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Odyssey Marine announces huge silver discovery in North Atlantic shipwreck

Odyssey Marine Exploration announced Monday that it has located a sunken British cargo ship carrying 7 million ounces of silver, the largest known precious metal cargo recovered at sea.

Under a contract with the British government, the Tampa treasure hunting company will retain 80 percent of the value of the silver it recovers, estimated at $210 million.

Odyssey found the wreckage of the SS Gairsoppa about 300 miles off the coast of Galway, Ireland, and about 3 miles below the surface of the North Atlantic. Odyssey has not retrieved any of the silver but is confident the silver remains with the wreckage of the ship that sank in an attack by a German U-boat in 1941.

"While some people might wonder about the potential complexity of salvage at this depth, we have already conducted a thorough analysis of the best tools and techniques to conduct this operation and are confident that the salvage will be conducted efficiently and on a timely basis," Greg Stemm, Odyssey's chief executive officer, said in a statement.

With an agreement already in hand with the United Kingdom, Odyssey avoided the kind of dispute it is in with Spain over $500 million in gold and silver it recovered in 2007. But it still must pull the silver carried on the Gairsoppa from the bottom of the Atlantic.

"We've accomplished the first phase of this project — the location and identification of the target shipwreck — and now we're hard at work planning for the recovery phase," said Andrew Craig, Odyssey senior project manager. "Given the orientation and condition of the shipwreck, we are extremely confident that our planned salvage operation will be well suited for the recovery of this silver cargo."

The Gairsoppa, a 412-foot steel-hulled British cargo steamship, began its career in 1919 under the service of the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. of London.

It was engaged in commercial shipping activity in the waters of the Far East, Australia, India and East Africa.

The Gairsoppa began its final voyage in December 1940 in Calcutta, India, loaded with nearly 7,000 tons of diverse and high-value cargo, including tea and a large quantity of silver that belonged to the British government. The ship joined a convoy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. Many of the merchant ships in the convoy were in a poor state of repair.

High winds and ocean swells forced the Gairsoppa to slow its speed. As the weather grew worse and the ship began running low on coal, it began sailing alone, without the protection of the convoy.

A German U-boat attacked the lone ship, spraying the Gairsoppa's 83-member crew and two gunners with heavy machine gun fire. One of four torpedoes fired from the U-boat struck the Gairsoppa, sinking it into the icy waters of the North Atlantic on Feb. 17, 1941. A lone crew member survived the attack, sailing in a life boat for 13 days back to shore.

Last year, the United Kingdom Government Department for Transport awarded Odyssey Marine the exclusive salvage contract for the cargo of the Gairsoppa through a competitive tender process. The ship settled upright on the sea floor, which should aid in the salvage effort.

"Being the son of a merchant mariner who worked for the same shipping line as the Gairsoppa's and as a former merchant mariner myself, the visit to the site via (remotely operated vehicle) was particularly personal," stated Neil Cunningham Dobson, Odyssey's principal marine archaeologist.

The contract with the United Kingdom gave the struggling treasure hunting company a lift after suffering a major blow to its operations when a federal judge in Atlanta awarded Spain a claim to a $500 million treasure of gold and silver that Odyssey found in 2007.

That treasure was part of the 1804 shipwreck of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a warship en route from South America to Spain when it sank off Portugal.

A three-judge panel from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in an opinion last week. That day, Odyssey's stock price fell 33 percent from $3.24 to $2.16.

At market close Monday, Odyssey stock reached $2.86.

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The World War II-era shipwreck at a glance

The boat: SS Gairsoppa, a 412-foot steel-hulled British cargo steamship.

The voyage: Traveling in a commercial convoy from Calcutta, India, to Ireland.

The sinking: A torpedo from a German U-boat sank the ship on Feb. 17, 1941.

The wreck: About 300 miles off the coast of Galway, Ireland, 3 miles down.

Odyssey Marine announces huge silver discovery in North Atlantic shipwreck 09/26/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 1:07am]
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