History - HMS Sussex - Part 3: Black Swan and current situation

Odyssey's Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), ZEUS, Launched for Descent to the Ocean Floor © shipwreck.net


by Chris Chaplow

.....Continued from Excavation of the Shipwreck


On the same day, Odyssey Marine sent one of its survey vessels from Gibraltar, to begin another project called the Black Swan, a wreck found off the Portugal coast with nearly 600,000 silver coins weighing more than 17 tonnes. No shipwreck was found but the treasure was believed to have been carried on the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish vessel which sank in 1804. 

Within hours of the Odyssey returning, the treasure was brought ashore in Gibraltar, loaded onto a specially chartered plane, and flown to the US, albeit with valid Gibraltarian import and export licences. La Gaceta (a right-wing Spanish newspaper) ran front-page articles days before local elections blaming Odyssey and the government for failing to stop the "treasure hunters". We don't need Wikileaks to tell us that Odyssey had lost the support of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Worse was to come. Odyssey also lost the support of the British Government, which believed the controversy had adversely affected British interests in Spain, and the British Embassy was trying distance itself as much as possible from Odyssey. This included a review of the contract for possible termination. 


In 2007, Spain issued an arrest warrant to which Britain/Gibraltar did not respond. However, the British Ambassador stated privately to her American counterpart that the British would not aid the Odyssey vessels when and if they should sail out of Gibraltar. On 12 July 2007, the Odyssey survey vessel, the Ocean Alert, departed Gibraltar and was boarded by the Spanish Guardia Civil and forcibly directed to Algeciras port in Spain for search and inspection. Odyssey's research vessel Odyssey Explorer was delayed in gaining permission from the MOD to unload valuable equipment (lest it be confiscated by the Spanish), left Gibraltar on 19 October, and was detained by the Spanish Navy and Guardia Civil 3.5 miles south of Gibraltar in international waters, and forcibly directed to Algeciras port in Spain for search and inspection. Odyssey's legal counsel claims that the seizure and search of both vessels was conducted illegally since the Spanish had not obtained clearance from Panama, where the vessels were registered.


Spain, Peru and various groups of individuals claiming to be descendants of those who shipped private property on the Mercedes all filed claims in the case. The US Federal Court dismissed the case, determining it did not have jurisdiction, and in 2012 ordered the coins and artefacts to be turned over to the principal claimant, Spain. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal. The treasure was flown back to Spain, to the delight of the media, and part of it will go on display in the Naval Museum in Cartagena. Spain was later awarded $1 million of the $3 million which it claimed in legal costs. The Black Swan was an acrimonious dispute and details associated with it even figured in Wikileaks cables. Some Spanish media claim that a small amount of the treasure remains hidden in Gibraltar.

Whether the Black Swan case was a just reason or just an excuse, the actions detailed in the Spanish press release, such as "Junta de Andalucía will name archaeologists to participate in said project", were never carried out and Wikileaks releases suggest that the Junta de Andalucía never had any intention to do so.   


Regarding HMS Sussex operations, Odyssey states, "Due to interference by various Spanish entities Odyssey has postponed further work on the project to allow diplomatic issues to be resolved"; and, "We have made offers in the past to Spain to conduct archaeological work at no charge on other shipwrecks in the area (we discovered several Roman and Punic wrecks nearby) with all artefacts being retained by Spain and allowing a Spanish archaeologist to participate in that expedition in return for non-interference on the Sussex project."

Spanish media has reported that Spain cancelled its agreement to cooperate on the Sussex project although there was no formal announcement. Odyssey acknowledges that this is the case but points out the agreement was never fulfilled by the Spanish to begin with.

Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. (Nasdaq CM: OMEX) was under severe pressure from mid-2013 to arrest a slide in its stock price, which stabilised in late 2016. Swashbuckling founder Gregg Stemm retired to the chairman's post and John Longly was brought in as CEO. He reminded shareholders in an early call that Odyssey was a rather unusual public company. This is true: most quarters it loses money and some quarters it reports big gains. In the last few years it has concentrated on other shipwrecks, and tried to diversify into mining operations and accident recovery. 

While the HMS Sussex recovery would seem, from an outsider's view, to be an obvious project, HMS Sussex has not been mentioned in shareholder calls or reports since the Black Swan case. If there is any movement to resolve diplomatic issues, it is going on in secret. The British Government will have checked if inaction on the part of Odyssey is grounds for cancelation of the agreement. Whether it is or not, there are very few other companies with the capability of Odyssey, and presumably none with the stomach to take on both diplomatic complications and an inevitable law suit from Odyssey.

The Spanish frigate 'Infanta Cristina' passed within one mile of the southern tip of Gibraltar whilst on 'regular migration and drug smuggling watch' in April 2017. Actually one of many little reported 'incursions' over the last few years. However due placing of Gibraltar within in the Brexit negotiations Gibraltar's 3 mile territorial waters (or lack of them) this became front page news in the UK and will have further complicated the HMS Sussex diplomatic issue resolution.

It looks like the secrets of the wreck off Estepona, assumed to be HMS Sussex, will remain so for the foreseeable future.  

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