Hunting treasure

Modern day treasure hunters no longer sport the peg legs and eye patches of yore, but as mass communications professor Dan Bagley proves, they can sometimes be spotted behind the wheel of a hybrid.

Bagley is an integral member of the world’s premier treasure-hunting firm, Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME). The same OME, that announced the discovery of a shipwreck code-named “Black Swan” containing more than $500,000 in silver and gold coins on May 18.

He currently serves as the Marketing & Internal Communications consultant/executive coach for the company – which found itself in the international spotlight after it was widely reported that Spain was filing a lawsuit against OME.However, according to an OME press release dated May 31, these reports are incorrect.Large finds are not new to OME. In 2004, the company recovered the SS Republic, a Civil War-era steamboat that sank in the Atlantic in 1865.

Though the Republic’s discovery has an estimated worth of $400 million, that money doesn’t go straight into the pockets of OME executives. There is a massive amount of research required to find a shipwreck, and the process of combing the ocean to find it can sometimes reach $25,000 a day. There is also the additional cost of retrieving the items and safely caring for them. A majority of items that are removed from seawater cannot be immediately exposed to air, because when they dry out, the salt that remains would be strong enough to break apart an iron cannon.

The money also goes into the public sphere for educational purposes. OME is preparing its exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), where the public will be able to view many recovered items from previous wrecks, including a 2,000-pound cannon from the SS Republic.

According to Bagley, the exhibit will cost between $200,000 and $300,000.

“If we were to break even, it would be great,” he said. “This is a service for the public.”

While gold and silver coins from the wrecks have a tendency to garner much of the attention, OME’s work also provides invaluable historical, archaeological and scientific information for the academic community and the public.

When OME recovered the SS Republic, thousands of bottles and daily items were recovered. This allows historians and anthropologists to understand more about time period. The items recovered could also offer great insight into chemistry and other lab sciences, as there are bottles that have been recovered with their contents somewhat intact.

Despite this, Bagley said treasure hunters still have an uncomfortable relationship with the people who may benefit from their work, including archaeologists or purists who may look at their for-profit attitude with disdain.

“There is a bias toward treasure hunters,” Bagley said. “You need to work hard to prove yourself.”

OME works hard to stay above reproach in caring for its discoveries and follow every legal step required to successfully take ownership of a shipwreck site. According to Bagley, this includes hunting down insurance companies and making the proper payments when necessary to attain the rights to a lost ship.

“It’s an enlightened self-interest,” Bagley said. “You need to do things right. When you do things right, people are willing to work with you.”