Retrieving Treasures from the Sea:
Two Worldwide Salvage Firms Based Here

By Randy Southerland
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
September 20, 2001

hen Arnie Geller, president and CEO of the deep-sea salvage company RMS Titanic, began looking for a new home for his company, his thoughts turned to his former stomping grounds of Atlanta.
"Basically I chose Atlanta because I had lived here many years before and wanted to move back here," said Geller. "I thought it would be a good place to operate the company from. There was no strategic reason. Just personal."

He is part of a new breed of treasure hunters — a far cry from those of the past who were viewed as looters merely lusting after treasure, with no regard for historical or archaeological concerns, and leaving only ecological damage in their wake.

Today's treasure hunters are more likely to be executives who favor business suits and operate from richly appointed offices that are indistinguishable from those of any other modern firm.

Two of the leaders in the industry are publicly traded Atlanta-based companies, RMS Titanic and Admiralty Corp. Both occupy Buckhead high-rises far from the ocean depths. While their driving motive is still profit, their operations now incorporate archaeological surveys of the sunken wrecks, and their work is sanctioned either by U.S. courts or by the foreign nations in which they operate.

While landlocked Atlanta may seem an unlikely home for two seafaring companies, they have connections here. Admiralty's local connection is James Larsen, a Georgia Tech scientist who developed a treasure-finding technology that enables searchers to locate metals on the ocean floor. Both companies say that because of the wide-ranging nature of their work, with crews positioned all around the world, it doesn't really matter where they call home.

Both are in this business because the potential for profit is vast. Estimates by the research firm CPM Group indicate that as much as $154 billion in gold and $52 billion in silver still are undiscovered on the ocean's floor.

Admiralty has an exclusive permit from the government of Jamaica to salvage sunken ships on the Pedro Bank, a 2,000-square-mile atoll 80 miles south of this island nation. For 350 years, beginning in the 15th century, Spanish conquistadors plundered the wealth of the New World. As most of this gold, silver and other treasure passed through the Pedro Bank on its way to Spain, an estimated 300 to 350 of these galleons, along with countless other ships, sank in the shallow, coral-encrusted seabed during periodic storms.

While many of these sunken vessels have been charted, and some have been salvaged — both legally and illegally — most of their contents remain unclaimed. Excavating these wrecks is an expensive proposition, particularly when there's no guarantee they contain anything of value.

Admiralty, however, has had no problem attracting private investors who have been willing to fund the decade-long process of developing technology. While investors tend to be businesspeople and professionals, at least some of the appeal of this business is the pure romance of finding lost treasure.

"The situation on the Pedro Banks isn't finding a wreck, it's sorting out what's there," said Herbert C. Leeming, president and CEO of Admiralty. "The problem is that under any permit, the government requires that once you start excavation, you've got to continue the excavation 'archaeologically proper.' That means you could spend months and hundreds of thousands of dollars looking for something that's not there."

Admiralty is using a proprietary electromagnetic technology. Executives say the Acousto-electrical Transceiver for Localized Induction Sensing, or ATLIS for short, can distinguish among metals such as gold, silver, platinum, aluminum, copper, steel and iron, and at the same time give a good indication of how much is actually there.

The device will get its first serious real-world trials in the waters off Jamaica when the company begins the actual salvage operation later this year. First, however, the company must work out a detailed plan in conjunction with Jamaican officials as to how it will conduct the excavation work.

"That's the nuts and bolts — such as the types of vessel and all the types of personnel and equipment that will be deployed," said Kenneth Vrana, chairman of the Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management, a nonprofit affiliate of Michigan State University, which is advising the company.

The three-year permit — the first issued in more than 15 years — allows the firm to recover its costs, with additional profits being divided equally with Jamaica. This decision by Jamaican Education and Culture Minister Burchell Whiteman stirred local protests, both from heritage groups who wanted to protect the treasures and from other salvage companies who wanted the loot for themselves. It even spurred an internal government investigation.

The company is also negotiating with Mexico, the Philippines and other nations for their salvage rights.

While Admiralty has yet to raise its first gold bar, RMS Titanic already has recovered more than 6,000 artifacts. Since winning the right to be "salvor in possession" from the U.S. Admiralty Court in Norfolk, Va., in 1987, it has raised items ranging from a period newspaper preserved in a leather suitcase to a 25-foot-long section of the Titanic's hull.

These artifacts are part of five traveling exhibitions currently touring the United States and South America that have attracted more than 8 million visitors. RMS Titanic is primarily an entertainment company, with most of its revenues derived from exhibition ticket sales and the marketing of film and TV rights.

Along the way it has fought off rival claims and international protests through a U.S. Federal Court that has extended its jurisdiction into international waters.

"We want to pick up objects that are of historic significance — objects that would be particularly interesting for exhibition purposes — and (we want) to save as many of those as possible before the ship collapses," said Geller.

The deterioration of the Titanic, which sank 90 years ago next April, has helped spawn a renewed interest in underwater salvage.

"The historic preservation community wanted nothing done with Titanic, and simply would not believe that the wreck was disintegrating," said David Bederman, professor of international law at Emory University and an expert on admiralty law, as well as an adviser to the salvage industry. "Some shipwrecks occupy sort of an archaeological niche on the seabed where there's no risk of deterioration. That may describe no more than 5 or 10 percent of all shipwrecks."

While many in the archaeological community say that artifacts from these shipwrecks should be preserved in museums, private companies have to show a profit for their shareholders.

"Depending on what our business is doing, we may decide to keep the collection and put it on display," said Leeming. "We may decide to put it in a for-profit museum in Jamaica. We may decide to sell it."

These salvors have taken on a job that few others can manage. With their ships and their technology they search the ocean depths for sunken vessels, far from the bustling streets of Atlanta. And although they may be a far cry from the scalawags of old, they are still lured by that irresistible siren song that is treasure hunting.

© 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution