Odyssey Explorer in Falmouth Docks : Wiki Commons
Last week the maritime archaeology community was rocked by an accusation published in the Sunday Times [3 June 2012] which suggested a “blunder” by English Heritage had led to the disclosure of the location of the wreck site of HMS Victory, lost with all hands in a storm in October 1744.
In a statement quoted by the newspaper, Dr Sean Kingsley of the consultancy “Wreck Watch;” the co-author of the latest report on the HMS Victory wreck site commissioned and published by the Victory’s finder, Florida based commercial salvage and treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc, alleged…
“Through the publication of the general co-ordinates of the Victory’s location in a desk based assessment commissioned by English Heritage on behalf of the Department of Culture Media and Sport, fishermen and illicit salvors have been able to pinpoint the site.” Kingsley further alleged that this publication had led to the site being damaged by trawlers and the illicit lifting of cannon by a Dutch salvage vessel.
There is no more serious accusation a heritage organisation can face than that its actions place in danger the very object it is there to protect and English Heritage denied the allegation saying “The precise position of the wreck has never been published, and great care was given to keep that information in strictest confidence.”
Now Heritage Daily can reveal that Odyssey’s accusation was baseless. Even more embarrassing for Odyssey, it seems likely that if anything gave away the position of HMS Victory it is more likely to have been the activities of Odyssey itself and particularly those of its flagship the Odyssey Explorer. The person who revealed this embarrassing PR blunder by Odyssey and its high end PR company the Brunswick Group? None other than Odyssey co-founder and CEO Greg Stemm.
In the episode of the Odyssey Marine documentary/infomercial series “Treasure Quest” called “The Legend,” regularly repeated on the Discovery History channel, Stemm states on camera “There are a lot of people tracking us all the time…” That is because anyone with an internet connection can follow where Odyssey’s vessels are operating.
As “Treasure Quest” explains; like all other vessels of more than 299 tons, Odyssey’s ships are required to carry the “Automatic Identification System” [AIS] which transmits a vessel’s position in real time and is designed as a maritime safety measure, helping ships to avoid collisions and assisting in rescue operations by pinpointing vessels in difficulty. AIS information is placed in the public domain in real time on web sites such as http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/. Something Stemm views as “absolutely absurd and…an incredible violation of privacy.”
Odyssey’s PR problem is that the programme in which Stemm admitted that Odyssey’s vessels were tracked was being filmed as the wreck of “the Legend”- HMS Victory, was located in May 2008, well before the publication of the English Heritage report in September 2009 and AIS has been compulsory under International Maritime Organisation [IMO] regulations since December 2004.
To compound Odysseys problems in defending its allegation, its own reports detail regular visits to monitor and work on the HMS Victory site enabling anyone to observe the activity on AIS and anyone at sea in the area to observe the Odyssey Explorer visually. The Victory site is situated in a busy sea lane which is fished by vessels from both France and south west England.
The company’s own initial report on the Victory, published in 2009, revealed that the Odyssey Explorer spotted a trawler while departing the site in September 2008. The Odyssey crew has also observed vessels based in France, and monitored others based in, amongst other places, Brixham and Salcombe. It defies logic to suggest those same fishing boats did not also spot the distinctive yellow and white hull of the Odyssey Explorer when she was on station over the wreck.
Odyssey’s treasure hunting activities are well known and indeed are the subject of regular gossip and speculation in Internet chat rooms, so it is most unlikely that the trawler skippers and the masters of other commercial salvage vessels, needed to wait for the publication of an archaeological report to confirm that Odyssey were over an “interesting target.” A quick check on the AIS Tracks, a gossip over a pint in the pubs of Brixham or Salcombe, or even a glance out of the wheelhouse windows would serve just as well.
Given the story of English Heritage’s “blunder” can be demolished so easily by the words of its own CEO, the question remains why Odyssey chose to make such a serious allegation public through the “Sunday Times?” Many in the maritime archaeology world believe that Odyssey is attempting to discredit English Heritage as the UK Government’s statutory adviser on maritime archaeology in advance of the final decision by Ministers over the excavation of the Victory and the fate of the artefacts she carries.
English Heritage participates in the Advisory Group set up by the Ministry of Defence after the ship was “gifted” to Odyssey’s employer, the Maritime Heritage Foundation in January 2012. The Advisory Group is tasked to ensure that Odyssey and the MHF observe archaeological best practice and in particular the Annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001.
It is stated UK policy to observe the Annex as the foundation of the management of all historic wreck sites such as that of the Victory. Unfortunately for Odyssey, its contract with the Maritime Heritage Foundation which depends on the sale of objects to recoup costs and turn a commercial profit and for the company’s overall business model, the UNESCO Annex forbids the breaking up of collections of material from wreck sites and the sale of artefact’s for profit or to cover costs. To have any hope of forcing the Cameron Government to renege on this stated policy Odyssey needs to discredit the Advisory Group and its leading expert organisation English Heritage.
Secondly an e-mail released under the Freedom of Information Act shows that a senior official at English Heritage warned the Ministry of Defence that the three trustees of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, including senior Conservative Peer Lord Lingfield, were ignorant of “… very basic principles of heritage management, and the implementation and management experience/practice of established legislation… All of which is, and has been, freely available.” The official then added that the MHF might well not be competent to enter into commercial contracts because the ignorance of the trustees and their relationship with Odyssey…
“…calls into question the transparency and nature of access to advice. It might be suggested that the Foundation acquires such advice in relation to the historic environment, at trustee level, before they enter into commercial contracts with service companies?”
The result of this damning review of the competence of the MHF and by implication, Odyssey’s financial conflict of interest in being both archaeological adviser and commercial contractor to the MHF, with an interest in being able to sell artefacts, is immense pressure on the Cameron Government to rescind the gifting of HMS Victory and place the future of the ship in the care of independent experts who will undertake to observe the spirit and letter of the UNESCO Annex. A course of action which would inevitably involve advice from English Heritage and which, were it to come about, would be both a humiliation and almost certainly a commercial disaster for Odyssey.
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Written by Andy Brockman
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