|Spanish civil guards check the identification of a crew
member, believed to be the captain of the 'Ocean Alert' after it was
escorted into port in Algeciras, southern Spain, Thursday, July 12,
2007, to search its holds. AP/A. CARRASCO RAGEL
It is everyone’s dream to find a hidden treasure, especially when living on a Caribbean island. The dream seems even more real when one can imagine the horizon dotted with majestic schooners engaged in canon battle over precious cargos, some sinking to the oceans depth where heavy chests full of coins, gold and jewels spill out and litter the coral and sandscape below. While the majority of us simply dream of finding such a treasure there are others who have dedicated their lives to searching for the elusive booty. Sterling Vorus, San Pedro resident, owner of the Island Ferry and recently crowned 2007 San Pedro Lobster King did just that for four years while working for the world’s leader in the field of deep-ocean shipwreck exploration, Odyssey Marine Explorers, before moving to San Pedro two years ago. Although he left that life of adventure behind, he found himself in the middle of an international dispute last week over just that…hidden treasure that was found by his past employers Odyssey Marine Explorers who he had met up with in Gibraltar to assist during a sticky situation.
On May 18th Odyssey Marine Exploration issued a press release announcing that they had completed the pre-disturbance archaeological survey and preliminary excavation of a Colonial period shipwreck site code-named “Black Swan” in an undisclosed location in the Atlantic Ocean. The artifacts recovered from the site include over 500,000 silver coins weighing more than 17 tons, hundreds of gold coins, worked gold and other artifacts. All recovered items had been legally imported into the Unites States and placed in a secure, undisclosed location where they are undergoing conservation and documentation. It was believed that this recovery constitutes the largest collection of coins ever excavated from a historical shipwreck site. According to the release, the artifacts were recovered in conformity with Salvage Law and the Law of the Sea Convention, beyond the territorial waters or legal jurisdiction of any country. The Company went on to state that it did not believe that the recovery is subject to sovereign immunity by any nation pursuant to the Law of the Sea Convention.
However, there have also been rumors that the treasure was found off the coast of Spain and that the vessel was Spanish. In a lawsuit between Spain and Odyssey Marine Exploration Spain is claiming that the treasure is theirs. Jim Goold, of the law firm Covington & Burling, representing the Spanish government, told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “The lawsuit will challenge Odyssey Marine Explorers’ right to recover or possess any property of the Kingdom of Spain recovered from sunken ships. Odyssey has been requested to provide information concerning the identity of the ship and the material recovered, and has failed to respond.”
The issue heated up when, on July 12th, the Odyssey Marine Exploration survey vessel, the Ocean Alert, was forced by the Spanish Guardia Civil to the port of Algeciras for inspection despite assurances from Spanish judicial authorities that the ship would only be inspected at sea and would not be taken into a Spanish port. In a news article printed by the Associated Press and posted on Wire World News website, a photo with the caption “Spanish civil guards check the identification of a crew member, believed to be the captain of the ‘Ocean Alert’ after it was escorted into port in Algeciras, southern Spain, Thursday, July 12, 2007, to search its holds” it is clear that the crew member referred to is none other than Sterling Vorus. According to the Gibraltar Chronicle, the Ocean Alert was warned, “You are in Spanish territorial waters,” a Guardia Civil officer said over the radio. “We are going to board your vessel. Sterling Vorus, master of the Ocean Alert, replied that his ship was in international waters. The exchange went on for a few minutes with neither side shifting. The mood on the bridge of the Ocean Alert became increasingly tense. Finally, with no other choice, Captain Vorus agreed to the boarding and spoke over the radio: “We are in international waters and you are boarding us without our consent.” Odyssey maintains that the boarding was illegal because as far as the company is concerned, it happened in international waters.
At this point, Odyssey is assuming that the action on the part of the Guardia Civil is a miscommunication between Spanish authorities. Odyssey recently provided a 109-page legal affidavit to authorities in the Spanish Federal government, the Junta de Andalucía, the United Kingdom, Gibraltar, and the United States detailing Odyssey’s activities leading up to, and after, the announcement of the “Black Swan” discovery. The document was provided in order to address questions posed by the Spanish regarding Odyssey’s activities and to reassure all concerned governments and officials that Odyssey has always acted legally and with full transparency in relation to the “Black Swan” project and in all other shipwreck exploration activities. Even as the incident unfolded last Thursday, the UK raised questions about Spain’s right to board the ship in international waters without the permission of its flag state, in this case Panama.
During the weekend Vorus provided a statement to the Spanish authorities, though no one on the vessel has been arrested or charged. The governments of the UK, the US and Gibraltar are also closely monitoring the developments and representatives of the Panamanian government had also been contacted. In an interview with Vorus’ wife, Amy, The San Pedro Sun leaned that she has maintained contact with her husband throughout the ordeal and is hopeful that he will be setting sail for England sometime soon. Her final comment being, “I will be VERY happy when he finally gets home!”