins scattered over an area the size of six football fields.
G: Do you come across a lot of garbage in the water?
GS: Yes. Many sites contain quite a bit of modern trash—from beer bottles and plastic containers to socks and electronic equipment. Many sites are also draped with fishing equipment. Destruction caused by marine construction, fishing, and “grab bucket” [explorers] who have no concerns for archaeology is of grave concern to us.
G: There must be companies out there that are just looking for money.
GS: There are groups that tear up shipwreck sites, and this gives serious and responsible explorers a bad reputation. Some archaeologists use the bad apples in the field to suggest that private-sector companies and good archaeology are incompatible. Consider that most advances in medicine, biotechnology, and geology are funded by the private sector. If you can trust your heart surgery to a private-sector hospital, there is no reason that great archaeology can’t be done by a for-profit company.
G: Speaking of which, you showed an increase in revenue in the first quarter of 2009 as compared with 2008. Is shipwreck exploration recession-proof?
GS: With oil prices dropping our costs of operations are down. At the same time, I believe that there is a real possibility that with the threat of inflation, we will see a significant increase in interest in our primary products—namely gold, silver, and collectibles. Our business plan is simple. For centuries seafarers have lost billions of dollars’ worth of fascinating and historically significant cargoes that now lie on the ocean bottom. We have the technology to find and recover these long-lost treasures.
G: I understand “treasure-hunter” is derogatory. What’s the biggest misconception about your work?
GS: Some people in the archaeological community [think] we don’t conduct proper archaeology on shipwreck sites. This criticism comes from people who have never been aboard our ship during an expedition, nor taken the opportunity to visit our conservation lab or study our publications. Our approach is long term and based on extensive research; world-class archaeology, conservation, and documentation; cutting-edge science and technology; and a multilayered plan to share what we find with the world.
G: What has been your biggest success since you started exploring?
GS: The SS Republic was a Civil War–era shipwreck, which was lost in a hurricane in 1865, 100 miles off the coast of Georgia. We recovered over 51,000 coins from the site, as well as more than 14,000 artifacts. The Black Swan site, which we discovered in 2007, constitutes the largest historic deep-ocean treasure recovery to date, with over 17 tons of silver and hundreds of gold coins recovered. Then, in 2008, we discovered the long lost HMS Victory. This was the mightiest and most technically advanced vessel of her era. The Victory went down in a severe storm in 1744, and disappeared with all hands, leaving the world in shock and everyone guessing for centuries.
CORRECTION: The first paragraph of this article has been corrected, the uncorrected paragraph is here: The original Greg Stemm heads Odyssey Marine Exploration, one of the most successful shipwreck-exploration companies in the world. In 2007, it discovered a shipwreck that yielded a haul of coins that some estimates value at $500 million. The name of the ship and its location are closely guarded secrets, to protect it from looters and to prevent whoever once owned the ship from claiming the treasure: Odyssey calls it the Black Swan.
For reports on shipwreck sites, visit shipwreck.net.