The HMS Sussex may be the most valuable shipwreck in history; salvagers will soon find out
One February day in 1694, the bloated body of a British admiral washed up on the limestone shores of Gibraltar, clad in only his nightshirt. Francis Wheeler had been at the helm of the HMS Sussex, an 80-gun warship that was leading the Royal Navy to the Mediterranean to battle the French in the War of the League of Augsburg. But just one night out of Gibraltar, a tempest swept up off the North African coast, tossing the newly christened ship in a violent easterly wind. With the ship heading straight for the rocky Spanish coast, the captain desperately tried tacking into the wind. But he could not prevent the sea from rushing into the gun ports. The Sussex, along with 12 others in the fleet, sank half a mile to the ocean floor.
Only two men lived to tell of the catastrophe. And it was not until centuries later that the full story of the Sussex came to light. In 1995, a researcher uncovered papers revealing that the admiral had been on a secret mission: He was carrying 1 million pounds sterling to deliver to the duke of Savoy, an ally of Britain, to keep him from folding to French bribes. Today, those gold and silver coins are worth up to a billion dollars, making the Sussex potentially the most valuable shipwreck in the world.
This fall, the commercial salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration is set to begin the first excavation of the Sussex. The dig will be the deepest ever of a colonial ship, and it may yield the largest hoard of marine treasures in history. But perhaps more important for the future of shipwreck exploration, it is the first of its kind to be done in partnership with a federal government. Under a novel agreement, the British government is giving Odyssey permission for the dig; in return, Odyssey will pay for the project, split the booty with the government, and give the government first dibs on artifacts for study or display.
A year in the making, the contract addresses a stubborn philosophical rift between academic archaeologists and commercial salvors. Archaeologists contend that profit seekers can't be trusted to protect precious artifacts and that wrecks should be left undisturbed as underwater museums. "Commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage . . .," says the International Council of Monuments and Sites, "is fundamentally incompatible with the protection and management of the heritage."
Graveyard. Yet, sunken ships are hardly a scarce commodity. There are more than 3 million shipwrecks littering the ocean floor, the United Nations estimates, and many are deteriorating fast. "When was the last time you dropped a screwdriver in the ocean and found it a week later?" asks Pat Clyne of Mel Fisher Enterprises, a salvage company. "I mean, was it in perfect condition? The ocean has a way of returning things back to nature. So . . . preservation in situ . . . makes no sense whatsoever."
Greg Stemm, the cofounder of Odyssey, believes that differences between commercial salvagers and archaeologists can be overcome. The equation is simple: The archaeologists know shipwrecks, and the commercial salvagers have the money and the equipment to excavate them. Just finding a wreck like the Sussex, says Stemm, requires the kind of money public institutions typically aren't willing to spend.