Treasures from the Sea:
Two Worldwide Salvage Firms Based Here
By Randy Southerland
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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
company is also negotiating with Mexico, the Philippines
and other nations for their salvage rights.
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.
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.
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.
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,"
deterioration of the Titanic, which sank 90 years ago
next April, has helped spawn a renewed interest in underwater
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."
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.
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."
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